Report from Equity in Open Access workshop #3: Making waves in APC & waiver practice

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If you’ve been following OASPA’s work on increasing equity in open access then you may know that we’ve already convened conversations spanning >50 stakeholders from 27 different countries. OASPA is grateful to this breadth of participation across sessions #1 and #2 of our ongoing ‘Equity in Open Access’ workshop series.

What can we do to help right now?

Whether you love or loathe them, APCs (article processing charges) are now an increasingly common feature across many open access (OA) journals. A reading list that appears at the end of this post shows how evidence is mounting regarding the negative impact APCs are having on some authors being able to publish their research OA. This is despite the established system of waivers and discounts for APCs, and despite the emergence and growth of transformative agreements. 

Discussions at the first two Equity in OA workshops led OASPA (and our workshop partners at Information Power) to create a dedicated session on reducing barriers to participation within models relying on per-article payments. This meant putting aside thoughts about all other models and approaches, just for this workshop, and focussing on whether anything can be done to help in the short-term with APCs and waivers.

Workshop #3, held on 6th June 2023, was, therefore, a session where participants discussed draft principles intended to improve inclusion, maintain author dignity, and minimize author burdens in per-article payment systems in OA publishing. 

This Editorial in the BMJ from 2020 exposes how (medical) researchers can stand to forgo months’ worth of salaries to pay for even discounted APCs, saying that for researchers across Africa and other low- and middle-income countries “the stifling effect of APCs on publications must now be considered a crisis”. Meanwhile this 2023 analysis of publication trends in the DOAJ from 1987 to 2020 raises concerns about the APC approach (note the authors call it ‘gold OA’) and its potential to “silence researchers in lower income regions”. Among lots more information, the analysis demonstrates that authors in low-income countries accounted for just over 1% of DOAJ articles published in 2020. The paper also questions the effectiveness of APC waivers in achieving inclusion, calling for further examination of possible disadvantages to researchers in middle-income countries.  

So, borrowing from a helpful turn of phrase from one participant, in this workshop #3 rather than focusing on “what’s right”, we were examining “what we could do right now” to make APC-based OA publishing less exclusionary.

Image credit: Dimitri Wittmann

OASPA is grateful for the free-flowing and unfettered inputs from all workshop #3 participants who were mainly publishers (of a range of type and size), together with a few librarians, intermediaries and other stakeholders. 

The formal report arising from this workshop is authored by Information Power. What follows are OASPA’s thoughts and observations arising from the discussions in our Equity in Open Access workshop #3.

A matter of principles

Seven proposed principles of practice to increase equity in OA in a per-article-payment system were discussed. These were based on inputs from stakeholders in all habited continents of the globe and collected across: OASPA’s foundational OA-market work (2021 to 2023); work of OASPA’s Equity in OA working group (culminating in this briefing document) and ‘Equity in OA’ workshop #1 and workshop #2 held so far in 2023. 

Based on these detailed efforts and conversations, OASPA distilled down for workshop participants what we believed the global community most needed in order for APCs (and transformative and OA agreements rooted in APC logic) to function as a model that is viable and workable at scale, and for all people of all nations.

In their draft form, these proposed principles of practice covered:

  • Eligibility criteria for APC waivers
  • Automation in the application of APC waivers
  • APC-waiver policies extending across fully open access and hybrid journals*
  • Language, messaging and clarity around waivers
  • Tiered or differential pricing based on purchasing power*
  • Uncapped agreements allowing unlimited OA-publishing under the deal* 
  • Transparent reporting about APC-waivers that are granted. 

Strong consensus arose around the need for clarifying language, decoding policy and upfront submission-workflow-based messaging around eligibility for a waiver. There was also support for improving workflows to ‘minimize burden’ and ensure ‘author dignity’ (more on these later) and to use more automation/s, where possible.

*The principles with asterisks in the above list did not receive consensus support. The report from workshop #3 takes a look at the discussion around each principle in turn.

Semantic worries

A word that came up a few times in workshop #3 was dignity. Scripting (or revising) a waiver policy necessarily means deciding on eligibility criteria. The downstream effect of this often involves researchers having to ‘prove neediness’ in some way. Participants agreed this can sometimes be a huge task that feels demeaning. Assuring clarity of the policy, upfront, and maintaining dignity in the process were agreed to be important. Concepts in the draft principles around eligibility, automation, language and messaging were therefore thought to be crucial especially for avoiding author-facing processes that can feel humiliating. 

