It’s an open secret that scientific publishing is a broken system. Publication lists play a large role in tenure decisions and other pathways to career advancement in the sciences, but high-impact, peer-reviewed journals—the gold standard in these fields—present barriers to entry. Simply accessing published research is one such barrier, exemplified by a 2013 paper about a human right to science that is currently behind a paywall.
In response, scientists have pushed for research to be open access, or available without a paywall. But even open access research has its drawbacks: to recoup the lost profits from a paywall, journals will charge scientists submission fees, or article processing charges.
An editorial published Sunday in the journal BMJ Global Health argues that these fees are particularly harmful to researchers in Africa, where research is already underfunded and where fewer people are full-time scientists than in high-income countries. Scientists in Africa end up paying out of pocket to submit their research, which causes an unnecessary bottleneck and ends up stalling scientific advances.
“We really appreciate open access because not many Africans can pay to access these articles, but I think there should be consideration to reduce the profit margin of these journals,” said Juliet Nabyonga-Orem, first author of the paper and a scientist at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa who said she does not speak for the organization. “Is it fair to make that much profit, or should we give more concession to African scientists?”
Ironically, BMJ Global Health is itself an open access journal that charges an article processing fee of 3,000 pound sterlings ($3,841 USD), though Nabyonga-Orem said that the editorial was commissioned and thus free to submit.
Nabyonga-Orem and her co-authors aren’t strangers to article processing fees. The editorial came out of conversations and personal experiences of paying out of pocket to submit research articles to open access journals, she said.
Many scientists at Western institutions rely on funding from their program or external grants to cover these fees, but researchers in Africa often don’t have these funding sources. According to a 2018 WHO analysis, African countries received only 0.65% of global research funding in 2016. Even then, Nabyonga-Orem said, there’s a mismatch between the governments and research institutions that receive funding and individual researchers who have to pay the journals.
Fee waivers for article processing charges are available but arbitrarily decided by individual journals, and many waiver policies are based on the per capita income of a country. In the editorial, Nabyonga-Orem and her co-authors argue that these policies should instead be based on the salaries of individual scientists.
“I think these journals haven't appreciated the circumstances under which African researchers work,” Nabyonga-Orem said. A country may be classified as middle income but may not allocate sufficient funding to science research, for example.
“Investment in research in Africa is so meager—that's why even our researchers have to do consultancies and many other jobs to keep going,” she added.
While article processing charges aren’t new phenomena, Nabyonga-Orem said that the need for a solution is “urgent.” With all the talk of increasing innovation in Africa, waiving these submission fees are a straightforward way to make a career in research and innovation more economically feasible, she said. And the current pandemic has provided additional impetus for action.
“I think we can learn from the Ebola response—how few articles had Africans as the first or last authors,” she said. “This time around, I'm on the response teams of some countries, and I know the efforts they have made, but we don't see so much coming out in publications because the question for many researchers is, 'How am I going to pay the article processing charges?’”