Offline: Scramble for the Flag

Almost every day I receive an email from an academic journal publisher (No scalpelPublisher Elsevier, I might add) invite me to contribute to one of their open access titles. Promises are exorbitant. Being a guest editor for a private collection of at least ten open access gold sheets will advance my career and demonstrate my leadership; create a purposeful effect; Give me invaluable editorial and organizational experience; And my search networks are growing. All the publisher asks is that I identify potential contributors up front. I can submit two of my own papers. There will be an essay processing fee (APC), of course. On some invitations the fee is clearly stated and I am warned that I must agree to pay the APC before submitting my paper. The publisher has a higher view of my abilities than I deserve. In recent days I have received requests for papers on cell transplantation, childhood and adolescent addiction, allergy and immunology, health services, men’s health, clinical oncology, and Alzheimer’s disease. This scramble for research papers comes at a good moment. Recently released White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) guidelines require that taxpayer-supported search results be made available to the public immediately at no cost. All US agencies must fully implement these instructions no later than December 31, 2025. Dr. Alondra Nelson, Chair of OSTP, commented: “When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives and provide policy makers with the tools to make critical decisions. and achieving more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.” OSTP Guidelines have been widely welcomed.

Audrey Smith and colleagues from the University of Florida last year reported a study of more than 37,000 articles from Elsevier’s “mirror” system. In this arrangement, the hybrid main magazine has an open-access gold mirror. When two journals – one open access, the other not – were compared, the geographic diversity of authors was significantly lower for open access papers. Most of the authors of the open access papers came from high-income countries. The Florida team concluded, “Our results for the Elsevier Mirror-Parent system are consistent with the hypothesis that armored personnel carriers [article processing charges] constitute a barrier to open access to publication for scholars in the Global South.” Publishers will argue that they administer exemptions for authors unable to pay the APC. Lancet magazines, we regularly agree on APC waivers. But Smith and colleagues note that the compromises in their study clearly failed to encourage submissions from authors in low-income settings. The message of this work is that open access – and open science more broadly – may not be completely free, despite the best efforts of publishers. Open science is supposed to usher in a new era of efficiency, quality, innovation, knowledge transfer, public participation, and global collaboration. But while open publishing may be a boon to some scholars, it appears to be closing the door for others.

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What the deluge of invitations to publish in open access journals indicates is that science publishing is undergoing an amazing change in culture – from one driven by quality to one driven by quantity. Publishers’ accounts are straightforward: the more papers published, the higher the revenue. In an age where the subscription model is dwindling, an alternative revenue stream will come from APCs. The new incentive for some publishers will be to persuade their editors to accept and publish more papers, but not necessarily better papers. This change in culture and incentives is not easy. It is actually historical. The entire basis for the integrity of the scientific record is shifting. Some advocates of open science have recognized the danger and warned of negative consequences. Writing temper nature Earlier this year, Tony Ross Helauer wrote about the “unintended consequences” of open science. He cautioned that open science could create the conditions in which “the advantages of those who are already privileged will grow, particularly given that they have the greatest influence on how open science is applied.” The change in the culture of science publishing from value to scale, driven by the motive of revenue protection, jeopardizes the very purpose of science publishing itself. Quality is at risk. Justice is at stake. Publishers should ask themselves the question: What do they represent? And market share is not the only answer to this question.

University of Florida, Tampa, Florida (Photo: Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)