Knowledge sharing is the key to research success, and scientific journals play a crucial role here. The concept of scientific publishing took root around four centuries ago, through noble intentions and the sponsorships of various learned societies.
But from around the 1950s, Robert Maxwell and others have turned academic publishing more broadly into a principally money-spinning enterprise. Today, the academic publishing industry operates in a concentrated market replete with big players, and is predominantly revenue-driven.
Former Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton described their principal transgression in a recent article for The Guardian: “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free… and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices” from the journals.
The journals’ exorbitant prices for readers to access the papers they published led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, among other similar resolutions, which popularised open-access papers.
In the ‘conventional’ publishing model, a paper is published in the following process:
- A group of scientists conduct a study or experiment
- The group writes up a scientific paper describing their efforts and findings
- The group submits the paper to a journal for consideration
- The journal’s editors deliberate on the paper’s merits
- The editors communicate to the group whether the journal will send the paper for peer-review
- The paper is sent for peer-review – by a group of independent scientists
- The paper is sent back to the journal with the peers’ comments on how it can be improved
- The journal communicates the required changes to the group
- The group makes the requisite changes and resubmits the paper
- The journal queues the paper to be published in a forthcoming issue
- Once the paper is published, the journal makes money by putting the paper behind a paywall, or including it as part of a ‘subscription bundle’ for university libraries
In the open-access paradigm, these steps are the same – except the last one. Journals recoup their costs of publishing from the scientists who wrote the papers instead of the readers (including other scientists) who wish to read them.
But even in open-access, journals began to charge exorbitant prices – called article processing charges (APCs) – to handle papers, which seemed disproportionate to the processing costs. APCs today typically cost from a few tens of thousands of rupees to a few lakh, which is antithetical to equity and inclusivity. (Some journals make an exception for researchers from low- and middle-income countries, but the principle is the problem.)
As the Budapest declaration states:
While the peer-reviewed journal literature should be accessible online without cost to readers, it is not costless to produce. However, experiments show that the overall costs of providing open access to this literature are far lower than the costs of traditional forms of dissemination.
With such an opportunity to save money and expand the scope of dissemination at the same time, there is today a strong incentive for professional associations, universities, libraries, foundations, and others to embrace open access as a means of advancing their missions.
Achieving open access will require new cost recovery models and financing mechanisms, but the significantly lower overall cost of dissemination is a reason to be confident that the goal is attainable and not merely preferable or utopian.
Academic communities in transitioning economies like India also face the challenge of scattered community involvement in the peer-review process.
Overall, Indian scholars face three major challenges: costly paywalls, high APCs, and gatekeeping of the publishing ecosystem.
The evolution of open-access practices have fuelled innovative approaches to surmount, sidestep or even transcend these barriers.
Non-commercial models to scholarly communication use decentralised electronic publishing platforms, have no APCs, host papers on open-access repositories, and are featured in not-for-profit indexing services.
Second, the African Journals OnLine and Nepal Journals Online publish papers that are open-access. More importantly, they focus on region-specific research and discussions. So as such they are freed of the need to make money by focusing on the more-profitable US- and Europe-centric points of view.
Third, some other publishers, especially F1000Research and eLife, have adopted a review system in which they publish peer-reviewers’ comments along with the paper.
Fourth, open-access preprint repositories like arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv, SocArXiv, agriRxiv, etc. are leading the way with online archiving (although there are some “non-fatal” downsides with their lack of peer-review). India’s Departments of Science & Technology and Biotechnology launched an open-access repository of papers funded by them, called ‘Science Central’, some years ago. But because of architectural and operational drawbacks, it has fallen into disuse.
While archiving platforms have also mooted a conversation about the need to move past peer-review, functional and transparent peer-review ensures – particularly in some sensitive domains like medical research – that papers are valid, qualitatively good and novel at the time of publishing. And we can’t achieve these outcomes solely through preprints or archiving.
Technological advancements and open-access advocacy have compelled the publishing industry to evolve its business models and practices. Moving forward, it will be better to combine the best of all worlds.
Something for India
Now, thanks to access and equity challenges, academic publishing in India is short on good-quality platforms, and many researchers are resorting to publishing in bad or illegitimate journals. But more broadly gatekeeping with financial and infrastructural constraints also prevent most researchers from publishing in high-quality journals (while the study itself is ‘good’) – whereas formal requirements like publishing at least one paper to be eligible for a PhD forces people to publish whatever, wherever.
It’s no surprise, then, that India is currently third in the world vis-à-vis the number of papers published, with an annual growth rate of 12.9%.
Against this background, academic publishing in India can significantly benefit researchers, at least to the extent that it can help be part of the solution. In particular, and with the European Commission’s ‘Open Research Europe’ as a precedent, it has an opportunity to develop a digital open-access platform with minimal to no APCs.
The Indian government has advanced a potential solution called ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ (ONOS). But it calls for large and recurring investments and wouldn’t address core issues like improving the quality of the research output, developing more practical research metrics, and preventing corporate publishers from monetising publicly funded research.
Instead, and taking advantage of the fact that India doesn’t want for expertise in software engineering, a digital publishing platform with open peer-review could help resolve the access and quality issues, while avoiding the costs associated with ONOS. Policymakers can use such a platform to develop and use better research impact metrics. It can also help further the principles and goals of open science and open-access publishing.
As our view of the post-pandemic future becomes clear, more and more scientists are also agreed that open-access is the way to go. So given the vision, the resources available to the Indian research administration, both the availability of papers and the need for a publishing platform, and the public demand to make research accessible, India must build the research-publishing platform it deserves right away.
Moumita Koley and B. Suchiradipta are DST-STI policy fellows and Nabil Ahmad Afifi is a project trainee – all at the DST-Centre for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.