Open access publishing deal for low-, middle-income countries

Academics based in 70 low- and middle-income countries, including those in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, will be able to have their primary research published Gold Open Access by Nature – at no cost – thus enabling their scientific work to be permanently and freely available online for anyone to read.

Academics in the regions that are set to benefit from the announcement have welcomed the development, but some have also raised questions about the longer-term impact on the development of the publishing industries in low- and medium-income countries and diversity in the industry.

Springer Nature announced earlier in January that financial support, via a dedicated fund, has been made available to support authors from 70 countries classified by the World Bank as low-income or lower-middle-income to help them have their research published open access in Nature and the Nature-branded journals.

“We have done this because these journals are unique,” said Springer Nature via a spokesperson in response to questions by University World News. “This does not change our editorial selection decision-making but it does make it possible for research selected from these countries to get published Gold Open Access.”

A subset of authors will be supported and it only applies to Nature’s highly selective portfolio of 36 transformative journals which include Nature Astronomy, Nature Chemistry and Nature Sustainability, among others.

Research published open access has been shown to receive four times more downloads, 1.6 times more citations and increased impact relative to publications availed through the subscription route and Gold Open Access gives immediate access to the final published research which over 80% of researchers see as the most credible.

“At the very core of our mission at Nature is our desire to publish the most significant advances in any branch of research. Open access makes research available to the widest possible audience fostering open science and collaboration,” said Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature in a statement.

“I am excited that with this move we are taking another step towards making research publishing more equitable and scientific knowledge more accessible globally,” Skipper added.

Local funding in many low- and medium-income countries is rarely available for publishing open access in specialist journals like Nature, whose stringent and low acceptance rates make it difficult for authors to get published.

In 2021, African scientists in ecology analysed 40 journals with the highest impact factors in the field and found that the average article processing charge was US$3,150.

Three-quarters of these journals did not offer waivers for scientists from low-income nations and the waiver process was complicated and opaque, and often seemed to be based on special pleading, according to the analysis.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a research professor at Cairo's National Research Centre, emphasised the importance of the implementation process.

“I hope to see easy and straightforward waiver policies and regulations as most publishers have discount policies for authors in financial need [and] fee waiver systems for developing country researchers that are very complex and not always clearly explained or consistent,” Abdelhamid added.

He mentioned published fees in PLOS journals that start from about US$800 and can reach US$5,300 , while The Lancet charges an article processing fee of up to US$6,830 for Gold Open Access.

Deal could spark ‘gifting’ trend

These high article processing fees for Gold Open Access publishing systemically exclude the participation of scholars from developing countries, said Dr Edmond Sanganyado, assistant professor in environmental forensics at Northumbria University, United Kingdom, and a committee member of Global Young Academy.

“It is no surprise that scholars from developing countries publish more pay-walled articles than Gold Open Access articles. Hence, the Gold Open Access model perpetuates inequality by infringing ‘the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’ as codified in Article 27 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said.

“This is good news,” Sanganyado told University World News. The researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) can now publish in 36 Nature research journals and Nature, he added.

It is important to note that researchers from the beneficiary countries who are going to benefit from the no article processing charges policy could previously publish in these Nature research journals and Nature but under a paywall, yet the number of publications by researchers from low- and middle-income countries in these journals was minuscule, he explained. This also applies to researchers from other low- and middle-income countries.

For example, between 2016 and 2022, Nature Materials, Nature Genetics and Nature Energy published 1,240, 1,261 and 845 articles respectively, yet only three, nine and two respectively had first or corresponding authors with an affiliation at an African institution, he said.

Interestingly, in the case of Africa the majority of these authors with an African affiliation were from South Africa, which is set not to benefit from the initiative, Sanganyado added.

He said most of the publications in the 36 Nature journals and Nature that have authors with African affiliations are Global North-Global South collaborations with the co-authors with African affiliations in the middle of the author lists.

“We are going to see a shift in the position of the authors with international collaboration teams ‘gifting’ authors with African affiliations as corresponding authors to cut research costs,” he said. Another trend we are going to see is researchers from the Global North approaching African universities and research institutions for secondment so that they can use it as their affiliation, added Sanganyado.

He said these ‘gifting’ and secondment trends are likely to be visible in the Asian and Middle Eastern countries on the list as well.

“The policy does not address the main reason why researchers from LMICs do not publish in Nature research journals or Nature – that is, a Eurocentric view of the concept of scientific novelty, relevance, significance and impact,” he said.

Besides increasing discussion on what Gold Open Access means, this new policy will probably do little in fighting predatory publishing, he said, adding he was certain that editors at the Nature research journals and Nature are going to receive more submissions from researchers in the countries set to benefit from the announcement. But the journals still have a Eurocentric view of the concept of scientific novelty, relevance, significance and impact.