Clarity (about article charges and waivers) on journal/publisher websites seems a simple thing. But, in the workshop we uncovered the need for agreement, across the sector, about what basic terms like ‘being funded’ or ‘funded author’ versus ‘unfunded author’ mean. 

An institution can be well resourced, but an affiliated researcher from the humanities department at this ‘rich’ institution could still be ‘unfunded’ (i.e., have no funds to pay an APC). Equally, a researcher could be based in a resource-poor country at an institution with very limited resources, but may be receiving external funding for their research that includes an amount for APCs to support OA publishing, in which case a waiver would be inappropriate (and a discount of some kind may or may not be applicable).

In the workshop we therefore acknowledged that a discretionary waiver could be separate to a waiver given on geographic grounds (e.g., using World Bank or HINARI lists). Workflows also need to take into account cases where there are no per-article charges applicable for other reasons, such as the payment being covered under a separate agreement (e.g., with an institution under a Read & Publish deal). In all these cases we are talking about facilitating OA publications without (or with reduced) APCs. Multiple other situations additionally affect APCs, such as special rates stemming from society-membership or editor/reviewer status. So, participants felt we need some basics first, such as defining various terms including what a waiver even is.

Policy on waiver-eligibility matters hugely. Research4Life publishes this eligibility criteria for (free or discounted ‘read’) access to widen access for paywalled content in certain countries. The content is made available (on the basis of the Research4Life country lists) by some publishers. Certain publishers also use the same criteria (country lists) for enabling completely waived or discounted APCs. A revised version of country lists dictating eligibility for waived or discounted OA publishing was one suggestion coming out of the workshop. Thoughtful points were made on: 

  • The importance of clear objectives: is the eligibility policy being framed to redress past wrongs? Is the aim to selectively reach a group of people who are so small that there will be no/minimal effect on financial bottom lines? Is the goal to make things more inclusive for all authors in general? 
  • The complexity of attempting to drive up fairness using economic and geographic indicators. 
  • Variability of inputs: Indicators such as level of R&D spend are not measured for many countries. 

Extending eligibility for waivers beyond geographic conditions was seen as very important. An additional observation was how the industry is using countries as a basis for waiver and discounting policy simply because this makes things easier from a metadata perspective. In practice, the country of an authors’ residence is often not the optimal basis for waiver decisions. In a similar vein OASPA reflects that APC-discounting or waiving practice based on just one (most commonly the corresponding) authors’ affiliation is pragmatic, but not always optimal. 

Workflow woes

It was also agreed that the way in which waiver policy comes to life in the workflow matters. It is predominantly in publisher workflows that waiver policies are actually experienced – experienced by people. Validation and eligibility checks are, of course, relevant, but participants agreed that dignity, clarity and ease need to be goals of any workflows, particularly those that pertain to waivers. There was agreement that eligibility information should be available not just clearly on websites but within publishing workflows at various points, including, most importantly, the point of submission. 

Participants discussed how automation wouldn’t work where either requests for waivers or APC-free publication conditions did not meet specific criteria (whether based on country, institutional affiliation, society membership, being in a transformative agreement, and so on). So, while automation in the application of waivers was seen as a good thing, OASPA was cautioned that this principle needed to be more nuanced. 

Publishers are also dealing with what was described as ‘gaming’ from the researcher side – switching of author roles to avail of beneficial rates or waived APCs. Some felt this was understandable given the charges often involved and the wide variation in availability of funding across author groups. Others felt that growing author co-ordination to “abuse the system” [of discounts and waivers] alongside occurrence of other unpredictable edge-cases were reasons that some human-mediated approval processes would need to be retained. We also discussed honest error and lack of awareness of funds being available for APCs.

Distilling these concepts and considering variation in the ability for organizations to adopt automation(s), the participants in workshop #3 arrived at the conclusion that it is paramount for the principles behind automation to be the focus, rather than automation itself. Eligibility policy (and then the workflows that actualize these policies) should focus in the end on retaining dignity while minimizing burden – for researchers, and also for librarians/institutions and others.

One could argue that we should be minimizing the multiple burdens, as on the researcher side these can be emotional (embarrassment of needing to ask for a waiver that is effectively a handout; frustration at having to jump hoops to prove neediness and non-funded status) as well as being taxing on time and requiring administrative effort (e.g., hunting around publisher sites for knowledge of policy/eligibility, or hunting around the library for approval of funds).

