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Open Access and Equity


The theme of open access week 2021 is ‘It matters how we open knowledge: building structural equity’. This blog post considers issues of equity in scholarly publication and what steps stakeholders of open access publishing might take to address the structural inequalities that are part of the system.   


Open Access and Equity  

It is generally acknowledged within the many disciplines of academic research that open access is a good thing. Making research publications available to everyone regardless of their ability to pay has helped bring research to wider audiences, in turn leading to greater visibility of research findings and more citations for authors’ work (Breugelmans et al. 2018; Piwowar et al. 2018). The Budapest Initiative, one of the initiators of the open access movement, envisaged the removal of barriers as having the potential to “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich […] and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge”. But how far has this vision been realised? Has open access really removed barriers so that everyone is participating equally in current ‘common intellectual conversations’? 

Open access has undeniably made research publications more available to everyone, from scholars to the general public across the globe. A recent report found that more than half of all published academic articles had been made freely available through some form of open access (Science-Metrix Inc. 2018). Much progress has been made in terms of publishing research open access in Europe, and the advent of Plan S has provided a boost to the agenda as funders widely demand the products of funded research be made more openly accessible with the requirement of more permissive licences and zero embargoes on journal articles. Despite these gains, the goal of equity that was drifting closer has started to ebb further away as scholars from the Global South in particular have been negatively impacted by open access publishing practice. 

illustrative image for equity 

One of the major reasons behind this is the charging of APCs to publish research open access. Article processing charges (APCs) are levied by publishers to make journal articles immediately open access. Many of us know how costly this is- charges can range from £1,500 to £5,000 per article which makes publishing Gold open access prohibitive for many researchers. For those based in low and middle-income countries publishing in costly high ranking journals is often out of the question because there simply aren’t the financial resources to fund the APCs (Irfanullah 2020). Whilst universities in the UK have been able to negotiate ‘transformative’ deals with publishers which have provided more cost effective routes to publishing open access, institutions in the Global South have been excluded from these deals as journal subscription costs are unaffordable for them (independent scholars and researchers at smaller institutions are also excluded from benefiting from these deals). Locked out of publishing open access in reputable journals, it has been noted that these scholars do not have the same access or status in relation to knowledge creation that is afforded to their peers in more privileged institutions or parts of the world: they may be able to read open access journal articles but they cannot publish them, or if they do this is often in predatory journals which charge much lower publishing fees but engage in questionable publishing practices and offer low credibility for the published work (Dudley 2021).  Furthermore, a recent US based study by Olejniczak & Wilson (2020) found that authors more able to pay APCs tend to be male, employed at a prestigious university, STEM discipline, receiving research funding, and more advanced in their careers. Those with greater access to resources and more job security tend to participate more in APC open access publishing and therefore stand to derive the benefits thereof (e.g. greater discoverability of their research and increased citation rates). It thus appears that APCs contribute to the perpetuation of an unequal playing field in the world of scholarly publishing where better funded and wealthier disciplines, institutions, and countries “retain their privileged position at the top of the heap” (Mudditt, 2020). 

So what, if anything, can be done to address the unequal access to open access? 

illustrative image for justice

One response that has been made by some publishers is the waiving of article processing charges for authors from low income countries. Rockefeller University Press recently announced free Read-and-Publish for low income countries in 3 of its journals (UKSG 2021); Wiley, Springer Nature and BioMed Central, working with Research4Life, offer waivers for publishing in their Gold journals (the practice does not apply to hybrid journals). This appears to be a step in the right direction, and a recent study by Taubert et al. (2021) claims that it would be possible for publishers like Springer Nature to waive APCs for these countries “without much loss in revenue”. But whilst this removes some of the financial burden of publishing for the poorest countries this does not get rid of the problem of APCs for scholars elsewhere who cannot afford them, nor does it address the many ethical problems arising from the traditional academic publication model such as invisible and unremunerated labour set against the vast profits made by corporate publishers (see Pia et al. 2020).   

A solution is offered by open access journals that do not charge APCs to publish and are free to read. Known as Diamond open access, the model is flourishing in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and offers researchers the opportunity to make their work open access without having to pay for it. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 11,000 journals which do not charge authors fees for publishing their work open access. Whilst many of these journals are small, operated by societies or educational institutions, and often staffed by volunteers, they offer opportunities to disseminate research openly and without cost. More investment in these journals is desperately needed and cOAlition S has recently made a commitment to supporting Diamond journals over the next couple of years. With increased investment to make Diamond journals more sustainable, in time this model could provide a challenge to the large corporate publishers currently dominating the academic publishing landscape.  

Alongside alternative publishing models, what is needed for fairer scholarly publishing is real cultural change that goes beyond open access. For many years the work of scholars has been measured according to bibliometric indicators such as the journal impact factor which have equated the merit of publications with the journals in which they are published. Scholar and journal reputation have become intertwined- the ‘best’ journals publish the ‘best research’ and the ‘best’ scholars seek out the ‘best’ journals (usually with high APCs) to house their research. This has started to change with the advent of DORA (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment) which advises its signatories not to use journal-based metrics “as a measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. DORA shifts the assessment of research quality from journals to the articles themselves and to the use of alternative impact factors- it is the content of an article that has merit rather than publication metrics. Many international funders, universities and individuals have signed DORA (to date there are 20,481 signatories in 148 countries) and the University of Wolverhampton is one of them.  

