Academic journal

Offline: The Science Rush

Almost every day I receive an e-mail from an academic editor of scientific journals (not The Lancetthe publisher of Elsevier, I might add) inviting me to contribute to one of their open access titles. The promises are extravagant. Becoming a guest editor of a special collection of at least ten open access gold articles will advance my career and demonstrate my leadership; have a significant impact; give me invaluable editorial and organizational experience; and develop my research networks. All the editor asks is that I identify potential contributors in advance. I can submit two of my own articles. There will of course be an Item Processing Charge (APC). In some invitations, the fees are clearly specified and I am advised that I must agree to pay the APC before submitting my article. The editor has a better opinion of my abilities than I deserve. In the past few days I have received requests for submissions of articles on cell transplantation, child and adolescent addictions, allergies and immunology, health services, men’s health, clinical oncology and Alzheimer’s disease. This rush for research papers comes at a good time. Recently released guidelines from the United States White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) require that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made immediately available to the public, free of charge. All U.S. agencies must fully implement this instruction no later than December 31, 2025. Dr. Alondra Nelson, Head of OSTP, said: “When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policy makers with the tools to make critical decisions and achieve more equitable outcomes across all sectors of society. The OSTP guidelines have been widely welcomed.

Audrey Smith and her colleagues at the University of Florida reported last year on a study of more than 37,000 articles from Elsevier’s “mirror journal” system. In this arrangement, a parent hybrid journal has a golden open-access mirror. When the two journals, one open access, the other not, were compared, the geographical diversity of authors was significantly lower for the open access articles. Authors of open access articles were primarily from high-income countries. The Florida team concludes that “Our results for Elsevier’s Mirror-Parent system are consistent with the hypothesis that APCs [article processing charges] are an obstacle to open access publishing for scientists in the Global South”. Publishers will argue that they apply waivers for authors unable to pay the APC. To Lancet reviews, we regularly accept APC waivers. But Smith and his colleagues note that in their study, the waivers clearly did not encourage submissions from authors from low-income backgrounds. The message of this work is that open access – and open science more broadly – ​​may not be entirely free, despite publishers’ best efforts. Open Science is meant to usher in a new era of efficiency, quality, innovation, knowledge transfer, public engagement and global collaboration. But while open access publishing may be a boon for some scientists, it seems to close the door to others.

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What the deluge of invitations to publish in open access journals suggests is that scholarly publishing is undergoing a startling culture shift from one focused on quality to one focused on quantity. The math for publishers is simple: the more articles published, the higher the revenue. At a time when the subscription model atrophies, a replacement revenue stream will come from APCs. The new incentive for some publishers will be to persuade their publishers to accept and publish more articles, but not necessarily better articles. This change in culture and incentives is not trivial. It is actually historic. The whole basis of the integrity of the scientific record is changing. Some open science advocates have acknowledged the danger and warned of the adverse consequences. write in Nature earlier this year, Tony Ross-Hellauer wrote about the “unintended consequences” of open science. He warned that open science could create conditions in which “the benefits of those who are already privileged will increase, especially as they have the most influence over how open science is implemented.” A shift in the culture of scientific publishing from value to volume, driven by concern to protect revenue, risks undermining the very purpose of scientific publishing itself. Quality is threatened. Equity is threatened. Publishers must ask themselves the question: what do they represent? And market share is not the only answer to this question.

University of Florida, Tampa, FL (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)