a blog about philosophy in public affairs

More Open Access, More Inequality in the Academia

For many political philosophers, the beginning of 2024 has turned out to be – in one respect – rather disconcerting, as it ushers in the widespread boycott of one of the community’s leading publications. Many readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with the unfolding situation. In April 2023, Wiley decided to remove Robert Goodin from his position as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Political Philosophy at the end of the year. This in turn led to swift resignations from the Editorial Board of the journal, and a statement of non-cooperation signed by more than a thousand political philosophers, pledging not to submit or review papers for the journal, or to join its editorial ranks, unless Goodin is reinstated. Since this has not happened, with JPP’s website not indicating any editorial composition as of the moment when this article was published, the boycott is now in effect. The likely demise of the Journal of Political Philosophy as a consequence of these developments is profoundly distressing. But the wider context which led to it is even more worrying, not only for political philosophers and not only in regard to research quality, but also in regard to the deepening of academic inequality in both philosophy and many other research fields as well.

One of the seminars that I teach in my undergraduate class on Academic Ethics concerns the topic of open science. At some point in the seminar I usually ask students a fairly simple question: do you think that it is ethically problematic to use platforms such as Sci-Hub in order to access a scientific article, if you would need it for writing a term paper? The assumption is that the article is behind a prohibitively expensive paywall and the university does not provide institutional access to it. Almost universally, the answer is that this would be ethically problematic, with the most common reason offered being that it would wrong the author of the article, since in this way she would not receive the money she is owed for her creation. I then proceed to explain the actual way in which academic publications work, at the end of which I am usually met with a mixture of surprise and confusion. How is it, students will often inquire, that huge sums of money are involved in the publishing process, but none of it goes to the creator of the scientific work, nor (in almost all cases) to experts putting in their effort in evaluating and improving the content, as editors and reviewers? In any case, once they understand the details involved in the process, most students will usually change their initial response, and maintain that there is, in fact, nothing ethically wrong with using such platforms.

Open access (OA) of all scientific research would, of course, neutralize any ethical dilemma one might perceive when confronted with the question above. It is, moreover, a worthwhile ideal and one that would be welcomed by an overwhelming majority of researchers, since one of their goals is precisely to get their works widely read (and, preferably, cited). But like other worthwhile ideals, open access has been hijacked and repurposed in order to benefit a handful of powerful actors that have largely oligopolized the publishing industry.

The standard model used in academic publishing has for a long time been subscription-based, whereby universities, research institutions, or libraries would pay in order to procure access to a journal issue (either in print or online) for members of the respective institution. Since the price for institutional subscriptions was and is very expensive (as this decade-old complaint about affordability from Harvard University suggests), the system raises major concerns in regard to unfairness towards poorer institutions, which cannot provide their members with access to works that are vital for their own research enterprises. However, the reality is that in the past decade this inequality in access has been to a large (albeit not full) extent circumvented de facto through the usage of platforms such as Sci-Hub and others, by researchers who find themselves in circumstances lacking institutional access to scientific works. The existence of such platforms did not, to be sure, put much of a dent on the profits of the publishing industry who in 2019 reported revenues of 28 billion US$, on par with the entire international music industry, with a big part of it constituting the profit of the companies. To take just one example, an earlier assessment of Elsevier’s revenues in 2010 showed that it had a “36% [profit] margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year”.

Not content with such booming profits, major players in the industry are now in the midst of a new lucrative push, towards open access publishing. OA is implemented in two ways. The first is through Article Processing Charges (APC), whereby the author is required to pay a hefty sum of money in order for their article to be published. A quick glance over Springer’s price list for OA can paint a general picture. Out of the almost 700 journals listed, none has an OA price below 1,000 US$ with the majority ranging between 2,000 and 4,000 and some going as high as over 6,000 US$. Consequently, not only are authors not directly gaining any money from their published intellectual creation (to be clear, there are a variety of reasons why this may be in fact unobjectionable), but under the OA system they are both providing content that publishers make profit from, and are required to pay exorbitant sums of money in addition. But this is not the case for everyone. There is an alternative path to publishing in an open access regime, through so-called “transformative agreements”, whereby deals between publishers and usually a national consortium of libraries allow for researchers based in (some) of the institutions in that country to be exempt from paying APCs, with the annual fees involved being negotiated between publishers and research institutions and ordinarily not disclosed. Unsurprisingly, however, these agreements tend to be concluded between publishers and institutional consortiums from rich countries that can afford the fees, as shown by Wiley’s list of OA deals, which includes almost exclusively OECD members.

For reasons that I will touch upon below, creating this two-tiered system dividing the academic haves from the have nots in the publication process is already deeply problematic. But the current drive is towards an even more radical state of affairs, which envisions all journals to become fully open access in the near future. In turn, this would mean that all authors would have to pay APCs, be exempt from them, or benefit from transformative agreements. This goal is pursued through what are currently called transformative journals, meaning journals that have committed to become fully OA and that will work towards progressively increasing the percentage of OA articles each year, becoming fully OA at the latest once they reach a 75% threshold. That a process to remodel the publication market in pursuit of this aim is unfolding is quite clear; for instance, as one leading publisher announces, “Springer Nature committed to the majority of its owned journals becoming Transformative Journals from 2021”.

