How systemic biases in academic publishing make us all poor

I would like to begin by stating where I am writing from. As a non-white, female academic, rooted in the social sciences, from Chile. My academic journey unfolds in the north of Chile, at a public university that, while struggling with limited resources, has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to research excellence.

Despite its financial constraints, this institution has invested significantly in its quest for academic visibility and research reputation. My experiences, both as a female scholar from the Global South and as a member of this university, shape my perspectives and underpin the concerns I raise about the current state of academic publishing.

In an age of digital connectivity, we have come to expect information to be instantly accessible. The idea of knowledge as a universally available public good is a lofty aspiration, one that many believe is within reach given our technological advances.

However, the world of scholarly publishing, a key pillar in the dissemination of scientific knowledge, presents a different reality. Beneath its scholarly facade lies a complex web of economic and structural inequities that creates barriers to the very essence of universal access to knowledge.

This dichotomy between expectation and reality underscores a pressing challenge: to ensure that scientific knowledge and discoveries are accessible to all, regardless of geographical or economic boundaries.

Systemic bias

Recognising the challenges faced by scholars from economically disadvantaged regions, major academic publishers have made significant progress in providing support. These initiatives, from fee waivers to special grants, signal an acknowledgement of the existing inequities in the academic landscape.

But as laudable as these steps are, they are only the first steps in addressing a much deeper and more systemic problem. This problem goes beyond mere financial barriers. It touches on the very nature of whose knowledge is valued, how it is disseminated, and the structures that determine these dynamics.

A broader challenge is, therefore, to dismantle a system in which the creation and dissemination of knowledge is influenced by economic size rather than merit or relevance.

The fundamental ethos of scholarly publishing is the impartial and widespread dissemination of knowledge. This principle is particularly important in disciplines such as the social sciences and humanities, where diverse perspectives are crucial to a holistic understanding of human societies, cultures and behaviours. However, the complex systems and processes that underpin this world have inadvertently tilted the scales.

This bias, which is often not deliberate but systemic, means that researchers with more resources, typically from wealthier nations and prestigious institutions, have an advantage. This advantage is not always overt; it manifests itself in access to better resources, wider networking opportunities, or simply the ability to pay high publication fees.

Such imbalances perpetuate a vicious cycle. Voices from the Global South, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, are at risk of being sidelined despite their rich reservoir of local insights and unique scholarly perspectives.

Their struggles are not just about gaining visibility in top-tier journals or ensuring that their research reaches a global audience. It goes deeper, to the intrinsic value attached to their work.

When the system inadvertently places a higher value on research from affluent backgrounds, it does not just sideline diverse voices; it questions the value of the diverse knowledge they bring to the academic table. Moreover, disciplinary disparities exacerbate the problem, with some fields facing more pronounced biases than others.

Knowledge with a price tag

This imbalance is not just a theoretical or abstract concern; its implications are palpably real. To illustrate, I recently contributed to a special issue celebrating the anniversary of a well-regarded academic journal. Ironically, despite the significance of the occasion and the journal’s standing, my paper, along with that of a colleague from another Southern nation, was not made open access because we did not pay for this.

Such instances underscore the inherent inequities in the system. A paper’s visibility, and by extension its impact, is contingent upon the ability to pay, rather than its academic merit.

What emerges is a system in which the dissemination of and access to knowledge becomes an exclusive privilege. It is commodified, distributed by and accessible only to those who have the means to pay for it.

This economic gatekeeping has repercussions that ripple through the academic community. For experienced researchers, it can mean that their ground-breaking work remains locked away, unable to reach the wider audience it deserves.

For emerging scholars, especially students still shaping their academic careers, it means limited access to global research, stunting their academic growth and limiting their exposure to diverse perspectives. In essence, the very foundation of academia – the free flow of ideas and knowledge – is compromised, depending on one’s financial position.

This financial gatekeeping, where access to knowledge is determined by the ability to pay, is emblematic of a broader and alarming shift in the academic landscape: the escalating commercialisation of academic publishing. Scientific knowledge and scholarship have come to be revered not just as assets, but as public goods that should serve the collective good beyond market dynamics and monetary valuations.

Societal progress

Their true value lies in their potential to drive societal progress, inform policy, shape culture and foster a more informed and enlightened citizenry. But in today’s academic ecosystem, the noble vision of knowledge as a public good is increasingly overshadowed by profit motives.

The founding principles of academia – to enlighten minds, educate generations and empower individuals with information – are at risk. This shift affects every stakeholder in the knowledge chain, from educators and students to policy-makers and the general public.

When knowledge comes with a price tag, it is locked behind financial barriers and risks transforming academia from a space of intellectual inquiry and public benefit into a marketplace where one’s financial means can dictate the breadth and depth of intellectual engagement.

To truly address these concerns, it is imperative to move beyond superficial remedies to a deeper examination of entrenched systemic practices in scholarly publishing.

This is an appeal to publishers, universities and researchers to come together in unity and recommit to the fundamental mission of academia: to ensure that knowledge is disseminated fairly and widely for the collective advancement of society.

The essence of scholarly pursuit is not exclusivity, but the shared endeavour to broaden horizons and improve the world through knowledge accessible to all.

Carolina Guzmán Valenzuela is professor of higher education at Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile.