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Moving beyond the APC to make scholarly publishing more equitable

Note: This blog is derived from remarks that I gave earlier this year at the UN Open Science Conference (fast forward to minute 31 to begin watching). This is the 3rd in a series of four blogs posts on how we can collectively change scholarly publishing for the benefit of all of us. In part one, I outlined the challenges we need to overcome to affect change. In part two, I highlighted how shifting to Open Science practices can have meaningful and long-lasting impact.

Alison Muddr ccooo

In my earlier blogs, I centered the discussion around how overcoming institutional inertia and Open Science practices can be drivers in how we can collectively change the scholarly publishing industry for the better. But a large question remains. Better for whom? We tend to think that the US and the EU are ‘centers of the universe’ for scientific knowledge.

You can probably tell where I am going with this. Too much of the discussion about transitioning to Open Science frames these problems in the context of the Global North. There are global challenges in scholarly publishing that must be addressed. That’s why PLOS is also focused on supporting new models for global recognition and inclusion.

The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications recently released a study to understand the challenges and opportunities that Open Access (OA) presents to low- and middle-income countries. 

While stakeholders believe that they clearly benefit from OA, the picture that emerges is significantly more complicated. There’s a clear conflict between a desire to strengthen local platforms that better serve local needs and feeling pulled to “play the game” in which norms have been set by the Global North. I mentioned a crop scientist in Africa in my first blog. This is exactly the problem she ran headlong into.

As we’ve begun to deepen our work with global research communities at PLOS, our approach is centered on listening, learning, and building together. Most critically, we know that our strategy and business models cannot be separated from our drive toward equity.

A rigid approach to Open Science won’t foster equitable participation from all communities. We need to be malleable, so we’ve designed our new journals so that they:

 Represent diverse communities of Open Science practice

o   Have inclusive publishing criteria and editorial policies

o   Share costs more equitably and factor in countries ability to pay

I’d like to share a couple of examples.

The first is our work over the past few years to develop new business models for Open Science that move us away from APCs. Those are Article Processing Charges, a fee that authors pay to publish – instead of a subscription to read.

Back when PLOS was launched and focused in the biomedical sciences, charging authors a fee to publish seemed fair and reasonable. Those authors were awarded huge grants and if a nominal fee meant that anyone could read and reuse the paper, it was a price worth paying.

But we failed to anticipate how successful APCs would become, how commercial publishers would exploit this space, and how inequitable they would become. Waivers would not solve the problem. Continuing down an APC path will further disenfranchise researchers in less generously funded fields, as well as those in low- and middle- income countries and risks deepening existing inequality.

So, we’ve chosen a different path. When we launched our new titles last year, we introduced our new Global Equity Model. This model provides a pathway for institutions to cover the cost of unlimited publications for their authors and eliminate APCs. What makes it different is that fees for each institution are adjusted by World Bank lending tier groups to be more reflective of their regional economy. The Global Equity model systematically acknowledges economic differences. It offers an appropriate solution so that authors in these regions do not need to ask for assistance, they are simply included.

We still have a robust publication fee assistance program for any researcher who cannot afford APCs. But we hope that as our partnerships with institutions expand, this will no longer be the only recourse available to researchers, merely a backup option.

A second example is our policy to improve transparency in the reporting of research conducted in other communities. And to limit an action coined as “Parachute Science.”

“Parachute science” is a term describing how researchers sometimes drop down from an ivory tower in the wealthy Western world into a foreign community for field work. They gather their data, and then zip off home without engaging with or acknowledging the contributions of the local researchers.

This disparity has been reported as far back as 2 decades. One study illustrated that only 6.5% of research articles in general medical journals had a coauthor from the country where the study population lived. I find that number shocking, even if it is now somewhat dated.

The PLOS policy requires information about ethical, cultural, and scientific considerations as well as local authorship. This information is shared with editors and reviewers to help assess whether the research meets the PLOS’ standards for research integrity.

Our policy has been developed in close collaboration with members of the research community across the globe and includes multiple research areas. We hope the policy will improve awareness of the concerns related to global research, laying foundations for future development of additional policies in this area. And I’m delighted to say that several other publishers have reached out for our advice, and have implementing similar policies for their titles, most recently eLife.

There is also an important role for local solutions. Let’s return again to that crop scientist in Africa. She decided to publish her findings in an African journal. The improved visibility and accessibility of her research influenced the Kenyan government in developing nutrition schemes for schools. Other African governments have also adopted the schemes. In a significant irony, wealthier countries are now adopting these nutrition findings to support balanced diets.

Creating easier paths to publish Open Science research is only one part of the equation. Next month, I’ll talk about what comes next with regards to how we can better change scholarly publishing for all researchers.

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