Science & Technology

Let it flow: COVID-19 pandemic underscores need to share research; but how will it work

The scientific community has rolled out plans to remove hurdles in the shift to open access publishing. Will this ensure equitable access?

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 21 January 2021

Illustration: Ritika BohraOver the last year, the best research on the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) could be accessed for free. Easy access helped scientists work on innovative solutions to deal with the pandemic. The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge (CORD-19) website, launched by the White House and a coalition of leading research groups, attracted tens of millions of views since inception.

It is not just scientists who access research data. In November 2020, Springer Nature and partners reported that 28 per cent of the visitors on their websites were general users, including patients, teachers and lawyers. This is a revolution-of-sorts in a world where most journals are subscription-based or require the reader to pay for single articles, making access expensive and, thus, difficult.

Researchers have demanded open access to scientific data for the past two decades. The demand has the support of organisations such as Unesco and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The movement for open-access publishing gathered momentum with:

  • The Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002)
  • The Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003)
  • The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003).

These statements defined the principles followed by most organisations that promote open access.

In January this year, cOAlition S, a consortium of national research agencies and funders from 12 European countries, rolled out an initiative for open-access science publishing, that was proposed in 2018. Dubbed Plan S, the initiative is supported by over 20 organisat ions, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It says papers publish ed from the work sponsored by these organisations must be made freely available. Scientists have several ways to comply with Plan S. For example, they can pay publis hers to make their articles available or provide free access themselves through online repositories. 

Herein lies the problem 

This move will only help journals make more money, and is not in sync with the philosophy of open access. Scientific publishing is controlled largely by five commercial publishers: Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage. Estimates show that these jour nals have a profit margin of about 40 per cent.

Just like big business, these companies, too, acquire and consolidate. In January, John Wiley & Sons, Inc took over a popular family-owned open-source publisher Hindawi Ltd.

Just like corporates, these publishers also believe in arm-twisting tactics. Elsevier, Wiley India and American Chemical Society filed a case against online science reposit ory Sci-Hub in the Delhi high court to stop it from providing free access to their content by terming it piracy.

Moreover, the publishing industry is finding ways to make profits by adapting to the demand for open access by setting hefty “article processing charges” for high-impact journals. For example: 

  • The Lancet Global Health charges up to $5,000 (around Rs 3.65 lakhs) per research paper
  • The Nature Research family of journals has set its top open-access fee at €9,500 (about $11,600)
  • Cell Press charges $9,900 for a paper to be published in Cell 

Publishers say article-processing charges take care of costs such as maintaining a full-time team of editors and staff who work on art, production and legal aspects.

However, Sridhar Gutam, convenor, Open Access India, an advocacy group, says paying for publishing means the government spends twice: Once for research and again for publication. Similarly, in the subscription model, payment is made once for research and again to access it.

India, for instance, already spends Rs 1,500 crore ($200 million) a year to access research journals, paid by research and educational institutions. 

The draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2020, which the Ministry of Science and Technology has put up for public comments on its website through January 25, 2020 aims to address some of the issues related to accessibility and supports open access in principle.

The policy suggests that the government negotiate a single payment as a “one nation, one subscription” framework with publishers and buy access to 3,000 to 4,000 high-impact scientific journals. 

Several analysts, however, do not think the “one nation, one subscription” policy will work. First, this is a small number compared with the 40,000 journals listed in Scopus, a database of abstracts and citations managed by Elsevier. Besides, says Gutam, not everyone will benefit, as access might be restricted to only those affiliated with institutes or libraries.

“We are not sure how the modalities will be worked out. Will the publishers make available all the articles published by Indian researchers or scholars? What about the articles or journals which are not subscribed?” asks Gutam. Negotiations with various consortia are not public and we need to see how the publishers respond to this plan, he adds. 

Subscription payments also do not resolve the issues of copyright, which publishers continue to hold. E Arunan, member of the editorial team of the journal Current Science, says countries in Europe and the US have negotiated with publishers to ensure that researchers hold the copyright. India has not done this. “In a way, we are carrying out research using public funds and then transferring the copyright to private publishers,” he adds.

Arunan also points out that most international journals use cheap manpower in India to proof and publish their journal and make profits but Indians still cannot access the journal. 

In a way, options such as Plan S and the nation-wide subscription policy worsen inequal ities between scholars from developing and developed countries and between researchers from rich and poor universities. Clearly, better models are needed to ensure open access to research.

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