Surely, stamping these journals and agreements with the “transformative” label might give rise to a bit of a misnomer in this context. Though to be fair, they are “transformative”, insofar as (public) resources are being transformed into private profits for companies that contribute marginally to the product from which they benefit. But otherwise, it is no more than a thin veil seeking to disguise an ever more rapacious practice, detrimental to many of those who are actually core contributors to those products, as well as to scientific inquiry more generally.

It is not difficult to surmise from the very nature of these transformative journals, that the incentives of publishers are no longer fundamentally related to having high-quality journals, as was normally the case with the traditional subscription-based model, but rather to maximize the number of articles accepted, since each article increases profits – directly, through APCs, or indirectly through a stronger negotiation position for transformative agreements. Furthermore, this is not the case with transformative journals alone, but with hybrid ones as well, as most political philosophy journals currently are.

While not explicitly identifying this as the reason behind Wiley’s actions, in a discussion about the current situation, Goodin has highlighted that precisely this sort of mechanism is now widely at work in the publishing industry, with more and more pressure being exerted on editors to increase the number of articles accepted. In an often referenced comment on the original Daily Nous post announcing Goodin’s removal, Anna Stilz further stated that in respect to Philosophy and Public Affairs (arguably, the other of the two most prestigious journals focused on political philosophy alongside JPP), Wiley had asked that they increase their acceptance rate tenfold(!) Of course, while Goodin and Stilz as well as the editorial boards of these journals are at the very top of academia (with the JPP – Goodin association in particular being unparalleled in the field of political philosophy), many other less-established editors might be unable to withstand pressures of this kind and be ultimately compelled to either massively increase the number of published articles and/or go down the pernicious “transformative” route.

The most obvious problem with this drive is perhaps the qualitative one, which Goodin has already discussed to some extent in the same interview referenced. But, as mentioned in the introductory paragraph, it also raises the prospect of deepening the already existing unfairness of the international research system. There are multiple reasons for this, but I will limit myself to just some of which I take to be among the most salient.  

First, with fully open access journals, every researcher who does not belong to one of the rich institutional consortiums affording transformative agreements will face additional obstacles to publish their work (on top of other comparative disadvantages they are normally faced with). As illustrated above, the cost of an APC is prohibitive for an ordinary researcher. To give an example, if the average APC charged for fully OA journals is between 1,371 US$ and 2,000$, as one recent study shows, even the lower figure would considerably exceed the entire monthly net salary of a mid-level faculty member in a top Romanian university. Publishing your work in such circumstances is simply a non-starter. It is true that publishers offer some waivers and discounts. As Wiley states, “For authors publishing in Wiley’s fully gold open access journals, Wiley offers waivers and discounts to corresponding authors based in low- and lower middle-income countries and locations”. Some of these waivers are automatic and apply exclusively to researchers residing in low-income countries, who must ask for them during the submission of the article. Others are automatic discounts of 50%, applied to presumably lower middle-income countries. But on the one hand, there are very good reasons to doubt that such discounts can be effective. How likely is it that a researcher from, say, Iraq or Bosnia & Herzegovina, will afford to pay around 1,000 US$ to have an article published? On the other hand, the division of countries will most likely be quite arbitrary. To exemplify with the Wiley list, if you are based in the Republic of Moldova you are fully exempt from paying, while if you are based in Sri Lanka, a country with a lower GDP/capita, you only qualify for a discount. Many other countries, which are in no way economic high performers and would likely not be able to carry the burden of transformative agreements are completely absent from these lists. There are also hand-waving statements, such that “some journals may offer additional waiver initiatives for APCs”, but the actual circumstances in which such discretionary waivers would be applicable are broadly opaque (not to single out Wiley, this is also the case with other major publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, and Taylor & Francis). Aside from the arbitrariness and the discouraging effects that these policies engender, there is also a relational concern here, in that publishers of fully OA journals are basically requiring that those, and only those, who do not fall under the umbrella of transformative agreements to prove that they are – to put it somewhat metaphorically – downtrodden enough that the publisher can mercifully make an exception in their case and accept to help them, by not requiring them to pay anything or perhaps by asking for only half the regular fee (if they are assessed to be only somewhat, but not entirely, downtrodden).

