Thursday, April 19, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: Mahmoud Khalifa responds from Egypt

As I have previously reported, more and more countries in the global North are coming to the conclusion that if universal open access is to be achieved any time soon they are going to have to persuade or compel legacy scholarly publishers to convert all their subscription journals to gold OA, by means of a global “flip”.
Paywalls to Publication Walls?

This implies a future in which the pay-to-publish model will dominate. Instead of readers (or their institutions) paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors will have to pay to publish their own papers – by means of article-processing charges (APCs). Currently, APCs are around $3,000 a paper, although they can be both higher and lower than this.

The global flip strategy is being spearheaded by the Max-Planck-led OA2020 Initiative, and attempted in Europe by means of OA Big Deals. These are usually agreements negotiated with legacy publishers by national consortia of universities, with the aim of engineering a transition to OA by combining a large subscription payment for existing paywalled content with a large publishing payment to buy their researchers the right to publish their papers OA without having to pay APCs personally. 

It is intended that over time the OA component of these deals will grow to the point where all (or nearly all) new research is published open access, at which point it is assumed publishers will flip all their journals to an exclusively OA model.

This approach is gaining mindshare in the US too, and one of those advocating for it is Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. In a recent Q&A MacKie-Mason outlined why he thinks a global flip is the only practical way forward.

How practical?

However, not everyone agrees that a global flip is practical, or even desirable, not least researchers based outside Europe and North America. To get a sense of how this approach looks from the Middle East I asked Mahmoud Khalifa, a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office (and DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf) to comment on MacKie-Mason’s answers to my questions, which he does below. Khalifa is an OA advocate, but I think we can sum up his response to the global flip idea by quoting him thus: “I have a different point of view!”

Explaining his reasoning, Khalifa points out that under the current subscription model access to scholarly journals in Egypt is funded by local research institutions and/or governments, not by researchers themselves. By contrast, if authors want to publish their work open access they have to cover any costs incurred themselves. While having to find the money to pay APCs is a challenge for any author, for those based in the global South it is practically impossible, not least because of salary differentials. For instance, says Khalifa, a $2,000 APC is equivalent to six months’ pay for a professor in Egypt.

Khalifa speaks from the perspective of someone living in the Middle East. We can be confident that the situation is even bleaker for researchers in other parts of the global South.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) like Egypt could, of course, seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, and so take on the burden of paying the APCs for researchers. But how practical or likely is this? One could certainly imagine there would be political hurdles. It is bad enough that these countries currently have to pay extortionate sums of money to access research produced in the global North. To force them into a position where they have no choice but to pay the Northern-based publishing oligopoly thousands of dollars every time one of their researchers wants to publish a paper in an international journal is likely to to be viewed as discriminatory and retrograde.

Even if some LMICs did seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, it seems unlikely this would happen any time soon. Right now, the concept of an OA Big Deal does not even show up on the radar of journal licensing negotiators outside Europe and the US, far less the possibility of a mass conversion of subscription journals to OA. One Taiwanese researcher I contacted last year was intrigued when I told him that in Europe open access is being tied to Big Deal agreements. This was not an issue in the recent negotiations that Taiwan undertook with Elsevier, he said. The focus was entirely on licensing paywalled content.

One danger, therefore, is that a flip could take place without those in the global South being consulted, or the implications for them considered – it might simply be presented to them as a fait accompli.


Core to MacKie-Mason’s argument that a global flip is the only practical way forward is his assertion that there is already enough money in the system. It is simply a matter of redirecting money currently spent on subscriptions to pay for gold OA, he says.

This is striking given that one of the main reasons the OA movement took off was that the costs of scholarly communication had become unsustainable. The expectation was that OA would reduce costs, and so solve this affordability problem.

