Open Access (16) A Systems Approach to Open Access Journals and Author Publication Charges

29 July, 2019

Many of the problems around Open Access Journals (OAJ) and author publication charges (APC) have to do with the overall health of the science system itself. At a very simplified level think of publishing as a process in which a produce (paper) is intended to be consumed (reader), as part of the knowledge distribution system that drives science and its uses. The journal is just an intermediate produce in this process, a process that has labor costs and ancillary costs of production and distribution above the considerable costs that went into the research itself. The promise of the Internet, with respect to knowledge distribution and access is to reduce the ancillary costs of production and distribution.

Taking a piecemeal view of problems faced by the knowledge distribution system may be using the wrong lens. A piecemeal approach here tends to obscure systemic issues, similar to the problems that piecemeal approach poses in viewing population health. A significant part of the problem has to do with the labor involved around the transformation of a submission into a published article. The labor demands at that level (editing, reviewing, assembling, etc.) are undervalued by both institutions and by funders, resulting in more and more of that being “offloaded” to the commercial publishers who, while enjoying to profits of their strategic positions as “lead journals”, incur costs that in previous eras were provided pro bono by academics and researchers.

Focusing on funding and job security (tenure and promotion- T&P), while some funders underwrite APC linked to the production of specific articles (and for specific publishers?), they seldom underwrite time spend working on journal production, and in part as a result, institutions (universities, research centers) are reluctant to contribute pro bono facilities (office space, etc.) and -more seriously- are reluctant to give any T&P/career advancement credit for such work.

It is applauded when a senior academic or researcher takes over the editorship of a lead journal. It is career destroying with a young researcher puts time into journal development. This is particularly damaging to the development of new journals in and by academics and researchers from low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). The resume credit received for an article in a lead European or North American, with the research focus shaped by the intended journal, is considerable compared to an article backed by equal rigor, and more in tune with the local context (relevance and promise) published in a regional LMIC journal.

The principle being ignored is quite simple. On my farm if I want young trees to grow better and produce more fruit, I nurture the young trees with more nutrients (fertilizer and water). I don’t simply give it to the older trees and hope the younger trees will thrive to eventually become entitled old trees.

Sam Lanfranco

HIFA profile: Sam Lanfranco is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. . He was formerly chair of the Canadian Society for International Health, and runs the health promotion list CLICK4HP. Lanfran AT