This post is one in a series about the Libraries open access (OA) principles, as outlined in Towards Open Access at the University of Minnesota (z.umn.edu/TowardsOA). The Senate Library Committee (SLC) issued a statement of support in November 2021 and a number of Senate Committees have endorsed the SLC’s statement.
The United Nations has stated that information literacy—the ability to find, evaluate, and use information effectively—”is a basic human right.” Unfortunately, the current scholarly publishing environment reinforces existing structural inequalities by perpetuating restrictive access to and engagement in scholarship.
Open access (OA) reduces these inequities, enabling researchers, students, and the public to come together in a broad dialogue. One of the Libraries’ OA principles states: “We prioritize open access publishing models through collection development strategies that are open, equitable, transparent, and sustainable.” Specifically, we support models that:
- Align with our commitment to equity and diversity, including an imperative to ensure publicly funded research is made openly available to all members of the public.
- Provide equitable opportunities for all authors to publish and read scholarly literature, regardless of institutional affiliation, funding status, or discipline.
These principles also reflect the Libraries’ approach to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, specifically the definition of equity and the importance of this work:
- Equity is social justice, and the fair treatment of individuals, based on their individual and diverse needs, viewed through the lens of historical power structures and social norms.
- Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are values we hold deeply at the Libraries. Yet we acknowledge that simply believing in these values is not enough to create change. It is only through our collective action toward a shared vision for a better future that substantive change will be realized.
But why have we explicitly stated these aims in our OA principles and what are we doing, or not doing, to achieve them?
OA publishing models
Authors can make their work open in many ways. However, many publishers use article processing charges (APCs) to make an article open in a fully open access journal* or a “hybrid” journal (in which some content remains subscription-only but authors can pay a fee to make their article open).
APCs were originally introduced as a way to transition a journal from a subscription-based model to full OA or to support new fully OA publications. Over the last 20 years APCs have proved popular for publishers, with the largest scholarly publishers offering hybrid OA for many, if not most, of their journals. However, instead of supporting a transition from closed to full OA, hybrid journals have remained hybrid journals.
In 2018, a group of funding organizations joined together to push for a faster transition to OA. Plan S funders haven’t stated outright that they are aiming to transform the system into one in which authors or their institution will pay for an APC for every article published, but, since no clear path to a fully OA future has been defined by publishers, funders, or institutions, this seems like the likely outcome.
The inherent inequities of pay-to-publish
In a world in which all publishing requires a fee, authors whose institution can afford agreements will be able to publish the journals of their choice, but authors whose institutions are unable (or unwilling) to participate in agreements will have reduced publishing options, unless they are able to find money to pay an APC. This would be a system directly opposed to the Libraries’ belief that publishing models should “provide equitable opportunities for all authors to publish and read scholarly literature, regardless of institutional affiliation, funding status, or discipline” and prevents the University from fully engaging with our mission to serve a diverse community by limiting whose voices can be part of the conversation.
APCs are inherently inequitable—although many funding bodies allow funds to be used to pay them, not all researchers have funding and publishing fees reduce the amount of grant funding available for conducting research. And APCs are often out of reach for authors who would need to pay out of their own pocket.
APCs can vary wildly—up to $11,690 for one journal in 2023. These fees are challenging, and in many cases, simply impossible:
- In a survey of clinical and research fellows, more than 86% of respondents said that APCs were a barrier to publishing OA, with many of these reporting that they could not pay an APC because they lacked funding.
- In 2019, Debat and Babini estimated the number of months of minimum wage salary needed for an author to pay an APC. For South American countries, they ranged from 3,000 months in Venezuela to 6.7 in Ecuador. Even in high income countries, like the UK and Germany, one APC would take 1.8 months.
Many publishers publicize that they provide waivers to authors who cannot afford to pay an APC. These are sometimes promoted as “automatic waivers,” which often waive the fee for authors from low income countries or provide an automatic discount for authors from lower-middle-income countries. However, the waiver option is not automatic in practice—to receive a waiver, the author has to know that the program exists and must request one. A discount is often not enough, and authors from upper-middle-income economies like Brazil or authors from high income countries like the US must ask for individual waivers, which publishers can deny for any reason.
Where does this leave the University of Minnesota?
The Libraries are participating in a few agreements, primarily through the Big Ten Academic Alliance, in which a lump sum is paid to the publisher to cover OA publication of all articles with a UMN (or other BTAA institution) corresponding author. With these, we are increasing the amount of UMN-created knowledge that is available for everyone to read. This helps us meet the University’s mission to share the knowledge we create with the people of the state, nation, and world. However, we recognize that these agreements are not entirely aligned with our priorities and values because they privilege the voices of UMN authors and in the long term may create a reality in which only authors with funding will have a voice in the scholarly conversation. There is not currently an OA model that meets all our priorities and values, and can be adopted by all publishers. So, we continue to evaluate open access models and work directly with publishers to develop models that will lead to a true and equitable transformation of the publishing system.
*There are many fully open access journals that do not charge fees. The Directory of Open Access Journals indexes more than 18,000 journals, more than 65% of which do not charge authors APCs. All of UMN Libraries Publishing’s journals are author-fee-free.