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Transition to open access creates a challenge for Global South

October 16, 2020

By Ian Evans

Report looks at how to achieve an equitable transition to open access for researchers in developing countries

Pictured above: Andrea Powell of Research4Life is a co-author of the report Achieving an Equitable Transition to Open Access for Researchers in Lower-and-Middle-Income Countries.

As the world of research moves towards open access, publishers have a further task – ensuring the knowledge gap between the Global North and Global South continues to close.

That is the topic of a recent white paperopens in new tab/window by Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) and the STM Associationopens in new tab/window.

On the surface, a transition to open access should benefit developing nations; it makes research available for free at the point of use. But as Andrea Powellopens in new tab/window, STM Outreach Director and Publisher Coordinator for Research4Lifeopens in new tab/window and co-author of the report, explained, action needs to be taken to ensure that lower and-middle-income countries (LMICs) continue to have a voice on the global research stage:

While open access addresses a challenge around access to knowledge, it can open up new challenges around access to publishing opportunities. If you shift the business model such that you’re paying to publish rather than paying for a subscription, then the barrier moves to a different place.

Currently, more than 10,000 institutions in LMICs are registered users of Research4Life, which provides free or low-cost access to research from up to 180 publishers. For these institutions, there is no budget to redirect from subscription to publishing, so while they would continue to be able to read content under a shift to open access, there would be very limited resources available to publish their own research. “It’s a discussion I’ve been having with publishers for some time now, trying to establish what we can collectively do,” Andrea said:

It’s vitally important that the research ecosystem remains equitable. We need to maintain the voice of the Global South in the research community because these researchers have important contributions to make, and we need to ensure that they are able to publish and share research on the issues that are most relevant to them.

When Andrea raised the issue with the STM Association, Dr. Nick Fowleropens in new tab/window, Chair-elect of STM and Chief Academic Officer at Elsevier, suggested involving ICSR to get a sense of the extent of the challenge. Andrea explained:

Having analyzed the situation, we could move on to suggesting some practical steps to deal with it. We wanted to ensure that the paper had a robust evidence base but also recommendations as to what we can collectively do to try to level the playing field and ensure this new paradigm is equitable and accessible for researchers in the Global South.

The paper notes that while research output among LMICs is increasing – and indeed accelerating – the majority of publications are still published under a subscription model (75 percent in 2018) either in subscription-only journals or in hybrid journals, which offer a choice of subscription or open access. The challenge the team set out to address was how to ensure that a shift to open access publishing doesn’t exclude these researchers. The paper outlines several short- and long-term actions, such as reaching beyond the publishing of research and looking at enabling fuller participation of the Global South at all points of the research process:

In the immediate term, one of the things we call for is greater clarity around open access waivers. It’s not a total solution, but transparency and consistency around the way publishers communicate open access waivers is a good first step. After all, what’s the purpose in having a waiver policy if people can’t find it? That’s something that should be simple to resolve.

(You can find Elsevier’s waiver policy hereopens in new tab/window)

As Andrea notes, better communication around waiver policies is helpful, but it’s not an end point. Instead, the report lays out multiple tactics, including monitoring recent open access deals – sometimes referred to as transformative deals – to model an open access transition for LMICs. The paper also recommends better capacity building and encouraging collaborations between institutions in different parts of the world. Andrea shed further light on what such collaborations might look like:

Obviously, the first thing you might think of here are research collaborations, but in fact they can take different forms depending on who you are. It might be setting up mentoring relationships, publishing joint ventures, partnering on infrastructure, or bringing in peer reviewers from the Global South.

Indeed, the report emphasizes that participation in research and in the transition to open access is not solely about publishing articles but being involved in every part of the process. Authors note that publishers should work with editors to bring in a wider range of participants in peer review. As editors are often based in developed and industrialized countries, requests to review often exclude authors and potential reviewers from countries outside of their usual network. Fewer invitations to review means fewer opportunities to see the latest research trends, to learn what journals are looking for and to build professional networks. Just as efforts are being madeopens in new tab/window to increase the number of women being invited to peer review, the same needs to be done with experts from the Global South.

As publishers continue to actively promote open access, the responsibility remains with them to ensure that this model is inclusive and supports researchers wherever they are based, Andrea said:

I think when you look at the transformational models already underway, it’s clear the publishers are good at coming up with creative solutions, and I think the same will happen here. As I understand, there is already a pilot program looking at open access in LMICs, although it may have been set back a little by the pandemic. But as the white paper shows, when you form a clear understanding of what the challenge is, you can start to articulate the solutions.

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Ian Evans

Senior Director, Editorial, Content & Brand


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