Publishers needing to cater for edge cases also came up time and again in the workshop. This input, along with feedback about researchers ‘gaming’ the payment steps, highlighted to OASPA the sub-optimal nature of the current system where there is a lack of consistently usable metadata fields, and yet, a need to rely on workflows where every article needs to be financially validated. Moreover, with all the emphasis on minimizing burden(s) one wonders at publication processes that are so burdensome in the first place. 

Trust in the transition to OA for hybrid journals

Regarding the concept of extending APC waivers to hybrid titles, on the one hand we received supportive indications and publisher comments saying: “If we as an industry are trying to move to OA then waivers and discounts should apply to hybrid journals”. However, there was a strong opposing sentiment around the fact that hybrid journals’ transition timelines cannot and should not be forced. 

Some stakeholders (including some publishers) were also supportive of differential pricing, including pricing approaches that take exchange rates into account. Although pricing variations were seen as very important by certain stakeholders, many participants felt that currently, and in the absence of more data and information about tiered and geo-based pricing (based on indicators such as purchasing power parity), this was a difficult principle to discuss. 

Uncapped deals (allowing unlimited OA publishing under a transformative / Read & Publish agreement) were specifically identified by participants in earlier Equity in OA workshops as a helpful approach. These were seen as a way to reduce dependence on per-article charges, while increasing OA outputs to help drive forward the transition of hybrid journals. However, feedback in this workshop was that some publishers saw this as heading into the realms of having a business model dictated to them. Meanwhile, libraries reported an unwillingness to fund uncapped deals with larger publishers because of the high costs that are typically involved. 

These conversations highlighted the opportunity for publishers to build trust by demonstrating tangible commitments to a transition-process for hybrid titles, by being open about progress and challenges, or being transparent if hybrid publications are their desired end state.

New guidelines or standards for APC/waivers?

Following the detailed inputs received in workshop #3, the draft principles of APC and waiver practice will be revised. OASPA hopes to share these openly for much wider consultation and further refinement. We will then review where and how we use any finalized version.

OASPA will also consider its role in continuing to foster dialogue about APCs and waivers and standardizing language/definitions in this space. If relevant and needed, OASPA will encourage further development of the OA Switchboard to increase clarity on availability of waivers for OA publication (alongside the Switchboard’s ongoing support of information exchange between publishers, institutions and funders).

If you are, or you know, a publisher bucking the trend when it comes to waiver practice and APCs, then OASPA would love to hear more about it; please write to us (see email at the end of this piece or comment below).

What is missing, and where next?

One thing we were told our draft principles were missing was coverage of coordinated funding for OA publishing. We also heard that these principles, even when revised, would not go so far as to truly drive up equity in OA; what was needed was “a whole new system”. 

It’s a good thing that our next Equity in OA workshop examined prestige/perception issues in OA publishing and considered pathways to equitable and sustainable funding to enable OA publishing by and for all (without any researcher-facing fees). If you’d like to see the outputs of this next session please opt in to hearing about our Equity in OA work. 

If you’ve found this post interesting and it is the first OASPA Equity in OA piece you have seen then do have a look at these outputs from our Equity in OA work so far

OASPA remains interested in your thoughts and any questions and additional feedback on our efforts to increase Equity in OA. It is the logistics of having a constructive conversation within one Zoom room that limit participant numbers in our workshop series. You are welcome to add  a comment to the very end of this post and/or email with any input.

Finally, the reading list and key points quoted below provides some evidence of the current issues, and serves as a reminder of why we dedicated time and effort to this workshop. 

Reading list – why does OASPA think it is important to change some practices in the APC payment system? 

Nine references and the key points within them pertaining to APCs and waivers appear below. These are studies, reports and analyses – not blogs, commentaries or editorials. 

1. April 2023: Missing a golden opportunity? Analysis of publication trends by income level in the Directory of Open Access Journals 1987–2020. Note that to the best of OASPA’s understanding, the authors are using “gold OA” throughout in a manner that is synonymous with APC-based OA.

Key points:

The gold open access model is disadvantageous to researchers outside of high-income countries. […]
In 2020, authors in low-income countries only accounted for just over 1% of articles published in DOAJ journals. […]
The gold open access model can exacerbate the monoculture of knowledge production […]
UMICs and LMICs have the lowest publication rates in gold open access journals. […]
APC waivers do not appear to increase the percentage of contributions from MICs. […]

Finally, these findings raise further questions about APC waivers. While it appears that LICs benefit from APC waivers, what would happen if these waivers are no longer available, for example, for geopolitical reasons?”