“There will be more rejections; and with more rejections, more frustrations; and with more frustrations, the more publishing in predatory journals will appear. Fighting predatory publishing does not only require transparency in article processing charges but also in the evaluation of scientific novelty, relevance, significance and impact,” he said.

A team of experts from Springer Nature, in response to questions, said research submitted will still be subject to the high-quality submission and selection process associated with the portfolio.

“We do not anticipate any change in the overall acceptance or publication rates. Change is more likely to be seen in the amount of research from these countries that is published open access,” the spokesperson explained, adding: “Our responsibility is to ensure that the research we publish stands up to scrutiny – this is essential for the scientific community to counteract any mistrust of science and experts.”

What do academics say?

UNESCO Science Prize laureate Atta-ur-Rahman, the former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the majority of them developing countries, welcomed the initiative, which he believes will improve the visibility of quality publications in leading science journals from the developing world.

“Similar initiatives have been taken by Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Bentham Science and other reputable international publishers that offer full or partial waivers on open access fees, or on page charges,” added Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also the former federal minister of science and technology of Pakistan, which is one of the countries where scholars will benefit from the initiative.

He warned, however, that the number of articles from the beneficiary countries will not necessarily increase due to the strict peer review process, but Gold Open Access will enhance the visibility of those that do get published.

Professor Euclides Sacomboio at Agostinho Neto University in Angola said one of the biggest problems for researchers “in our situation” is getting their articles published in open access, high-impact journals.

“This is an extremely important agreement for researchers from low-income countries because we will be in better position to focus on producing quality scientific knowledge, which we many times fail to do due to lack of funding, and the costs for research end up coming from our own pocket,” Sacomboio told University World News.

Not paying for access to quality and high-impact journals will certainly reduce the possibility of publishing in predatory journals and thus improve scientific production and development on the continent, said Sacomboio, who is already working on data he has available to be able to publish his first manuscript through Springer.

But data governance expert Dr Tosin Ekundayo, an assistant professor at Synergy University, Dubai, told University World News that Gold Open Access has both positive and negative implications.

“No doubt, Gold Open Access leads to increased visibility, accessibility and impact of research while simultaneously increasing opportunities for collaboration and innovation,” but “it could also lead to unsustainability of [the] journal business model, since these journals rely on publication fees for operational effectiveness,” he said.

“There is an urgent need to redefine Gold Open Access as a concept in developing countries, because it appears antagonistic by default. Researchers need publication outlets and journals need funding. An infrastructure that guarantees this nexus is what the academic community urgently needs,” Ekundayo emphasised.

For Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli in Libya, the initiative risks “transferring funder resources to for-profit publishing companies which will enhance reliance on Northern infrastructure and limit funds for investment in open access platforms in low- and medium-income countries”.

Attia’s view is supported by a 2020 report titled Open Access: Challenges and opportunities for low- and middle-income countries and the potential impact of UK policy which stated that over the short to medium term an “article processing charge-funded route contributes to sustaining the cost of Northern publishing platforms but reduces the ability of LMICs to invest in local research infrastructure”.

“Fee waivers can only be a short-term solution for LMICs, acting as a temporary fix to enable LMIC researchers to access Northern driven publishing systems, which do not work for LMIC research economies,” the report indicated.

Attia adds: “Thus, it is more appropriate to make direct investment in academic-led or public open access infrastructure in LMICs to support greater diversity and innovation in open access publishing and to meet the distinct publishing needs of LMICs at costs that they can afford and sustain.”

The World Bank classifies the following countries as low-income or lower-middle-income economies: Afghanistan; Algeria; Angola; Bangladesh; Benin; Bhutan; Bolivia; Burkina Faso; Burundi; Cabo Verde; Cambodia; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Chad; Comoros; Democratic Republic of the Congo.; Republic of the Congo; Côte d'Ivoire; Djibouti; Egypt; El Salvador; Eritrea; Eswatini; Ethiopia; The Gambia; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Haiti; Honduras; India; Indonesia; Kenya; Kiribati; Kyrgyz Republic; Lao PDR; Lebanon; Lesotho; Liberia; Madagascar; Malawi; Mali; Mauritania; Micronesia; Mongolia; Morocco; Mozambique; Nepal; Nicaragua; Niger; Nigeria; Pakistan; Papua New Guinea; Philippines; Rwanda; Samoa; São Tomé and Príncipe; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Solomon Islands; Somalia; South Sudan; Sri Lanka; Tajikistan; Tanzania; Timor-Leste; Togo; Tunisia; Uganda; Uzbekistan; Vanuatu; Vietnam; West Bank and Gaza; Yemen; Zambia and Zimbabwe.