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Charging authors for scientific publishing is fundamentally flawed

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Authors are responsible for securing research grants, conducting research, and publishing the findings (Dan Dimmock - Unsplash)

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

The concept of the so-called open science, in which research publications are made publicly accessible free of cost, seems to have good intentions. In principle, open access seems like a noble idea. It is not free after all. Someone is held responsible for paying the cost that makes the scientific publications free en masse. And that is by default the people behind the research – the academics and scientists who are the authors of publications.

Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

Authors are responsible for securing research grants, conducting the research, and finally publishing the research findings. A research output, however, in the form of publications does not necessarily always come from research funded by an institution, industry, or government. Academics and scientists do voluntary research without any grants that are also published.

Either way, there are expenses for the editorial processing of a manuscript in the labor room of a publisher. With some exceptions, the expenses for the article processing, nowadays mostly open access fees, are covered by institutional funds, research grants, or by the researcher’s personal fund.

Without going into a deeper discussion, realizing that institutional funds and government research grants are mostly taxpayers’ money is not difficult. A part of people’s tax money is used by government or public institutions and is disbursed in the form of research grants. Industrial and private funds are also dependent in one way or another on the taxpayers’ contribution- at least partially. Industries spending money on R&D are partly exempted from tax.

Ironically, the same taxpayers are not eligible to read the outputs of the research they paid for. On the other hand, the authors, who also pay taxes, are held responsible for the research from A to Z which includes writing the proposal, conducting the research, and drafting the manuscript have to pay a publisher to make their research outputs accessible to those who paid for their research.

The arguments by the publishers are simple and straightforward. They need money to shoulder the cost of the publication process of papers. Given the wide range of open access fees that in some cases exceed USD10,000.00, it is difficult to fathom the actual costs that a publisher shoulders to make a paper accessible to the world. The inevitable question that could be raised is whether the publisher charges more than it costs.

Curtly put, the publication business is not a philanthropic mission! Nevertheless, some publishers exempt authors from countries with low-income brackets from paying the article processing or open access fees. At the same time, other publishers follow hybrid publishing models whereby papers are either openly accessible or accessible upon subscription by the readers.

Besides, the hybrid model of open access options, some countries such as South Africa, and a few countries in Latin America and Europe opted for the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) network that allows the publishing of research from member countries under the diamond open access model where both publishing and reader access come at no cost. The goal is to publish research by local researchers for local researchers and on locally relevant topics.

Needless to say, SciELO or any similar models are limited to those countries participating in those models and to a limited number of journals too. Besides, an expansion of such models at a global scale is not logistically achievable.

Overall, the open-access publication models create one or another form of inequity in the papers published. This becomes further complicated in certain situations where authors in the byline may come from countries that are exempted from paying the open-access fees and also from countries that are not exempted from paying the same fees.

Furthermore, how will a journal entertain a paper of voluntary research that is conducted without any grant? If the authors come from countries that are not on the open-access exemption list, they ought to pay the fees from their own salary.

The number of journals to submit manuscripts without any clause of payment is shrinking. Strikingly, journals from reputed publishers or those who are listed in reputed indexing bodies are “licensed” to impose any open-access fees they deem fit for their journal. The higher the reputation, the higher the fees.

It is rather baffling to see that neither there is a universal norm to determine the open access fees nor any guidelines that could cover every logical aspect of charging an author to pay the open access fees. Not to mention, the “pay and publish” based predatory journals continue operating without any major hassle.

In such a predicament, instead of forcing academics and researchers to show their publication productivity by paying often a very unreasonable amount, academic and research institutions should find alternative means to evaluate the performance and impact of their staff. Measuring the societal impact of a researcher’s work and its influence on local policy could be an alternative means for evaluating research performance.

It is unpredictable if the international community of scientific publications would devise any acceptable guidelines for open access fees or if the academic and research institutions will adopt any alternative means to release the burden on the authors for the open access fees. Until then charging authors for open access fees will continue to run with the fundamental flaws in the practice.

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The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at tarique@um.edu.my

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