Open access: A problem way beyond one nation one subscription

The Best Things in Life Are Free. How wonderful it would be if this was true for research outputs.  Sadly, access to scholarly journal articles comes with a price posing a heavy financial burden on academic institutions. The past two decades have witnessed accelerated demand for open access (OA) to scholarly publications propelled by the progress in digital technologies. Global organisations, including UNESCO and OECD, are proactively promoting the transition towards OA. In this regard, the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India is contemplating a “one nation one subscription policy” to facilitate larger access to journal articles generated from publicly funded research. However, OA experts argue that this will promote a subscription-based culture rather than providing a sustainable alternative to move away from it. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore has been a strong advocate for OA and recently organised a series of discussions to shed light on the roadblocks to OA route especially in the Indian context.

Hijacking the Business of Scholarly Publishing

It may come as a surprise but scientific publishing is a highly profitable business, controlled largely by five commercial publishers- Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Sage, earning profit margins reportedly around 40%. Ironically, the publishing contents are generated through publicly funded research and pro bono peer-review. However, the public is denied their due access to such knowledge and posed with hefty journal subscription fees. Publishers abuse copyright transfer agreements claiming ownership of published articles, curtailing the author’s freedom to post articles in open public repositories with 1-2 years embargo. Equally unethical is the new paradoxical model of ‘Article Processing Charges’ adopted by many reputed journals wherein hefty fees are levied on the authors to enable OA of their published article. It severely handicaps researchers particularly in resource-constrained settings such as India (approx. $2.4 million annually).

Questioning the unfairness 

The idea of OA emerged with the philosophy that the investors (taxpayers) must have seamless access to the knowledge generated from their investment. This movement gained momentum in the early 2000s, largely fuelled by Budapest (2002), Berlin (2003), and Bethesda (2003) declarations. They challenged the profit-based scientific publication model that had hijacked research publications for many decades and campaigned for scholarly publications to be free to read and reproduce with proper citation.

The rat race of citations and rankings

the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore has been spearheading the OA movement in India under the leadership of Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, known as “Mr. Open Access”. Recently, the ‘open access week’ was celebrated where Prof. Jean-Claude GUÉDON, professor at the Université de Montréal and one of the signatories of the Budapest Declaration, was invited as the key speaker. He emphasised how the scholarly journals are entirely driven by the research preferences of an elite coterie of commercial editors, reflecting mainly the North-Atlantic business interests, and largely ignoring the global south. Journal ranking, impact factors, citations, etc. are the tools to attract researchers and improve market share and ultimately lead to making ‘science a commodity’

Endorsing Science as a public good, Prof. GUÉDON strongly recommended the need to design a publishing and communication system that takes full advantage of digital possibilities, rather than trying to adapt digital affordances to the print model. Working prototypes for open access can be adapted from existing models, such as open-source software communities, the ‘Request For Comments’ of the Internet Engineering Task Force, Wikipedia, and F1000Research without its commercial dimension.

The green signal to Open Access in India?

There is a need to liberate articles from the clutches of publishers through the deposition of published articles in open public repositories, known as “green access”. Copyright transfer agreements have exceptions such as educational context, which can be leveraged for depositing the contents in open repositories under the public interest clause. According to Indian copyright law experts, Prof. Arul G. Scaria and Ms. Anubha Sinha, “Pre-prints” can be posted in the public repositories without any legal barriers. However “Post-prints” are complicated issues, though liberty in posting post-prints is a subject of academic freedom.

What South-South dialogue can offer

India can learn from the early adoption and successful journey of local OA publishing in Latin America. The non-APC OA journals of this region are managed and governed by academic societies with the help of journal editorial teams, university library teams, etc.  Peer review and quality standards are strictly followed. The scientific contents are also available through institutional, regional, and national repositories. The community governance structure of the Latin American OA initiatives (Latindex Catalog, Redalyc-AmeliCA, and SciELO) also ensures equity and inclusion in OA scholarly communications and brings a diversity of voices, contents, and formats. Dr. Dominique Babini and Prof. Arianna Becerril-García, renowned OA scholars from Latin America proposed that India should learn and interoperate with Latin America’s OA initiatives. We need digital technologies and online open platforms to disseminate knowledge, along with critical introspection into the Indian copyright systems can improve India’s OA prospects bringing the smaller academic institutions under the wings of the mainstream research ecosystem. 



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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