Who loses out from Open Access journals? Plus the weirdness of the Magisterium

Maria Faciolince and I have a paper out in a Development and Change special collection on Open Access in academic publishing (full disclosure: Maria did most of the work). One of the concerns about how OA is playing out is that many journals have responded by introducing ‘author processing charges’ (averaging around £2,000 per article). Instead of readers paying to read, authors must now pay to have their work published. The D&C editors wanted to know if that is excluding authors from the Global South, so we took a look, partly by talking to southern FP2P/Powershifts contributors. An extract from our conclusion:

‘Short of doing away with the whole edifice of academic journals, we remain convinced that Open Access represents a positive step forward in making knowledge a public good beyond the walls of relatively privileged academic institutions. But if we want to eliminate the pay-to-read business model for everyone, there needs to be more thinking and investment going towards supporting scholarship from the global South.

The academic journal system:
Think giant vampire squid, but with footnotes.

Questions about ‘inclusion’ must not stop at opening access to academic publications, but must be attentive to the structural constraints for all scholars to be equal participants in debates. That would make much more sense than to step back behind the paywalls once again.’

I discussed some of these aspects recently in an LSE seminar with my colleague Kate Meagher, who came up with the idea for the D&C collection. Her introduction and powerpoint for the seminar (below) cover a range of perspectives, including the proliferating range of approaches to OA (gold, green, diamond etc).

Clear as mud. Source: Chen, G., Posada, A., & Chan, L. (2019, May). Vertical Integration in Academic Publishing. In Connecting the Knowledge Commons—From Projects to Sustainable Infrastructure: The 22nd International Conference on Electronic Publishing–Revised Selected Papers (p. 15). OpenEdition Press.

The conversation was a bit disorienting. In these kind of internal scholarly exchanges about academic publishing, I feel like a barbarian trespassing within the gates of the Magisterium – I find it impossible to convey to my colleagues just how bizarre the journal system appears to outsiders. A system that produces work that no-one outside academia is likely to read, where academics are expected to write, edit and peer review for free, and now pay for to have their work published, all so that private journal corporates can continue to rake off massive profits. Think giant vampire squid, but with footnotes.

One massive blind spot is that discussion on OA is conducted almost entirely from the point of view of producers (i.e. academics). It’s a bit like trying to discuss food policy with farmers. Which academics benefit/lose out from different journal regimes? Missing is the world outside academia, especially readers (consumers). For them, the current journal system is largely invisible – just too much hassle to access, and then (if you’re lucky enough to be able to get your work to pay) hours of pain recouping the fees. No thanks, I’ll just keep searching for something I can read without all the hassle.

And in these days when academics are supposed to think about (and prove) their impact on the real world, this is even more important. Paywalls = less impact – the civil servants, NGOs, journos and others that could take your research and turn it into narratives, policies, laws etc won’t ever read it.

So from point of view of the readers, it’s a no brainer – OA rocks. Then the question becomes how we do that without exacerbating all the inequalities within the academic system (which of course also has a knock-on impact on what is written/constitutes knowledge).

What emerged from Kate’s presentation was a v clear message:

  • The structure of knowledge production is dripping with power and inequality. Which language counts, which topics, which discipline?
  • If you try and find a tech fix to a political problem, there is every likelihood that the gatekeepers will mobilize to maintain their control and profits (see graph). Which is exactly what has happened – the big publishing conglomerates have mobilized very effectively to gain a position of control over the evolution of OA – the foxes are now in charge of reforming the hen coop.

Final thoughts. To some extent, the whole OA debate feels like it’s been overtaken by events anyway, in the form of BLM inspired discussions on ‘decolonizing academia’.

Where I’m still not clear is (as ever) on the so whats. Is OA necessary but not sufficient, or a distraction from the real business of tearing down the whole system in pursuit of some kind of knowledge revolution?

This is where I think a focus on consumers, not just producers, is relevant – if you care about readers, OA is a must; one small step towards a less bizarre and exclusive system of knowledge production and sharing. Then let’s sort out the magisterium.

There are 9 other articles on experiences of OA in various parts of the Global South and the Global North, all free to view online.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


10 Responses to “Who loses out from Open Access journals? Plus the weirdness of the Magisterium”
  1. “…For them, the current journal system is largely invisible – just too much hassle to access”

    Surely this is something of non-subject? The great majority of older papers (say 3 years+) are quite easy to locate on Researchgate, Google Scholar, Sci-dev etc. The vast majority of new pay-wall papers can be accessed by the simple expediency of sending a short, polite email to the researcher in question. I have found that about 99% of them are only too happy to oblige.