Certainly, this assertion needs to be questioned in the context of the global South. While LMICs do generally purchase some journal subscriptions, and so have some money in the system, this would be far from adequate for a publishing environment that was entirely pay-to-publish gold OA. It is because low-income countries cannot afford the costs of journal subscriptions that initiatives like Research4Life were introduced. (Subsidised by publishers and organisations like WHO, FAO, and UNEP, Research4Life provides no or low-cost access to subscription journals. We need to add that it is widely viewed as inadequate and unsustainable).

It is no surprise, therefore, that those researchers in the global South who have heard about the global flip idea view it with some trepidation. With little or no access to APC funding, they fear they would see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls. This would exclude most of them from publishing in international journals, at a time when their institutions are demanding that they do so.

True, some publishers offer APC waivers for researchers in LMICs. But the eligibility rules of such schemes tend to change without notice, or they are simply withdrawn. Many researchers in developing countries also regard them as demeaning.

More importantly, it is by no means universally agreed that a global flip would be financially neutral. In 2016, for instance, APLU’s David Shulenburger questioned this assumption in a paper called Substituting Article Processing Charges for Subscriptions: The Cure is Worse than the Disease. “The likely result of flipping the market to APCs is that the collective cost of scholarly communications would rise above the level that would prevail under the subscription-finances regime,” Shulenburger concluded.

Reasons to doubt

In short, there are serious reasons to doubt that a global flip would prove the solution its advocates claim it would, not just for those in the global South, but in the North too.

MacKie-Mason concedes that a global flip would present challenges for those in the developing world but adds that open access should not be expected to “remedy all inequities”. In any case, he argues, every paper made open access is an unmitigated good for the whole world, especially those in the global South.

I genuinely believe the global South will be better off with a well-executed gold OA system: will have access to *much* more published research (to read), and shouldn’t have any less overall access to publishing its own research.”
Region-specific OA?

But as the North rushes to agree OA Big Deals can we be certain that researchers in the South will indeed benefit in the way MacKie-Mason predicts? Last year Elsevier responded to the growing pressure in Europe to agree OA Big Deals by proposing what it called “region-specific OA”. As it explained, “[O]ne possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available gold open access within Europe and green open access outside of Europe.”

This is not open access as commonly understood. The assumption has always been that open access means immediate and free access to everyone in the world, not just those in a specific geographical area. On its website, SPARC describes OA as “free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment.”

Region-specific OA would introduce a two-tiered access model in which those unable or unwilling to pay for gold OA would become second-class citizens. And researchers in the global South would be disproportionately impacted. In short, it is far from self-evident that if those in the North pay to make their work open access then everyone will enjoy improved access to their research.

Given the potential for these kinds of unintended consequence, one might expect those promoting the idea of a global flip to want to engage in open debate and discussion about the strategy. Yet those negotiating OA Big Deals appear strangely reluctant to do so, or to share details of the agreements they are signing with publishers. Only when faced with considerable pressure to do so do they open up a little (as in Finland). In other cases, negotiators like the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) appear happy to talk in generalities, but not about the specifics of what they are doing.

Consider also that last September I invited the organisation spearheading the global flip strategy (OA2020) to take part in a dual Q&A with someone from the global South. The initial response was very positive, and the first few questions I asked were answered. When my questions became more probing, however, the interview ground to a halt. It is now approaching 8 months since I invited OA2020 to do a Q&A, and it seems unlikely ever to be completed.

In this context, it is interesting to note that when my interview with MacKie-Mason began to attract commentary within the OA community I was told by email that OA2020 was “formulating a comment to your interview with Jeff MacKie-Mason and that this would be posted to my site soon. In the event, OA2020 simply posted a link at the end of the interview. This goes to a statement that it has published on its own site. 

Puzzlingly, however, apart from a somewhat obscure reference to “under-funded researchers” the OA2020 statement fails to address in any meaningful way the problems that a global flip can be expected to create for those in the developing world, even though this was the main focus of the MacKie-Mason interview. Essentially, OA2020 has done little more than restate what it has been saying for several years now – to increasing scepticism it has to be said.