To be clear, for a researcher based in a country that is outside of the transformative agreements bubble, but is not on the list of automatic waivers, there may sometimes be options aside from paying APCs out of their own pocket. One is that they can use grant-funding to cover APC costs. But since obtaining even national (let alone international) research grants is usually a very difficult task with a low probability of success, and logistical issues may complicate accessing those funds to begin with (say, if the grant period ended before the article is accepted), this might not be a fruitful path. Another is that universities or research institutions can cover APC costs on a case-by-case basis. Many universities are striving to cope with such efforts, but the reality is that budget constraints will often make this an unsustainable venture. Furthermore, in both the grant-funding and the university-funding cases, scarce resources that are likely more valuable for these universities compared to ones from more developed countries, are squandered away on APC fees into the coffers of publishers, when they could be put to much better use in providing better conditions for students, better infrastructure, a better functioning research environment etc. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to maintain universities that are not part of the 5-10% richest countries at a competitive international level, let alone allowing them to work towards reducing gaps in academic performance.

Finally, the problem of deepening unfairness does not arise solely in the case of fully OA journals, or in the case of a near-future where most publications would be OA. Even today’s dominant hybrid model raises serious concerns, since some have the privilege to publish open access effortlessly, while others do not – and, with hybrid journals, there are no waivers or discounts offered by major publishers. But as these publishers make clear, articles published in an open access regime fare much better on metrics that are fundamentally important for researchers, with Wiley reporting, for example, that they have 4.3 times more views than non-OA articles, and are cited almost twice as much. Especially in a context where the need for a more diverse array of voices is frequently underscored in academic discourse (and rightfully so), these practices effectively work as instruments for crowding out such voices to an even greater extent.

There are various reasons why the academic landscape is inequitable across countries. Some have to do with (the lack of) access to research infrastructure, some with (differential) opportunities for international mobility, some with the (non-)existence of peer communities, some with problems of linguistic injustice, and many others. The playing field is therefore already very uneven at the international level. The way in which open access is currently being pursued serves to further those inequalities, while the drive towards fully open access, if successful, has the potential to create a genuinely segregated research community between the rich and everyone else.

While I do not advocate for any particular solution here, it is important that this conversation is taken up and in a serious manner, perhaps most importantly by those who will not experience the negative consequences of these developments as much, i.e. those that are in stable positions under the umbrella of transformative agreements. And these conversations are indeed starting to take place, with one notable example being this upcoming online event, headed by Chiara Lisciandra, which is scheduled to take place on the 17th of January. More substantially, there are various directions and measures that can be pursued from fairly simple and highly feasible ones – such as the boycott of transformative journals – to much more complex ones, such as a collective effort to wrest back control of academic publishing by universities or professional associations, or through (peer-reviewed) repositories, especially as the technical costs involved in the publishing process may decrease significantly with the deployment of AI tools and the widespread abandonment of printed issues. In any case, these alternatives too should be judged both in respect to their propensity to enable high-quality research, as well as to their impact on inequality in academia at the global level. But regardless of the substantive measures, the conversation itself is urgent and essential for the future of research.

Alexandru Volacu

Alexandru Volacu is an Associate Professor at the University of Bucharest and Director of the Bucharest Center for Political Theory. His research interests mainly revolve around several topics: the ethics of voting, theories of justice, and the ideal/non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you for the interesting article Alex! I agree that it’s a very important topic for academics and share your concern with inequality.

    Would you agree that it is ethically problematic, under present conditions, for academics who can afford it but also have the option not to do it, to pay for open access?

    • Alex Volacu

      Hi Pierre-Etienne,

      Thanks. This is a difficult question and I wouldn’t say I have a good answer. I’m assuming the following three conditions hold: (1) to have the article OA is not required by the institution or grant agency, (2) the journal is not fully OA and publishes non-OA articles, and (3) OA can be funded if the author wants. On the one hand, there is something valuable about having the article OA, there’s no doubt about that. For example, OnlineFirst articles that have not been assigned to an issue yet, especially very recent ones, are not usually available through Sci-Hub-types of platforms. So if you don’t have good institutional access to databases you won’t be able to get them in this way (this is, for example, my case as you’ve recently experienced). On the other hand, paying to publish OA is what drives the behaviour of publishers in the direction discussed in the article, with the problems mentioned. Perhaps it’s a little bit akin to what some might say is the problem with charitable giving – you are making a valuable contribution to the lives of some on the one hand, but are at the same perpetuating a system that is overall problematic. In any case, I think in this particular situation I wouldn’t put too much of the moral burden on individual action (though it’s philosophically interesting), but rather on the system itself and how we can engage in collective action to develop more appropriate institutions.

      • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

        Thanks for the reply! Given the option to make an author version open access on a personal webpage, I’m not sure that paying for open access can be justified on altruistic grounds (making research results available to everyone). Maybe we should recognize a responsibility to avoid being complicit in this admittedly structural injustice.

        • Alex Volacu

          If the author can post a copy of the final manuscript, as it appears in the journal, in a repository or her personal page, then I’d say there’s no downside at all to not publishing OA. But if it’s just a pre-proofed version, then there would still be some inconvenience (though perhaps not that difficult to offset) for researchers that do not have access to the journal, since in order to make use of you’d need access to the final phrasing and page numbers. But this is just one fairly minor consideration (and targeting only people involved in doing research in that area) in the overall picture, likely overriden by the much bigger problem of structural injustice.

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