What are the downsides for Southern Scholars of Open Access to academic journals?

Duncan Green and Maria Faciolince consult #PowerShifts authors on how to try and sort out an unintended consequence of Open Access.

For several years, there has been a push to make academic journals Open Access for readers, and Duncan’s been a big supporter. OA is a good thing in terms of allowing readers, North and South, to get access to academic knowledge that was previously behind large paywalls and only open to academics with institutional subscriptions.

“Funding bodies should be looking to create strategies around publishing results that reward researchers without access to massive publishing grants in the first place, instead of penalising them”

However, many academic journals have maintained their massive and unjustifiable profit margins by shifting to charging authors, rather than readers. These days, anyone wishing to publish in a prestigious journal may find themselves having to hand over their cash as well as their knowledge to get published. For instance, Sage Open has been charging $800 USD as article-processing charges (APCs), and a similar story goes for the five publishing companies that currently dominate the production of what is deemed legitimate knowledge and research. In turn, research funders and academic institutions in many countries have responded by including such payments in their research budgets.

One lock opens, another one shuts?

But, what about authors who do not work for such institutions, or receive such funding? In particular, is one of the unintended consequences of Open Access to exclude or marginalize southern scholarship?

The Development and Change Journal is planning to explore this issue, and asked Duncan to contribute a piece. But we thought it would be more fitting to consult and crowd source on this one, so we emailed contributors to the #PowerShifts stream of posts on this blog. Given the limited responses we got, perhaps it is not that big an issue for them (for those who are not academics), or they were too busy being swamped under the crushing ‘publish or perish’ mandate of their academic institutions. But we did get some interesting takes:

As a researcher and lecturer at the Royal University of Bhutan, Sayan Dey faces two major challenges he has encountered with Open Access Journals to date. First, the difficulty (or impossibility) of finding a good quality open access peer reviewed journal in India in the field of humanities and social sciences. Second:

Sayan Day

“This leaves most of us with no choice but to look to publish with Open Access Journals in the West. But publishing without a funding agency becomes impossible. In Indian universities, especially in the fields of humanities and social sciences, the faculties and researchers are hardly given any grant support for such publishing processes. Therefore, even before one can write a paper and submit for review one feels highly discouraged. Often such situations compel researchers and faculties to publish in low-graded journals just to fulfil the API (Academic Performance Index) demands.”

Expanding on this, Navalayo Osembo-Ombati, a Kenyan social entrepreneur, argues that charging authors to make their papers accessible to readers – the point of publishing? – is tantamount to “economic discrimination”. This, in turn, mirrors the ‘black market of knowledge production’, another link in the chain that restricts local research(ers). As Navalayo explains, “the more money, connections or institutional backing you have, the louder and more legitimate your voice becomes. Not because you have better content, but because you have tools and resources that give you access.”

Navalayo Osembo-Ombati

But anyway, she asks, Would I pay to publish? If I was an academic, maybe yes because my career growth depends on publishing. I may also, however, do a cost-benefit analysis and venture into other areas, e.g., teaching at second-tier universities or colleges, where I make money rather than spend it. The overall effect will be negative though because of pay disparities, social and cultural systems (e.g., my salary may be taking care of so many people since the concept of family is not limited to a nuclear family, etc.). Our universities and academic institutions also don’t prioritize research, meaning the burden will most likely be individual.”

“The publishing arguments go hand-in-hand with arguments over research institutions/universities that have completely favoured neoliberal models of profits, rather than centring on knowledge.”

Emma Lee

Emma Lee, an Indigenous academic who lectures at the University of Tasmania and is a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology, argues that The publishing arguments go hand-in-hand with arguments over research institutions/universities that have completely favoured neoliberal models of profits, rather than centring on knowledge. I believe that we can’t attack the problem of open access without first changing the research models that produce the conditions for publishing monopolies.”

The whole structure of academic journals (gated or otherwise) is very bizarre, like some exploitative relic of a bygone and unlamented age (see this great Guardian long read about the foundation of the current system by Robert Maxwell, an Olympic standard sleazebag). This of course doesn’t only affect those who want to get their papers published accessibly – it also influences the type of content and knowledge that makes up ‘The Literature’. In many (if not most) cases, research grants lead to research agendas, which lead to research projects designed to respond to those funded criteria, which leads to ‘new’ knowledge that fits firmly within the dominant paradigm.

So, what can be done to favour knowledge over profit models?

