Open Access: for universal access to scientific literature
Open Access, sometimes known as “free access”, is a global movement aimed at making all information from research, such as publications and data, available to all, without any financial, legal or technical obstacles. The objective is to boost the visibility and reuse of the results of academic research, thus contributing to the discovery of solutions to the major challenges facing society.
In the years since it was launched, many universities and research institutes have joined the Open Science movement, beginning with Inria, which was one of the first signatories of the Berlin Declaration on Open Access (2003).
There are a number of different strategies for making the results of scientific research free to access:
- Green Open Access, which is when full scientific texts are published in open archives, such as open archive HAL
- Diamond Open Access, which is when scientific texts are published for free in a free Open Access journal
- Gold Open Access with APC, which refers to paid-for publication in a free Open Access review, employing the ‘author-pay’ model.
- Hybrid Open Access, which refers to paid-for publication in a subscription-only journal
These last two publishing models (Gold and Hybrid) incur APCs (Article Processing Charges), which must then be paid in order for articles to be published and freely distributed. These processing charges vary from one journal to the next and are, very broadly speaking, higher in hybrid reviews than in reviews which are fully free to access.
Free access and academic publishing: the problem with APCs
The growth of the Open Access movement in recent years has brought about changes to the APC model, largely at the instigation of private publishers. These charges, which for publishers provide a way of covering publication costs (editorial costs, the cost of managing the peer review system, etc.) are now part of an ethical debate surrounding open access.
The bone of contention is the significant increase in these publishing costs (initially presented as a solution to rising subscription costs) that has taken place in recent years, resulting in something of a crisis in equality of access to publications. In an article entitled "Article Processing Charge Hyperinflation and Price Insensitivity: An Open Access Sequel to the Serials Crisis", researcher Shaun Yon-Seng Khoo (Université de Montréal) explained that, between 2005 and 2018, APCs increased at a rate three times higher than they would have if they were indexed to inflation.
Another issue is the phenomenon of double payment (known as “double dipping”) with “hybrid” journals, which ask for both subscriptions and APCs. “When we first began looking at this subject, it was our belief that the payment of APCs to publish was going to have a significant impact on the cost of subscriptions. Some publishers have played ball, deducting publishing costs from the cost of subscription, but as a whole APCs have continued to rise steeply, as have subscription costs”, explains Claire Büren, Head of Digital Acquisitions and APCs at Inria, before adding, “This calls for an urgent rethink of the economic model, because this isn't sustainable long-term.”
The APC model has also seen the emergence of “predatory publishing” in recent years. This is when journals, aware of how important it is for researchers to publish, carry out an aggressive sort of cold-calling, offering to publish them at a cost, without being able to certify the scientific quality of future publications.
Inria: a long-standing APC strategy, modelled on the institute’s Open Access policy
Having been committed for years to defining an open science policy, Inria really took up the issue of APCs in 2009. The institute allocated a centralised national budget to handling publication costs, which is managed by the Publishing & Publications Department. The aim of this was to develop a centralised overview of the phenomenon and its progression.
“The danger with APCs is total fragmentation: individual researchers are more than capable of paying APCs, but when this happens all budgetary and strategic visibility with regard to publishers is lost. Having a centralised budget has enabled us to track the evolution of publication costs per publisher, but also which journals are successful among our authors, as well as disciplines and sub-disciplines”, explains Claire Büren.
Running parallel to this, the institute introduced a policy for covering APCs in line with its commitment to Open Science, deciding early on to reject the hybrid publishing model, and instead to only finance articles published Open Access in Open Access journals. Each request for funding for a publication through APCs is analysed, focusing on raising awareness, providing support and making recommendations, targeting so-called ‘ethical’ journals.
“It is absolutely not our intention to deny researchers the freedom to choose, but our role is to warn them and, sometimes, to encourage them to consider what it was that made them want to publish in a particular journal. We have a number of pointers which we now use to identify whether a publisher is ethical or predatory. We also encourage scientists to take a look at the make-up of the editorial board or to see if articles published in the past seem to be of good quality”, outlines Claire Büren.
Going back a number of years now, Inria made it mandatory for all of its publications to be archived in HAL, ensuring that only those articles available in full on the HAL-Inria portal would be taken into consideration for activity reports on the institute’s research teams.
“This gives us a full corpus of all our publications in HAL, while ensuring articles are archived long-term”, adds Claire Büren.
A movement that is gathering pace
Like Inria, other institutes and universities are now looking into how they can support researchers with their publishing expenses, the aim being to redress the balance in response to the strategies employed by academic publishers. One good example is the University of Lille, which set up a specific fund for APCs on 1st January 2022. This is aimed at improving the handling of the university’s Open Access publishing expenses, while also assisting researchers with the publishing process.
“Publishers are keen to promote the idea that the value of APCs differs depending on the supposed quality and reputation of a journal, but this doesn’t make any sense: what gives a publication value is its intrinsic quality, not the journal it's published in”, explains Julien Roche, Director of University Libraries and the Learning Centre at the University of Lille. “This fund will enable us to enter into dialogue with researchers at the earliest possible opportunity, preventing them from ending up engaged in publishing processes which don’t adhere to the principles of open science, and to retake control over the discussion surrounding the value of APCs”, adds Geoffrey Haraux, who is responsible for overseeing APCs within the university’s documentation department.
The goal of this is to support researchers in the interests of ethical, open science, but not at any price: “Our role is to help science to circulate, and to make sure it isn't restrained by a system dictated by the commercial sector”, explains Julien Roche.
The CNRS, Inrae, Inserm and the CEA, meanwhile, have also taken a stand against hybrid journals or costs linked to publications in journals, unveiling specific Open Access roadmaps in recent years. Now that these initiatives are being applied, they are starting to bring about change in the world of academic publishing: “We are now in a position where we are understanding our relationships with publishers by reconsidering overall costs. We are also now seeing the emergence of what are known as ‘transformative agreements’, and institutes are starting to support those journals which employ a more ethical model. This will continue to significantly shake up the landscape”, concludes Claire Büren.