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TWAS Newsletter
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Q&A: Do global open-access policies need a revision?

Q&A: Do global open-access policies need a revision?

Behind its apparent democratic nature, the current open-access publishing method builds barriers that threaten science in developing countries, says Franco Cabrerizo, Chair of the TWAS Young Affiliates Network

Recently, the democratic idea that everybody should read, share and download online material for educational and scientific purposes has gained momentum. 

Access to knowledge and learning—as stated in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—is a basic human right. And access to scientific publications is a basic need for scientists, who can contribute to global knowledge only if they can learn from scientific publications.

Scientific publications, however, and their subscriptions, have always been expensive and not all scientists—especially early-career and researchers from developing countries—can afford to pay high fees.

When a movement called 'open access' emerged, in 1991, the idea of free sharing of scientific knowledge was received warmly. Unfortunately, to recover the publications’ costs, the publishers started charging the authors, invoking a need for an “article-processing, or article-publishing, charge”, or APC.

Clearly, such an open-access system, far from being equitable, penalizes scientists from the global South, whose salaries are often much lower than the fee requested to publish even one article.

A recent initiative has come from a group of young scientists who are members of TWAS Young Affiliates Network (TYAN) and the Argentinian Young Academy (AJA): they circulated a text on the need to eliminate the inequities that the APC system has introduced. More importantly, they gathered consensus from more than 30 national academies and institutions of young scientists worldwide*.

Franco Cabrerizo, a Professor at the National University of San Martín, in Argentina, and the Chair of TYAN, commented on the statement released by TYAN and AJA, last December, in a conversation with TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra.

Professor Cabrerizo, there are previous examples of open access statements, endorsed in Delhi, Granada, Berlin and Budapest. What is the added value of this particular TYAN-AJA joint initiative?

All the previous statements provide key contributions to the problem of open access and the lack of equitable access to scientific knowledge. They all emphasized the fact that technological progress could really open the door to a paradigm shift in publishing models, moving from the so-called closed access, or subscription access, to the free circulation and sharing of scientific articles and data. The Budapest declaration, for instance, stated that “Open access to peer-reviewed journal literature is the goal”, suggesting that “self-archiving and a new generation of open-access journals are the way to attain this goal.”

Over the years, a large number of online repositories and open-access journals have been launched, which represent an apparent achievement for the scientific community. However, the lack of regulations and concerted actions to address open access led the system to evolve in unforeseen directions.

Our initiative is built on all the previous statements and declarations, but it aims to give voice to early-career researchers, particularly those from developing countries, emphasizing the extremely high and, in most cases, unfair publication costs for authors. Our proactive approach strives to trigger concrete, coordinated and multilateral actions to better address this issue. Therefore we believe that the creation of a worldwide committee working under the umbrella of multilateral global academic institutions might have a positive impact.

The idea to establish an international committee that eases the dialogue among different stakeholders is a promising one. Will this body be effective enough in making everyone agree on a matter that has financial and political implications?

We believe that the creation of a worldwide committee working under the umbrella of multilateral global academic institutions might have a positive impact. Its lack of effectiveness is a risk to be taken into account, but there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions and the systematic appearance of new challenges forces us, in our turn, to explore new strategies like, precisely, an international committee. Its role would be even more decisive with researchers from developing countries.

The open-access model has both positive and less positive sides: what prevents it from being a completely positive option?

Open access is quite a complex matter, with offshoots at different levels. However, I think that the economic implications are the main obstacle to the implementation of this model, and the reason why it is still debated.

Do you have any personal experience with open-access publishing and its downside?

Biological and medical sciences are the areas most affected by the article-processing charges of the open-access model. In developing countries, the costs associated with the publication of scientific articles could impact between 35 and 130 per cent of the national research grants. I personally work in the field of chemistry, where the traditional reader-subscription model is still ongoing in a large number of well-recognized journals. Thus, at the moment, article-processing charges do not represent a barrier to sharing my research with the global community. In the near future, however, such a model might have a strong impact on other disciplines, putting at risk the ability to publish scientific research from developing countries in reputable journals.

Open access is a small aspect of the wider concept called open science: How do the two combine?

We are aware that the APC problem is not isolated and must be approached from a broader perspective, in particular within the framework of open science. In this sense, the committee that we propose should be able to work in multiple directions, with the dominant publishers and the smaller ones, and also to work with national academies and institutions to promote a change in the current paradigm of evaluation based on standardized metrics. All these actions might contribute to decreasing the impact of APC open access.

Cristina Serra


*The following is the list of the national academies and institutions of young scientists worldwide that endorsed the TYAN-AJA statement:

TWAS Young Affiliates Network (TYAN)
Academia Joven de Argentina (AJA)
Youth Innovation Promotion Association of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (YIPA CAS)
The RSE Young Academy of Scotland
Young Scientists Network - Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN-ASM)
Cameroon Academy of Young Scientists (CAYS)
National Young Academy of Bangladesh (NYAB)
Belgian Young Academy (Jonge Academie, JA)
The Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists (RSC SRC)
Burundi Council of Young Scientists
Sudanese academy of young scientists (SAYS)
National Academy of Young Scientists (NAYS) Pakistan
Thai Young Scientists Academy (TYSA)
The Global Young Academy (GYA)
Die Junge Akademie (Germany)
National Young Academy of Nepal (NaYAN)
Académie des Sciences pour les Jeunes en République Démocratique du Congo (ASJ-RDC)
Young Academy Finland
Nigerian Young Academy
Ghana Young Academy (GhYA)
The Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Jamaica (CASJ)
UNESCO-The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries (UNESCO-TWAS)
Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO)
Foro Latinoamericano sobre Evaluación Científica (FOLEC)
Izmir Institute of Technology
Women in Science Without Borders (WSWB)
Revista Argentina de Ciencias del Comportamiento (RACC)
Red de revistas científicas de Acceso Abierto no comercial propiedad de la academia (REDALYC)
Asociación Ibérica de Limnología (AIL)
Proyecto Primates Panamá
Ciencia en Panamá
Asociación Panameña para el Avance de la Ciencia (APANAC)
Asociación de Investigadoras e Investigadores del Uruguay (INVUY)