Preference for OA research by income group

Two researchers from Rwanda performed a “systematic computational analysis of the biomedical literature” and concluded in their paper that:

… papers with authors based in sub-Saharan Africa, papers with authors based in low income countries, and papers resulting from international collaboration are all much more likely to be made openly accessible than papers that don’t have these properties.

They analysed 547,404 papers indexed in PubMed, which is:

… a free resource developed and maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Library of Medicine (NLM). PubMed PubMed provides free access to MEDLINE, NLM’s database of citations and abstracts in the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, health care systems, and preclinical sciences.


The researchers also found that after scientists from low-income countries, those in high-income countries exhibited the next highest preference for publishing in open-access (OA) journals and that scientists from lower and upper middle-income countries – such as India – came last. It is important to acknowledge here that while there exists a marked (inverse) correlation between GDP per capita and number of publications in OA journals, a causation might be harder to pin down because GDP figures are influenced by a large array of factors.

At the same time, given the strength of the correlation, their conclusion – about scientists from middle-income countries being associated with the fewest OA papers in their sample – seems curious. The article processing charge (APC) levied by some journals to make a paper openly accessible immediately after publishing is only marginally more affordable in middle-income countries than it is in low-income countries. However, the effects of technology and initiative seem to allay some of this confusion.

There are two popular ways, or routes, to publish OA papers. In the ‘gold’ route, the authors of a paper pay the APC to the journal, which in turn makes the paper openly accessible once it is published. A common example is PLOS One, whose APC is at the lower end, $1,595 (Rs 1.13 lakh). On the other hand Nature Communications charges a stunning EUR 4,290 (Rs 3.4 lakh) per paper for submissions from India. In the ‘green route’, the authors or publishers upload the paper to a publicly accessible repository apart from formally publishing it; common example: the arXiv preprints server, which is moderated by volunteers.

There is also ‘hybrid’ OA, whereby a part of the journal’s contents are openly available and the rest is behind a paywall. In one review published in February 2018, researchers also pointed out a ‘bronze’ route: “articles made free-to-read on the publisher website” but “without an explicit [OA] license”.

The authors of the current paper reason that researchers from high-income countries might be ranking higher in their preference for OA papers because the “‘green’ route of OA has been encouraged by an enormous growth in the number of OA repositories, particularly in Europe and North America”; they also note that Africa was home to only 4% of such repositories in 2018. In the same vein, they continue, “the vast majority of funding organizations with OA policies as of 2018 were based in Europe and North America, with less than 3% of total OA policies originating from organizations based in Africa”.

Additionally, many journals frequently waive APCs for submissions from authors in low-income countries, whereas those from lower- and upper-middle income countries – again, including India – do not qualify as frequently to have their papers published without a fee. A very conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests India spends at least Rs 600 crore every year as APCs.

It was to reduce this burden that K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, announced earlier this year that India was joining the Plan S coalition of research-funders, which aims to have all research funded by them openly accessible to the public by 2021. As a result, researchers funded by Plan S members will have to submit to journals that offer gold/green routes and/or journals will have to make exceptions for publishing research funded by Plan S members.

This is going to take a bit of hammering out because the Plan S concept has many problems. Perhaps the most frustrating among them is its Eurocentric priorities. Other commentators have acknowledged that this limits Plan S’s ability to serve meaningfully the interests of researchers from South/Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. In July, two Argentinian researchers lambasted just this aspect and accused Plan S of ignoring “the reality of Latin America”. They wrote that Plan S views “scientific publishing and scholarly publications … as a commodity prone to commercialization” whereas in Latin America, they “are conceived as the community sharing of public goods”.

The latter is more in line with the interests of the developing world as well as with the spirit of knowledge-sharing more generally. At present, a little over 50% of research articles are not openly accessible, although this is changing thanks to the increasing recognition of OA’s merits, including the debatable citation advantage. Research-funders devised Plan S to “accelerate this transition”, as Jon Tennant wrote, but its implementation guidelines need tweaking.

Another problem with Plan S is that it keeps the focus on the ‘gold’ OA route and does little to address many researchers’ bias against less prestigious, but no less credible, journals. For example, while Plan S specifies that it will have gold-OA journals cap their APCs, scientists have said that this would be unenforceable. So, as I wrote in February:

… if Plan S has to work, researcher-funders also have to help reform scientists’ and administrators’ attitude towards notions like prestige. A top-down mandate to publish only in certain journals won’t work if the institutions aren’t equipped, for example, to evaluate research based on factors other than ‘prestige’.

To this end, the study by the researchers in Rwanda offers a useful suggestion: that the presence or absence of policies might not be the real problem.

There was no clear relationship between the number of open access policies in a region and the percentage of open access publications in that region. … The finding that open access publication rates are highest in sub-Saharan Africa and low income countries suggests that factors other than open access policy strongly influence authors’ decisions to make their work openly accessible.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.