Research findings are most impactful when considered a global public good, accessible by anyone, and, for publicly funded research, there is no reason why this should not be the case. The current research publishing system—dominated by a number of large for-profit publishers—is expensive and ineffective at its main goal: disseminating the findings of research to all who need them. While the myriad problems of research publishing in high-income countries are often overcome by simply paying up, this option may not be available to many in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
The COVID-19 pandemic—as Ebola before it—encouraged many publishers to open up collections for immediate access through their emergency response initiatives. While some commended this move, others point out what it reveals: how much vital and often publicly funded research is protected behind paywalls, with access a temporary gift. In this blog we outline why affordable, open access to research is a critical issue for global development and call for development funders and researchers to:
Support Plan S—an open access publishing initiative supported by a coalition of research agencies and funders—and ensure the perspectives of stakeholders in LMICs are heard in plans for reform
Choose to publish on progressive open access platforms
Seek opportunities to support access to evidence (and to publish) for researchers and research users in LMICs
The problem with research publishing
Imagine running a magazine where you don’t need to pay for the content of the articles being written or much of the editing process. Instead, the people writing the articles (and conducting the laborious work behind them) pay you for the privilege. This is the business model in commercial research publishing, where researchers conduct research, write it up, typically provide free peer-review and often unpaid editing of the journals. Some publishers then offer seven figure annual subscriptions for the work to be read, or charge thousands of pounds to authors (and their funders) to remove the paywall and make the article “open access.”
Since the 1950s research publishing has grown from small beans to a multibillion dollar oligopoly, a transition spearheaded by the infamous Robert Maxwell. Market failures abound. For example, there is a disconnect between who’s placing the order (the researcher) and who’s paying the bill (the funder), so the opportunity cost is not felt by those making choices about where to publish or whether to pay for subscriptions. A prestige economy and the importance of publishing to academic careers drives both high prices and unpaid labour.
These market failures have made research publishing extraordinarily profitable—at least for a few large corporations. In 2019 Elsevier made £2.6 billion in revenue with a very enviable £982 million (37 percent) profit. Most of this comes from online journal subscriptions. As the Guardian has previously pointed out, the research publishing industry is similar in size to the global recorded music or film industry but with profit shares far greater. In the UK, leading universities spend an average of £4 million a year on journal subscriptions. In 2019, the University of California cancelled its subscription to Elsevier, saving an estimated $11 million a year, which, remarkably, was just 25 percent of their annual expenditure on journal subscriptions. These outsized profits are a huge cost to research funders (including development funders) and ultimately to society.
Reform in research publishing is about ensuring research findings are openly and widely accessible but also must address the market distortions that cost the research sector so much—and not just the additional expense of publication, but the opportunity cost of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, that can be counted in missed opportunities for new technologies, treatments, and better public policy.
Open access is a development issue
Research underpins effective progress in global development through better evidence-informed policies and programmes and innovation-fuelled economic growth. Yet the current systems for sharing research findings is dysfunctional and particularly disadvantages LMICs.
Research paywalls are a major problem for potential evidence users. The International Decision Support Initiative (iDSI), a network in which CGD is a partner and acts as secretariat, works with governments in LMICs to facilitate the use of evidence in health policy-making. However, about 70 percent of published research is locked behind a paywall (similar for global health) preventing LMIC government officials from easily accessing it. Similarly, the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) encounters this challenge on a day-to-day basis in its work with African governments to support sustained use of evidence in decision-making. In some cases, AFIDEP has been requested by government agencies to support their subscription to journals so that trained staff can have access to research. This is not unique to LMICs: officials at the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office also struggle to access evidence, despite paying hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to access selected journals. Civil society organisations face very similar challenges.
Both research paywalls and article processing charges are a major problem for researchers in LMICs. The subscription fees for journal access are often prohibitively expensive for LMIC research institutions, and author fees—in place of a charge to readers—are beyond the reach of many. What this means for LMIC researchers without international funding is underscored by an analysis of the equivalent number of days work required to pay a $1,600 publication charge: typically 7 days for an Australian researcher, 13 days for a UK academic or 3 months for a researcher in Nigeria. Simply flipping from pay to read to pay to publish is not a solution for those who cannot pay.
Pressure for change
Open access has been championed for some time and with some, but only partial, progress. Recently, a group of funders known as cOAlition S launched an ambitious initiative to accelerate the shift. From 1 January this year, Plan S requires that any research funded by the group must be made publicly available. Publishers must also clearly show their workings behind the prices they charge with the aim of showing how much things actually cost and what the mark up is for brand and prestige. It’s ambitious and disruptive, and offers an opportunity for real change, but Southern voices have been largely missing and their needs neglected as a result. In the UK, government funders have assembled evidence through a series reviews and consultations with LMIC stakeholders and are currently developing new open access policy. Still, there is a risk that small, nonprofit journals and researchers in the South without access to international funding will struggle—yet they’re vital parts of research ecosystems.
Low- and middle-income countries are forging a different path
In a recent survey of African science ministries, achieving sectoral reform through open science policies was considered the highest priority intervention. Ethiopia’s efforts to ensure the country’s research outputs are openly accessible are a notable achievement, and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) (the sole African signatory to Plan S) has launched a low-cost publishing platform, AAS Open. While this is an important and high-quality new space, it’s only available to AAS-funded researchers and is built on the F1000 platform so is not a model available to most Southern organisations.
But there are more affordable options—more readily sustained from public and institutional funding, and academy-owned, that don’t depend on commercial platforms, and that better serve Southern research. Many initiatives have emerged from the South, based on entirely different business models (e.g., African Journals Online or Sri Lanka Journals Online). The Directory of Open Access Journals aggregates almost 16,000 journals from across the world. More than 11,500 don’t charge a publication fee, and journals published in the South account for 30-40 percent of titles. And, sensitive to the charge that their journals don’t match the quality standards of those in the North, many Southern editors have invested huge efforts in improving their quality standards.
It’s not just peer-reviewed journals. Latin America has pioneered industry-disrupting platforms to share research and Africa is following. These initiatives look very different to the familiar platforms of well-known publishing houses, without large teams and large marketing budgets but that’s largely the point: they’re pioneering new models and disrupting the established systems. The development community would do well to recognise and value these innovative alternatives—especially where they have emerged from Southern research communities and are designed to meet Southern research and public needs.
Effective research systems in LMICs are essential for sustainable development, and radical reform of research publishing is greatly needed. In global development, open access is too often seen as a niche issue when the current system undermines local knowledge generation and innovation, holds back evidence-informed public policy, and puts the brakes on economic growth. With attention focused by COVID-19, UNESCO, WHO and UNHCR last year called for an even greater transition to an open science system.
There is no one quick fix—the challenges are complex and interdependent. But below we offer recommendations below for how to support change.
Work together to shift the system. Support Plan S and ensure the perspectives of stakeholders in LMICs are heard in plans for reform.
Invest in alternative publishing platforms, including those led by Southern institutions; don’t just keep paying up for expensive open access fees.
Don't rely on fee waivers to be there for researchers without strong funding. Consider approaches to facilitating access to evidence and to publish for researchers in LMICs as a foundational development initiative.
Choose where to publish. Established researchers in top institutions are secure and can lead the way. For Southern researchers its riskier to take a different path.
Discuss this in your research partnerships: publish open access, but also think about how you can support Southern systems in the process. Support authors to deposit their work in open access repositories.
Support moves to cancel journal subscriptions if publishers are not actively adjusting models and invest the money saved in alterative models and infrastructure.
*The authors are grateful to Pete Baker for helpful feedback on a draft.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.