Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Over a cup of coffee
Your study team has finally decided on an appropriate journal for your work. You are keen to ensure you reach the widest possible audience, but the article processing cost looks quite steep. You are having second thoughts and decide to discuss the merits of, and different options for open access, over a cup of coffee.
Purchasing power to the people
To understand purchasing power is to understand inequity in research access. In part 1, we described the Burundi audience test which can be used to evaluate your work’s audience and the relative cost of access to your article.
The test assumes you have an audience for your research in a low-income country. It then challenges you to consider the cost of access to your publication from the perspective of a researcher from that country. This is done by converting the actual article access cost into a hypothetical cost in pounds, where the pound has the same purchasing power as that of the low-income country’s currency.
The conversion is in fact a real number: the purchasing power parity index (PPPI). It is annually calculated and published by the World Bank. The index describes the adjustment required between the exchange rates of two currencies to make their purchasing power at par with each other.
A simple way to think about this definition is to consider the cost of a cup of coffee when on holiday, in say Burundi. If a cup of coffee in Burundi costs F2,200, it should cost 80p in England (considering an exchange rate of roughly £1=F2,750). But it doesn’t. It costs around £2.75 for a cup of coffee in England, an adjustment of about 3.4.
Although this means cheap coffee for your holiday in Burundi, it also means expensive coffee for a Burundian tourist in England – 3.4 times more expensive. Now, by applying the adjustment in reverse we can convert the actual cost of a cup of coffee into a hypothetical cost in pounds, so that the pound has the same purchasing power as that of the Burundian Franc – in other words you can experience the cost as if you were a Burundian buying a coffee in England. So, £2.75 multiplied by 3.4, which is £9.35 – which better be a decent cup of coffee.
Reluctantly paying full price
The principle of applying purchasing power in reverse can be used to evaluate the cost of participating in global academia as well. This includes conferences, article process costs and article access costs. Unless a waiver or a discount applies, researchers from low- and middle-income countries will struggle to keep up with the far stronger purchasing power of high-income countries’ currencies.
Most journals offer a waiver to low-income country researchers, and discounts to some middle-income country researchers, to cover article processing costs. But waivers and discounts for article access costs are not common. (Thomas – I was able to get a waiver to publish a global emergency care article via support from my medical school. It is worth asking if you are medical student what support is available)
In real terms journals (sort of) support the flow of research from low- and middle-income countries, but not the flow of research to low- and middle-income countries. This is often referred to in debates around decolonising academia. Helping research flow into low- and middle-income countries is something we should actively seek to help with.
Conference access is interesting, as most high-income country conferences will offer some sort of discount to prospective delegates from low- and middle-income countries. The trick is to apply a discount equal to, or greater than the PPPI adjustment, in order for delegates from low- and middle-income countries to benefit. A 50% discount on a cup of coffee for a Burundian delegate will hypothetically still cost £4.67. We can hopefully all agree that it is not really a discount, considering the high-income delegate only pays £2.75.
WHO’s got access
The Health Inter-Network Access to Research Initiative (or Hinari for short) programme, is a World Health Organization collaboration with almost 200 publishers, providing access to their collections in low- and lower-middle income countries since 2002.
Sadly there are many critisisms of the programme. Eligibility tends to be restricted to dedicated teaching or research settings, and individual access is governed by access codes. Arguably this is true for academic library access in high-income countries as well, however, the share of the population with access to tertiary education is also substantially higher in high-income countries.
It isn’t exactly free for all either. Despite low-cost schemes, it often still proves unaffordable to many institutions (courtesy of the PPPI). Although an incredible resource, it does not provide access on par with that experienced in high-income countries. Publishers tacitly acknowledged this when publications related to the Ebola virus, that predominantly affected West-Africa, were made open access during its 2014-16 outbreak.
It is also worth mentioning that the use of IP addresses to control access via geographic restrictions (like Netflix does) may have been a challenge back in 2002, but is certainly within the capability of publishers in 2021.
SciHub is often cited as an alternative route to access, despite the controversy surrounding its ethics. Arguably research funded by the public should be publicly accessible, but if said research is legally acquired by a publisher, and authors agreed to these terms on publication, then that publisher has a right to protect their product.
Seen as the Robin Hood of the academic world, SciHub works on a similar principle as sharing Netflix account details with a friend. It is referred to as a shadow library in the publishing world, which for some reason makes me think of Batman. SciHub acquires publications by using shared institutional library account detail, volunteered by users, which enables access to institutional subscriptions. It is telling that SciHub was developed in a middle-income country.
It is incredibly simple to use and has proven popular in all income settings. It has also been declared in breach of copyright law in many countries around the world. Lawsuits by publishers increasingly result in SciHub to be closed down; thus becoming an ever less reliable source of research access.
Opinions aside, there are legal alternatives to shadow libraries. Open Access Button (set up by medical students with a keen interest in global health) and Unpaywall are web-based applications with plug-ins for your favourite browsers. These applications make use of the vast repositories of green open access material to provide research legally. Ironically shadow libraries prove the point that accessible research is easier to cite. Having your article included in the SciHub library potentially doubles your citations.
Green, green access (including preprints)
Green open access ensures free access to research that would otherwise require an article access fee to access. Providing green open access is an author-level action, as it requires the author to self-archive a version of their article into a publically accessible repository.
This is where it starts to get a little complicated: the version that can be deposited into a repository is dependent on the publisher’s open access policy, which differs vastly between publishers. Thankfully we have Sherpa Romeo, an online resource that aggregates publisher open access policies on a journal-by-journal basis.
It can be both enlightening and disappointing reading your favourite journals’ open access policies. In some cases publishers will place an embargo on self-archiving for a period of time. This is necessary for some publishers who mainly make an income from subscriptions. Many top journals, like the Annals of Emergency Medicine, apply a zero-day embargo. So it turns out, as long as you choose the right journal, you can still have your cake and share it before it goes stale.
Preprint publication is a version of green open access where researchers publish preliminary scientific findings that have not been peer reviewed yet. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a greater awareness of preprint publication as a route to dissemination. Its main criticism is that the format gives a platform to everyone, including those with no intention of submitting their work for formal peer review. Most publishers support preprint publication prior to formal peer review.
Green open access provides a substantial departure from the typical paid access models. An article in a high impact journal, where access normally requires subscription or an access fee, can be made freely available to the public, without incurring a processing fee. What’s more, Google will find your free version. We recommend supporting journals that apply a zero-day embargo.
Opening up your work to a global audience through green open access not only serves your audience but your usage counts as well. The beneficiaries of open access appear to be the global audience that consume but rarely contribute to research, rather than the global audience that do contribute to research.
You’re no worse off citation-wise; and some sources suggest you’re better off. From an equitable global impact perspective, it is certainly worth the extra effort. Likely more than you currently consider it to be.