Emma Lee

Emma Lee suggests opening up/dismantling the metabolism of academic worth and prestige: “To democratise knowledge, we must reduce or expand the concept of ‘prestigious’ or ‘high-ranking’ to include other forms of publications, media, knowledge-sharing; we should be campaigning with websites that create overall indexes, rankings, impact to include other forms besides journals. Blogs like FP2P are a great case in point, where developing a capacity to peer-review papers, blogposts, etc., could begin to even out the market forces in favour of the producer rather than owner.” (Read her blog, which she wrote right after her pay-walled article was published.)

There are other open-source publishing solutions like Open Journal Systems (OJS) available, already widely used in places like Latin America and East Asia. We can also take a look at what’s happening in Latin America with AmeliCa, a cooperative, non-commercial, academic-led system that publicly subsidises scholarly communication through academic institutions. Non-commercial platforms such as Redalyc, Scielo, Latindex, CLACSO and La Referencia are financed with public funds intended for education and research, and many have boycotted APCs for authors. However, by depending on public funds, this ecosystem is in constant risk of under-funding and can’t always compete with larger commercial OA publishers.

Short of doing away with the whole apparatus of profit-gouging, massive delays, clunky and unaccountable anonymous peer review and tiny readership, Open Access is still a good step forward in making knowledge a public good- or a commons. 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 in a meaningful way. Funding bodies should be looking to create strategies around publishing results that reward researchers without access to massive publishing grants in the first place, instead of penalising them (could DFID set up an access fund?). That would make much more sense than to step back behind the paywalls once again.

Over to you – what do you think? We’ll incorporate your views into our piece for the journal.

Featured image: “Donació” (2016), by Lola Lasurt. CC license.

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4 Responses to “What are the downsides for Southern Scholars of Open Access to academic journals?”
  1. The present system can work well if you know how to use it.
    If you have no funds, publish in a pay-for-view journal.
    If you want to read those papers, find the abstract and the email of the author and send him/her a polite message asking for a free personal copy. Nearly all will be happy to oblige – it’s flattering that someone is interested in your work.
    Very few authors won’t send one – in my experience most of those are economists.

    • F

      While this could be a feasible personal solution, it strikes me as a workaround that doesn’t address the systemic problem. Even if academics are aware that getting in touch with authors directly often works, it adds an extra inefficiency to the process which isn’t faced by authors from better-off institutions that pay the access fees. In terms of publishing in pay-per-view journals, I worry that this approach will limit less well-funded academics to increasingly marginalised pay-per-view journals as richer institutions move towards open access.

  2. Logan

    Thanks for this Maria and Duncan.

    Sharing some reflections, experiences and opinions from a university-based scholar in Ethiopia, where access is very limited:


    The conversation also raises other barriers in the system connected to, or as a result of, the status quo and OA trends. Also situates the OA costs in terms of salary and expectations in the university system in the Global South (institutional expectations).

    Worth noting that access to subscription-based journals varies widely in the Global South and we may need to specify the conversation about inclusion and exclusion, opportunities and barriers – that referring to universities, in addition to other divides, such as the practitioner one highlighted here.

  3. Sian Harris

    Thank you for sharing these perspectives. Access is an issue we have been closely involved with at INASP for many years. A while ago in our AuthorAID project (www.authoraid.info) we ran a survey about open access with researchers from across our network (mainly early-career researchers in Africa, Asia and Latin America). We are in the process of publishing a paper on this but we’ve posted a preprint here: http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3464868. In our survey we found that access to academic literature was still a challenge for many respondents and so it wasn’t surprising that we saw very positive attitudes to open access as a way to enable them to get access to other researchers’ work.
    We also found generally positive attitudes to open access as a way for respondents to share their own research. However, there were some issues with having the resources to publish; a surprisingly high number of respondents had paid APCs themselves, perhaps indicating a lack of awareness of publisher waivers or gaps in the eligibility criteria. We also found that, for authors, open access was a lower consideration in choosing a journal to publish in than the reputation and relevance of the journal.
    It is good that this Poverty to Power post also mentions publishing avenues in parts of the world other than the main commercial publishing centres of Europe and North America. These other journals and publishing platforms often get missed in discussions and planning about open access but are essential components of ensuring all research voices and research priorities are represented. Related to this, I recommend this post about scholarly communication in Bangladesh, where open access without APCs is common, from academic and scholarly comms consultant Haseeb Irfanullah: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/03/25/guest-post-what-does-bangladesh-tell-us-about-research-communication/.