All practices within the academic publication processes need to be considered for how they impact individuals and groups in order for greater equity to prevail in scholarly publishing. It is not just a matter of who has access to open access publishing, but who gets to publish their work, or who gets to participate on editorial boards and peer review. Many publishing organisations have been publicly committing themselves to equality, diversity and inclusion to address long standing inequalities experienced by women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and lack of diversity in the publishing industry, which is good news, but this sort of cultural change will take time, especially as many of these organisations don’t yet collect the data needed to monitor them (see Wu 2020).   

There is also the question of the accessibility of publications for people with disabilities. Whilst research may have been made open access and be free to read via digital platforms, the content itself may not be accessible to people who use screen readers, or those who have a physical disability. Open access may remove paywalls but to be fully open, barriers to access for people with disabilities also need to be removed (see Caplehorne and Watson 2020). Legislation has been brought in to address digital accessibility and publishers and universities alike are looking to address these barriers with reference to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. Although there is a long road ahead, the journey to equal access to open access is underway and everybody needs to play their part in creating research that is accessible for all.  

Despite the aforementioned issues, open access remains an ideal that those of us who work in scholarly communities should aspire to. Opening up research to as many people as possible has the potential to effect massive societal impact: publication practices in response to COVID-19 have shown us that not only can publishers cooperate for the greater good but also how vital open access has been in helping research to progress at speed during a crisis (see Rooryk 2020 and Kiley 2020). The impact of scholarly publishing can only be made greater if researchers from any background, any institution, or any part of the world have equal access to it. This may be an ideal, but as the last two years have shown us, where there’s a will there’s a way. 


Sarah Dar
Scholarly Communications Officer



Breugelmans, J.G., Roberge, G., Tippett, C., Durning, M., Brooke Struck, D. and Makanga, M.M. (2018) Scientific impact increases when researchers publish in open access and international collaboration: A bibliometric analysis on poverty-related disease papers. PLoS ONE 13(9): e0203156.  

Budapest Open Access Inititative (2002)  

Caplehorne, J. and Watson, B. (2020) Open or Ajar? And How We Blow The B****Y Doors Off! Open and Engaged: Inequities in Scholarly Communications, British Library. 25th November, 2020.  

cOAlition S (2021) Diamond unearthed: shining light on community-driven Open Access publishing.  

Dudley, R.G. (2021) The Changing Landscape of Open Access Publishing: Can Open Access Publishing Make the Scholarly World More Equitable and Productive?”, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication 9(1), p.eP2345. doi: 

Irfanullah, H. (2020) Ask the Community (and Chefs): How Can We Achieve Equitable Participation in Open Research? The Scholarly Kitchen, 21st October 2020.  

Kiley, R. (2020) Three lessons COVID-19 has taught us about Open Access publishing.  

Mudditt, A. (2020) Ask the Community (and Chefs): How Can We Achieve Equitable Participation in Open Research? The Scholarly Kitchen, 21st October 2020.  

Olejniczak, A.J. & Wilson, M.J. (2020) Who’s writing open access (OA) articles? Characteristics of OA authors at Ph.D.-granting institutions in the United States. Quantitative Science Studies (2020) 1 (4): 1429–1450.  

Pia, A.E., Batterbury, S., Joniak-Lüthi, A., LaFlamme, M., Wielander, G., Zerilli, F.M., Nolas, M., Schubert, J., Loubere, N., Franceschini, I., Walsh, C., Mora, A. &  Varvantakis, C. (2020). Labour of Love: An Open Access Manifesto for Freedom, Integrity, and Creativity in the Humanities and Interpretive Social Sciences. Commonplace.  

Piwowar H., Priem J., Larivière V., Alperin J.P., Matthias L., Norlander B., Farley A., West J., Haustein S. (2018) The state of OA: a large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. PeerJ 6:e4375 

Price, G. (2020) 11 Publishers of Scholarly Journals and Books Announce Commitment to Make Research Publishing More Inclusive and Diverse. Info Docket, 19th June 2020.  

Rooryk, J. (2020) Open Access lessons during Covid-19: No lockdown for research results!  

San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment  

Science-Metrix Inc. (2018) Analytical Support for Bibliometrics Indicators: Open access availability of scientific publications. 

Taubert, N., Bruns, A., Lenke, C. & Stone, G. (2021) Waiving article processing charges for least developed countries: a keystone of a large-scale open access transformation. Insights 34 (1): 1. DOI:  

UKSG (2021) Rockefeller University Press announces free Read-and-Publish for developing countries.  

Wu, K.J. (2020) Scientific Journals Commit to Diversity but Lack the Data. New York Times, 30th October, 2020.  


Photo credits 

Wokandapix from Pixabay 

RODNAE Productions from Pexels 


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