Coalition S’s article pricing scale would be a disaster for Latin America

Grouping the likes of Brazil or Argentina with much bigger spenders will only raise the barriers to publication even higher, say three researchers

October 9, 2023
A wall of gold bars, symbolising gold open access in Latin America
Source: iStock

Coalition S, the European-led initiative focused on achieving full and immediate open access to research publications, recently launched a proposal to introduce variable pricing brackets for article publishing charges (APCs) according to authors’ countries.

The commendable idea is to promote a unified and transparent framework to set equitable global pricings for the “gold” model of open access on which publishers, reluctant to see their high profit margins eroded, have insisted. Currently, this pay-to-publish model has the distinct disadvantage that many authors – particularly those working in struggling economies or with less access to research funding – may be blocked from publishing.

Some publishers do have APC waiver and discount policies, but these are exceedingly limited. We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation that the push for open access is making science less inclusive for those of us working in the Global South.

The Coalition S-led proposal on “fair global pricing” divides countries into four bands – alpha, beta, gamma and delta. Authors in those countries are expected to pay APC contributions of 20, 50, 80 and 100 per cent of published prices. Unfortunately, the proposal is shockingly inadequate, particularly regarding the expected relative APC contributions for Latin American authors.

The discussion document – which is open for consultation until the end of October – states that if this comprehensive discount meter were adopted, publishers would have to hike APCs by about 39 per cent to maintain their current revenues. History suggests that they would do so. This would mean that alpha researchers would pay around 28 per cent of current APCs, beta would pay 69 per cent, gamma 110 per cent and delta 139 per cent.

These differentiated payments could be acceptable to achieve equitable open access if transparent and reasonable prices were also ensured and the bands reflected true equitable standards. However, countries were grouped into bands according to one purchase price index among 47 available from the World Bank – a metric that both the bank and Coalition S acknowledge is not designed to set comparative prices or rank economies and whose adoption by Coalition S is poorly justified.

As in any scientific study using inadequate methodology, the results do not meet the intended goal. Even a cursory glance at the proposed memberships of each band shows huge discrepancies, particularly regarding Latin American countries. For instance, Argentina, Belize, Brazil and Costa Rica, which are upper-middle-income economies with low investments in STEM, are in the gamma group, alongside high-income economies with much more substantial scientific investments, such as Italy, Portugal, South Korea and Spain.

Because of the expected 39 per cent APC price hike, this means that Brazilian and Argentinian authors would actually be expected to pay about 110 per cent of what they currently contribute – in essence, to help lower APCs for the alpha and beta groups.

However, the beta group includes nations categorised by the World Bank as high income and which have more substantial investments in science than Brazil or Argentina, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. The proposal’s implementation would therefore be a disaster for Latin American scientists.

There is a much better way. Immediate, free and universal open access can be readily reached worldwide through preprinting, as proposed in Plan U. This pathway has the added advantage of not depending on private editorial enterprises.

If Plan U were adopted, the community could focus its long-term attention on a much-needed remodelling of the publication landscape, including supporting no- or low-cost scientist-led journals and achieving total transparency in pricing by major commercial publishers.

A truly fairer guide for relative APC contributions would also be a welcome addition, but this must be based on real economic indicators, as well as relative local investments in scientific endeavours. As it stands, the model proposed by Coalition S overlooks the fact that Latin American scientists already require a certain heroism to produce world-class science given the adverse conditions. The proposal’s skewed pricing brackets will simply stack the odds against them even higher.

Alicia Kowaltowski is professor of biochemistry at the University of São Paulo. Claudia Bauzer Medeiros is professor of computer science at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). Paulo Nussenzveig is professor of physics at the University of São Paulo.

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