Offline: The scramble for science

Almost every day I receive an email from an academic publisher of scientific journals (not The Lancet‘s publisher, Elsevier, I might add) inviting me to contribute to one of their open access titles. The promises are extravagant. Becoming a guest editor of a special collection of at least ten gold open access papers will advance my career and demonstrate my leadership; make a meaningful impact; give me invaluable editorial and organizational experience; and grow my research networks. All the publisher asks is that I identify potential contributors in advance. I can submit two of my own papers. There will be an article processing charge (APC), of course. In some invitations, the charge is clearly specified and I am warned that I must agree to pay the APC before I submit my paper. The publisher has a higher view of my abilities than I deserve. In recent days I have received requests to submit papers on cell transplantation, child and adolescent addictions, allergy and immunology, health services, men’s health, clinical oncology, and Alzheimer’s disease. This scramble for research papers comes at a good moment. Recently released US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) guidance requires the results of taxpayer-supported research to be made immediately available to the public at no cost. All US agencies must fully implement this instruction no later than Dec 31, 2025. Dr Alondra Nelson, head of OSTP, commented that: “When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.” The OSTP guidance has been widely welcomed.

Audrey Smith and colleagues from the University of Florida reported last year a study of more than 37,000 articles from Elsevier’s “mirror journal” system. In this arrangement, a parent hybrid journal has a gold open access mirror. When the two journals—one open access, one not—were compared, the geographical diversity of authors was significantly lower for open access papers. Authors of open access papers came mostly from high-income countries. The Florida team concludes that, “Our results for Elsevier’s Mirror-Parent system are consistent with the hypothesis that APCs [article processing charges] are a barrier to open access publication for scientists in the Global South”. Publishers will argue that they operate waivers for authors unable to pay the APC. At Lancet journals, we regularly agree APC waivers. But Smith and colleagues note that in their study waivers were clearly failing to encourage submissions from authors in lower-income settings. The message of this work is that open access—and open science more widely—may not be entirely cost free, despite the best efforts of publishers. Open science is supposed to initiate a new era of efficiency, quality, innovation, knowledge transfer, public engagement, and global collaboration. But while open access publishing may be a boon to some scientists, it seems to be closing the door to others.

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What the deluge of invitations to publish in open access journals suggests is that science publishing is undergoing a startling culture change—from one driven by quality to one driven by quantity. The calculus for publishers is straightforward: the larger the number of papers published, the higher the revenue. In an era when the subscription model is atrophying, a replacement revenue stream will come from APCs. The new incentive for some publishers will be to persuade their editors to accept and publish more papers, but not necessarily better papers. This change in culture and incentives is not insignificant. It is actually historic. The entire foundation for the integrity of the scientific record is shifting. Some open science advocates have recognized the danger and warned of adverse consequences. Writing in Nature earlier this year, Tony Ross-Hellauer wrote about the “unintended consequences” of open science. He cautioned that open science could create conditions where “the advantages of those who are already privileged will grow, especially given that they have the most influence over how open science is implemented”. A change in science publishing culture from value to volume, driven by the motive to protect revenues, risks jeopardizing the very purpose of science publishing itself. Quality is under threat. Equity is under threat. Publishers must ask themselves the question: what do they stand for? And market share is not the only answer to that question.

University of Florida, Tampa, Florida (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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