    Is that really too much hassle?

    • Duncan Green

      I guess there’s a distinction between a particular paper that you are sure you need (in which case you are usually right) and the wider grazing/browsing function, which I think is massively constrained by the journal system. The contrast with the ease of browsing via my RSS feed or twitter links timeline is pretty striking.

  2. Some important points here! Perhaps also worth noting that the magesterium in the diagram is based on a publishing system that is dominated by Northern infrastructure. Debate and dialogue about Open Access often overlooks issues of inclusion/exclusion of research from the Global South and also the well-established OA ecosystems (such as in Latin America) that are predominantly non-commercial, do not rely on APCs and are possibly more closely linked to local use.

    We published the findings of a consultation commissioned by FCDO, UKRI and DHSC on LMIC stakeholder perspectives on OA last year here in which we put forward a set of principles and buildling blocks describing different choices and paths which could be followed, in order to achieve a more equitable
    OA environment. [a quick caveat – the majority of participants were LMIC academics rather than end users, so the consultation didn’t look in depth at how OA supports end-users, but the national science councils we interviewed clearly viewed OA as an opportunity to better connect national research to development priorities and are exploring what infrstratucture can make that happen].

  3. Doug Brown

    I have interacted with the system as both a publisher of research and as a user of published research. The fact is, when we speak about open access we must ask “Open access for whom”. As a young researcher with research to publish and working for an NGO, I appreciated being able to publish in journals that did not require a fee up front as I had no budget to pay the sort of fees required to publish an article as open access (and I live in a developed country). While those journals were not open access to the reader (unless you could access a university library and their journal subscriptions), they were open access to me as a researcher with something to publish — and no budget to pay for publication. This is the discussion missing from the debate. With respect to the journals that are not open access to the reader, I have never found a problem accessing the articles I need. All of them have web pages that list all the articles in the various issues. Included are the abstracts from the articles. In the event that I can’t access the journal through the university library where I live (which is quite common), it does not take long to send an e-mail to the author and get a reprint. Additionally, many are readily available through ResearchGate. For these reasons, I am in favour of open access for those who produce research as it is not difficult to get a paper that I want to read even if there is a pay wall.

  4. Duncan Green

    This from Ken Shadlen:
    It strikes me as weird when you (or anyone) says academics write articles that “no one outside academia” reads, on account of the publishing model and paywalls. First, do you include students as being inside or outside academia? I assume the former, in which case the numbers aren’t tiny, and the contributions/impact the work is having may not be so trivial. That raises a problem with academia, that to the extent we rely on citation metrics these don’t capture the amount of times a given piece shows up on reading lists, but that’s a different problem. Second, wherever we draw the boundaries of “academia,” as you’re always telling us, the writing needs to be a lot different for the “outside academia” audience (no one will read 10,000 words, need punchy exec summary, lose the jargon/technical stuff, etc). In other words, in most cases the same pieces aren’t gonna reach both worlds, regardless of the publishing rules (OA vs gated). So if we want to reach “outside academia” world we need to write different versions of our work and then use other channels (blogs, social media, magazines, etc.). Again that points to a problem with how universities (hiring committees, promotion committees, etc) value this sort of output, but again that strikes me as a different problem.

    I also wanted to note (repeating something I suggested at the seminar you and Kate did), that we need to be more careful in how we present and think about data on publication fees. Publication fees for OA journals (e.g. how much you have to pay to publish in PLOS) and APCs in non-OA journals (e.g. how much you’d have to pay to remove the paywall on an article in Journal of Development Studies so that it’s open access) look the same, in that both are numbers attached to payments to publishers to make something free for anyone anywhere to read, but they are totally different beasts, in terms of how they play into the business models of the publishers, where they fit into the publishing ecosystem, and so on. (They also tend to be different quantitatively, in that APCs for non-OA journals, as best as I understand, are systematically higher than publication fees for OA journals.)

    One of the things that’s interesting about the OA discussion is that one of the thoughts that’s out there, more or less “we do so much of the work already, why don’t we just cut out the private guys in the middle and bring the whole thing in house” is similarly expressed re pharmaceuticals and biomedical innovation. We’re having very similar conversations in both worlds.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.