Academic journal

Open access publication fees discourage researchers from the Global South

Brazilian researchers are among those who say resources for publication costs are hard to come by.Credit: Rahel Patrasso/Reuters/Alamy

Open access articles have significantly fewer lead authors from low-income regions than paid articles, according to an analysis of tens of thousands of articles. The results suggest that the fees journals charge to publish open access articles are a barrier for authors in low- and middle-income countries, something scientists previously suspected but struggled to demonstrate.

A growing number of scholarly journals — including Nature — have made their articles open access, motivated in part by donor requirements (NatureThe press team of is editorially independent of its publisher Springer Nature). While this change has made scholarly literature more widely accessible, many researchers have noted that the article processing fee (APC) typically required to publish open access research may deter authors from using this option.

“One of the great ironies of open access is that you give authors around the world the ability to finally read scientific literature that was completely closed to them, but it ends up excluding them from publishing in the same journals,” says Emilio bruna. , ecologist and specialist in Latin American studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Although many members of the scientific community recognize this, it has been difficult to demonstrate it empirically, says Bruna. One issue is the difficulty of directly comparing open access and non-open access journals, as even those from the same publisher may differ on factors such as reputation and acceptance standards.

Dutch publisher Elsevier’s “mirror logs” pilot project, which ran from 2018 to 2020, presented an opportunity for Bruna’s team. Under this program, existing hybrid journals, which contain both paid and open access articles, shared titles, and editorial and peer review processes with fully open access versions, called mirror journals. “It’s as close to a natural experience as you can get,” says Bruna.

His group reviewed more than 37,000 articles published in 38 pairs of mirror and “parent” journals, which mostly published paid content. The researchers identified the geographic location of the first author of each paper, then researched the country’s World Bank income category and whether the author was eligible for a full or partial APC waiver under the Research4Life program. Elsevier for authors from certain countries. APCs for mirror journals cost an average of $2,600; most of the hybrid journals had APCs identical to those of their mirror journals.

Global divide

Overall, mirror journals had more articles with lead authors from North America, East Asia, and the Pacific Rim than paid articles in their corresponding parent versions. They had fewer lead authors from low-income regions, especially those in the South, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. About 80% of articles published in mirror journals had first authors from high-income countries, and none had first authors from low-income countries.

“When we see results like this, it clearly shows that there is a very high financial barrier to publication when journals charge for APCs,” says Rafael Zenni, an ecologist at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil. “It’s something we face every day. In our research grants, there are rarely resources for publication costs.

The team also found that authors based in countries eligible for the waiver program almost never published open access articles. Bruna was surprised at how ineffective the waivers seemed. And when waivers are used, even deep discounts do not reduce the cost enough for authors in low-income areas, who often pay for APCs out of their own pockets.

“It is well known that APCs deter authors without means, but this particular method of quantifying the economic barrier to these authors is new and I think it should be compelling,” says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications in Cambridge, Massachusetts. . “APCs skew research, they exclude authors, and we should all try to find ways to overcome these obstacles,” says Suber.

Elsevier refused Nature request for comments from the press team on this study.