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Opinion: Open access is not open

Solution requires systemic reform in science communication
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DIANA PHAM/THE VARSITY
DIANA PHAM/THE VARSITY

There are many unresolved issues in mainstream commercial science publishing that prompt researchers and their affiliated institutions to take matters into their own hands. In early 2019, the Elsevier-owned Journal of Informetrics saw mass resignation from all of its editorial board, who then migrated to MIT press to spearhead an open-access (OA) journal called Quantitative Science Studies.

At face value, open-access publishing seems like a promising approach to improve the accessibility of science literature. The global demand to make results of publicly funded research available to the public renders open access even more appealing, so is open-access publishing the ultimate solution for broadening scientific communication? 

The scientist incarnation of Robinson Crusoe

Scholars from institutions without bulk subscriptions to academic journals are turning to Sci-Hub, the world’s largest collection of pirated science publications, which was created by Alexandra Elbakyan. Despite its illicit nature, Sci-Hub perfectly demonstrates how a colossal open-access research library operates. Article requests from scholars drive its growing catalogue — 25 per cent of these scholars are from some of the wealthiest countries in the world. 

The convenience of accessing open-access science literature for free comes at a cost to the authors themselves. In the case of open-access journals, researchers are required to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs) for publishing their accepted work. Furthermore, as an unnamed senior researcher from North America included in a recent study points out, open access may disadvantage authors in institutions lacking in resources. 

In many instances, researchers cannot access or download their own work or that of their colleagues due to paywall restrictions. The lack of accessibility and control over one’s own copyright material and how it is disseminated is a predicament reminiscent of the reason why Taylor Swift decided to claim ownership for her music by re-recording her old albums. 

The status quo in scientific publishing 

The expense of publication fundings is simply transferred from bundle subscription fees to APCs, while mega-publishers’ incomes steadily increase year by year. Elsevier is the largest scientific publisher that regularly puts out hundreds of thousand articles through the 3,000 affiliated journals. In the year 2021 alone, Elsevier reported a seven per cent growth, earning billions of dollars for its Dutch parent company. 

A featured piece in Vox shockingly revealed that Elsevier’s recent business growth is increasingly dependent on generating reports using its data-mining analytics. How can we allow these publishers to perpetuate existing hierarchies in science communication? 

The shifts to broaden readership of science literature do not come without challenges. In the medical and health sciences, an author’s choice of which journal to publish in depends on evaluation of the journal’s prestige and the quality of peer review services offered. Within the domain of open access publishing, there are so-called predatory journals, which charge publication manuscripts and fees without offering editorial services.  A study done in 2020 by Swanberg et al. found that of the surveyed university and medical school faculty members, only 60 per cent were able to independently flag a predatory journal. This phenomenon added an extra layer of distrust onto the credentials of other open-access journals. 

As seniority often dictates the amount of research funding and resources, there is an undercurrent pushing back against the  propagation of open-access publishing among senior scientists. At this point, science literature must venture to construct a new publishing model to increase the transparency and affordability of scientific writings. 

Restructuring scientific publications’ workflow

Lastly, I would like to humbly propose a revised open-access model that could resolve current issues of contention in scientific publishing. One reason for the popularity of Sci-Hub is that it serves as a one-stop outlet for academic journals and other forms of scholarly materials. Given the scale of operations of science publishers, there is a possibility of merging eligible science journals into one large web collection. All the science publications in such a database must be categorized according to the level of comprehension of its readership. 

A merit system would maintain the integrity of the peer-review process and generate enough resources for other editorial services. Researchers who do not have the funds to pay for publication fees can earn points for peer reviewing content suited to their academic credentials. The identity and qualifications of every person involved in this endeavour must be verified to ensure the scientific accuracy of the final publications. 

Besides undertaking a massive merger of science publishing, there needs to be a well rounded governing body, watchdog committee, and experts across all domains. These units should operate under the principle of transparency, meaning any documents, written recordings of proceedings, analytics, and financial summary must be available for public viewing in a timely manner. 

I firmly believe in the strength and influence of open collaboration among individuals external and internal to the scientific community. Collective efforts must not be amiss in restructuring and uniting the current open access and commercial publishing model for greater transparency, involvement, and access to scientific literature.