Open access is closed to middle-income countries

In developing nations deemed too rich for fee waivers, subscription journals are the only publishing option, say three Brazilian scientists

April 14, 2022
A security guard tries to tie down a Ukraine-flag over a stop sign on a barrier to illustrate Open access is closed to middle-income nations too rich for fee waivers
Source: Getty

One of the major arguments for open access is that it makes the scientific endeavour more global and inclusive. However, a recent review of open versus paywalled publications demonstrates quite the opposite: open access articles display significantly lower geographical diversity among their authors.

This proves that open access article processing charges (APCs) are a barrier for scientists from developing countries. This is unsurprising as APCs for high impact journals currently range from $2,000 (£1,535) to over $10,000; in Brazil, a postdoctoral fellow earns less than $800 a month, a tenured faculty member less than $2,000, and federal research grants are worth an average of $5,000 a year.

What may surprise many in the Global North is that authors from our nation, Brazil, are generally ineligible for waivers or discounts. According to the Plan S open access principles, followed by most journals, waivers are available to authors from countries defined by the World Bank as low-income and discounts to authors from lower-middle-income economies.

No Latin American countries are classified as low income, and while disadvantaged nations such as Bolivia, El Salvador and Haiti are classified as lower-middle income, the range of discounts to which they are theoretically entitled is not specified, and discounts offered upon individual requests are often insufficient. Indeed, most low- and lower-middle-income economies have such limited research budgets that producing papers at the levels required by highly visible journals is an exceptional feat, so these waivers and discounts are rarely applied in practice.

Worryingly, most Latin American scientists reside in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia and Paraguay, which are classed as upper-middle income despite being widely recognised as economically disadvantaged. And while authors from these countries can ask for individual waivers, based on “demonstrable needs”, in practice we find this mechanism ineffective and demeaning.

In fact, requesting individual waivers from for-profit publishers creates something of a catch-22. If filed prior to submission, papers may be rejected due to the lack of potential revenue from them. If filed after acceptance, discounts of more than 10 or 20 per cent are rarely forthcoming. Indeed, we have personally been denied discounts based on Brazil’s World Bank classification. Our choice is then between paying an unaffordable APC or submitting the manuscript elsewhere, beginning the arduous review process again.

It is unsurprising, then, that much of the Global South currently avoids open access-only journals. Yet even this imperfect solution, which can limit access to our papers, may not be available for much longer. Plan S intends to require all signatory agencies to ensure that authors publish in open access-only journals by the end of 2024, or in hybrid journals that have committed to transitioning to open access-only by 2025. Not wishing to lose a substantial source of authors and revenue, most prestigious journals have made that commitment.

Transformative agreements are often justified on the basis that the subscription fees currently paid to publishers are more than enough to cover the costs of open access publishing. Brazil certainly pays a lot; unlike many developing countries, it has for decades provided subscription journal access to research institutions, negotiated by the federal funding agency, CAPES. Indeed, escalating prices and the decline in the value of Brazil’s currency mean that subscriptions account for an ever greater proportion of CAPES’ budget, reducing the amount available for graduate programmes and student fellowships.

Nonetheless, if Brazil’s current subscription expenditure were spent instead on APCs, the average amount available for each international journal paper would be under $1,000. Worse, federal agencies, under a staunchly anti-scientific presidency, are currently suffering from record underfunding and an absence of leadership, making the negotiation of transformative agreements highly unlikely.

As a result, smaller state agencies, such as São Paulo’s FAPESP, are adopting unilateral measures to curb excessive APC charges, including capping payments and trying to negotiate package deals with editorial companies. However, their bargaining ability is hampered by their limited size and budget. Teaming up with other agencies in the Global South could help, but coordination would not be easy for bodies from very distinct nations that, historically, have lacked sound, consistent science policies and funding.

In the absence of such teamwork, Latin American agencies may be offered worse pricing options than agencies in developed countries. They may also fail to establish agreements with the full array of publishers, hampering authors’ options.

In our view, those promoting the transition to open access must focus less on its immediate implementation and more on fair pricing. Furthermore, Plan S and the major editorial companies must do more to acknowledge the substantial economic constraints of our region by incorporating countries like Brazil within predetermined APC waiver and discount programmes.

Latin American scientists are truly resilient, producing high-quality, internationally relevant studies despite meagre funding and bureaucratic barriers. But if the open access movement is to be truly about inclusion and accessibility, authors from the Global South must be able not only to read papers from the Global North, but also showcase their own work in the same venues.

Alicia Kowaltowski is professor of biochemistry, Michel Naslavsky is professor of genetics and genomics and Mayana Zatz is professor of genetics, all at the University of São Paulo.


Print headline: Open access is closed to middle-income nations too rich for fee waivers

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