2. March 2023: The APC-barrier and its effect on stratification in open access publishing

Key points: 

In this study we investigated what we term the “APC-barrier,” finding that  higher institutional resourcing is associated with researchers publishing in journals with higher APCs. This linkage is nonlinear and heterogeneous across fields. Although our study has limitations regarding the measurements used, our findings suggest support for the hypothesis that author-facing charges in OA publishing present a barrier to publication and reduce the pool of knowledge that enters the scientific record.”

[…] well-funded research groups are better able to secure OA publications in prestigious journals with high APCs, leading to citation advantages and further funding down the line. We believe that this demonstrates the impact of APC pricing on the scholarly landscape and that these charges may have a chilling effect on opportunity and equality for researchers from less prestigious or less wealthy institutions.”

3. May 2022Should open access lead to closed research? The trends towards paying to perform research

Key points:

“Research publishing will be closed to those who cannot make an institution or project money payment. Our results lead to a discussion of whether APC is the best way to promote OA. […]

As the global expenditures on APC are probably exceeding 2 billion US dollars annually, it should be time to discuss whether the original aims of OA are supported by paying to publish as a business model.” 

4. Jan 2022: Dynamics of cumulative advantage and threats to equity in open science – a scoping review and a related article in Nature News by the same lead author in March 2022 Open science, done wrong, will compound inequities.

Key points:
A particularly pressing issue is open access (OA) publication fees, in which the benefit of free readership is being offset by new barriers to authorship. To support OA publishing, journals commonly charge authors, and charges are rising as the practice expands. My group and others have found that article-processing charges are creating a two-tier system, in which richer research teams publish more OA articles in the most prestigious journals.” 

5. December 2021Assessing the effect of article processing charges on the geographic diversity of authors using Elsevier’s “Mirror Journal” system

Key point: “Authors from the Global South are underrepresented in journals charging APCs.”

6. December 2020 – Who’s writing open access (OA) articles? Characteristics of OA authors at Ph.D.-granting institutions in the United States.

Key points:

“The results show, in general, that the likelihood for a scholar to author an APC OA article increases with male gender, employment at a prestigious institution (AAU member universities), association with a STEM discipline, greater federal research funding, and more advanced career stage (i.e., higher professorial rank). Participation in APC OA publishing appears to be skewed toward scholars with greater access to resources and job security.”

7. March 2020 – Open Access publishing practice in geochemistry: overview of current state and look to the future.

Key points:

“In the list of geochemistry journals where OA is available, 45 (90%) apply an APC, and five journals have a diamond OA option (i.e. no fee). This APC-dominated philosophy in geochemistry journals has created a complex system around OA. This broadly divides the research community into two groups, namely those that can afford to publish in OA journals, and especially in those that charge high APCs, and those that do not benefit from such financial funding and are imposed to publish behind a paywall.”

8. 2020 – Open Access: challenges and opportunities for Low- and Middle-Income Countries and the potential impact of UK policy This was a report commissioned by the UK Government and authored by INASP (International Network for International Network for Advancing Science and Policy). The work consulted 335 individuals representing 213 institutions in 52 countries.

Key points:

Northern-published journals are important for LMIC researchers but the costs of publishing in them are unaffordable. […]

Fee waivers can only ever be a short-term solution for LMICs, acting as a temporary fix to enable LMIC researchers to access Northern driven publishing systems, which do not work for LMIC research economies. […]

Fee waivers are often seen as ways of mitigating APCs in LMICs. Interview and focus group feedback suggested that waivers are a source of frustration and are not felt to work well. Waivers are reported to be poorly advertised and understood, the process for applying is felt to be confusing and time consuming and, for many, not worth the effort.”

9. Feb 2018 – Authorial and institutional stratification in open access publishing: the case of global health research

Key points:

“Authors working at lower-ranked universities are more likely to publish in   closed/paywalled outlets, and less likely to choose outlets that involve some sort of Article Processing Charge (APCs; gold or hybrid OA). Subscription journals create access problems in that not every institution can afford increasingly expensive subscriptions to all journals. In contrast, APCs run the danger of pricing out academics from being able to publish their work, especially those in developing countries or affiliated with less wealthy universities. Economic exclusion shifts from reading to publishing.” 

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