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Open access without open publication creates inequality for researchers in the Global South

Opinion paper on how open access creates inequality for global south scholars despite its ability to provide free and reliable access to relevant information.

Published onSep 08, 2023
Open access without open publication creates inequality for researchers in the Global South

Open access has significantly gained attention in academia, industry and publishing arenas due to its ability to provide free and reliable access to relevant information. Notwithstanding its great potential, open access inherently has the ability to disproportionally disadvantage global south scholars in their contribution to global scholarship and the knowledge economy. This opinion paper critiques open access and demonstrates how it creates inequality for global south scholars. The paper also provides insights into how we can minimize the potential of open access to perpetuate inequality.

Keywords: open access, open publication, inequality, knowledge economy, global south

The concept of open access has gained center stage in contemporary discourse on the knowledge economy, and scholarship. Enhanced by the advancement in technological development, the concept seeks to create a world order where individuals can have unrestricted and uninterrupted access to relevant information needed for their informed decisions. More specifically, and from the academic environment perspective, open access aims to increase access to published materials, data and methods among researchers. For researchers in the global south where access to relevant publications has been a persistent challenge for decades, open access offers a unique opportunity to have access to published materials including data and methods, which were ordinarily and previously inaccessible.

To champion and implement open access, major global publishers including Elsevier, Sage, Taylor and Francis, Wiley, among others, have revised their publication policies to reflect open access principles and options (i.e., gold, diamond, green, bronze, and hybrid open access). For instance, Taylor and Francis assert that it is committed to ‘making published academic research freely and permanently available to enable anyone, anywhere to read and develop their research.’ This revision also includes the payment of an exorbitantly high article publication charge. For instance, a quick search of the open-access article publication charge of major high-impact peer-reviewed journals in my research areas (climate change, food security, and agriculture) revealed open access article publication charges over and above US$1500 per article.  

However, the question that arises and requires attention is, does having access to published academic research equally translate into the ability of users of the published academic research to also make their work freely accessible to others? The neglect of knowledge creation as the foundation of open access poses serious fundament flaws in the open access argument. Knowledge must first be created before it can be shared or distributed. Yet, the proponents of open access more often look at the front-end or output of the knowledge production function i.e., knowledge or data has been created and must be made freely available to anyone, anywhere. However, the reality is that open access must begin with open publication, where researchers can freely publish their articles without financial restrictions or exorbitant article publication charges, thereby enabling open access to function effectively and sustainably. 

For findable, accessible, interoperable and reproducible (FAIR) knowledge to be disseminated, there is a conscious need to ensure it is created in an unrestricted manner. Arguably, funded research often overcomes this hurdle through the funds allocated for the generation and production of knowledge. However, for researchers in the global south where funding is a big constraint, overcoming this barrier is always a headache. Implicitly, researchers in the global north with access to funds will continue to dominate in the creation and dissemination of knowledge compared to their counterparts in the global south, thereby facilitating the colonization of knowledge. This is because existing studies have shown that articles published in open access journals have higher chances of being accessed, used and cited than those published in subscription-based journals. Definitely, and given the funding constraints faced by researchers in the global south, they are more likely to publish in subscription-based and low article publication charge journals, which seriously affect their work from being accessed or discovered and used. 

This is problematic as available empirical evidence from Africa, for instance, indicates that one of the priorities of researchers on the continent is making their work accessible. However, achieving this reality is curtailed by their inability to publish in open-access journals, mainly driven not because of poor quality of their work but the lack of funds to publish in open-access journals. One may argue that building collaborations with researchers in the global north could be a way to enable the works of researchers in the global south to be accessed and discovered, thereby putting a spotlight on their contribution to the global knowledge-based economy. While this may hold true, especially for experienced and established researchers with strong networks outside the African continent, yet, for early career researchers, this can be an Achilles heel. Collaborations are grounded in the quality of one’s research experience, which can be judged on the basis of one’s past research works, and where they have been published. Ultimately, having publications in reputable and most often open access journals can be a bait for collaboration, which many early career researchers in the global south may not have.

There is also inequality among early career researchers in the global south based on where they received their training. For instance, for early career researchers with training from the global north, the existence of agreements between open access publishers and their institutions offers them a unique opportunity to make their work accessible by publishing in open access journals at no cost. Contrarily, researchers in the global south have little to no access to institutional agreements that enable them to publish at no cost in high-impact open access journals. Even more is the likelihood of inequality among genders. 

However, the recent pronouncement by the European Union Council to champion a ‘no pay’ publishing model offers a new dawn of possibilities for researchers, particularly in the global south, in contributing to the global knowledge-based economy by publishing in high-impact but no-pay journals. The proposed model can significantly contribute to minimizing the disparity between researchers in the global north and the global south by providing them with an equal platform and opportunity to publish their research work. This approach may definitely have financial implications for publishing houses, but it also offers a robust and sustainable pathway for championing open access publication, which the publishing houses have already embraced. Thus, the ‘no pay’ publishing model has a great potential to stimulate a world order for open publication, and provide a strong foundation for open access.

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