I can only conclude that those promoting a global flip prefer to communicate through announcements, statements, press releases and presentations, not by engaging in debate and discussion. They also seem strangely averse to transparency, even though they constantly upbraid publishers for their lack of transparency.

In fact, non-transparency has been characteristic of the global flip movement from day one. The OA2020 Initiative emerged from a closed meeting at Berlin 12. Unlike the previous meetings held each year to discuss progress following the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities Berlin 12 was by invitation only. And noticeable by their absence at the meeting were those OA advocates who are critical of pay-to-publish gold OA.

This is regrettable, particularly given that OA Big Deals are being funded out of public money. It would seem that the global flip enthusiasts are rushing ahead without engaging properly with the global research community, or acknowledging the potential risks. As Roger Schonfeld, Director, Libraries and Scholarly Communication Program at Ithaka S+R suggested recently on Twitter: “those who indict the subscription model for its access limitations while pushing for the ‘global flip’ should be held accountable for the limitations of the latter as well.”

It is therefore to his credit that MacKie-Mason agreed to answer my questions, and that he answered them directly and thoroughly. I want to publicly thank him for that.

Khalifa’s responses to MacKie-Mason’s answers to my questions are below, and underlined. I will publish a Q&A with Khalifa shortly, and will then invite MacKie-Mason to respond to Khalifa’s answers.

Question, answer, response

Q: What do you consider to be the main obstacles and challenges facing the open access movement in your country/region right now?

J M-M: What we’ve seen is a lot of enthusiasm among librarians and institutional leaders, but most faculty at top research institutions appear to be somewhat indifferent, at least as far as taking action.

This is understandable: for promotion and tenure, faculty pay most attention to the prestige of the journal to which they submit, not whether it is open access. Though there is a growing body of evidence that open access articles are more widely read and cited, that’s recent news, and in any case most faculty at top research institutions seem to believe that other top scientists – the ones they care most about reaching and impressing – have access.

It’s not that faculty don’t care about the rest of the world, it’s that they don’t have much incentive to counterbalance the strong career pressure to publish in the most prestigious journals (which for the most part are not open access).

To see widespread (we hope someday universal!) open access publishing amongst US research universities, we’re going to need to either see the existing prestige publishers convert fully to open access (not the bastard child known as “hybrid OA”), or for new, open access journals to gain enough prestige to attract articles away from the current prestige journals – but that could take decades (if it ever happens). We’ve seen new open access journals enter and compete for prestige for 25 years now, and they haven’t made a dent in the flow of manuscripts to the incumbent prestige publishers – in fact, the share of articles published by the top 4-6 publishers has nearly doubled over the past four decades!

Mahmoud Khalifa
** MK: I think scholars in modern countries have the luxury of choosing from different kinds of journals. In some developing countries, by contrast, scholars may have no choice at all. In some cases, they are forced to publish in specific named journals in order to get promoted in their university.
Q: Do you think that open access solutions for the global South need to be different to those implemented in the global North, or should we aim for a global solution? Is it practical or possible to have different geographical approaches to open access?

J M-M: Yes and no. For high-end scientific results, dissemination is and should be worldwide! And of course, the value of open access to society is greatest for the most important scientific results, so we definitely need a solution that works everywhere for publishing this kind of work. I would never work for a solution for the prestige journals that didn’t work for the global South as well as for the global North.

There is a significant amount of research that is of primary relevance to particular regions, and for that regional solutions can be sufficient. And the particular business model supporting open access regional publication can vary from region to region, of course.

Several approaches to open access require shifting the financial burden of scholarly communications from readers (who pay for subscriptions, at least their institutional libraries do on their behalf – but either way it’s a charge for reading) to authors (or their institutions).

By providing publishers with the funds they need to do their work at the time of publication, it is possible for them to do the necessary work of publishing but then make the publications available open access.

Some people express a concern that authors in the global South can’t “afford” to pay for publication, and thus will be excluded from the worldwide scholarly publishing community. I think this is largely a misconception. If we move from a subscription world to a pay-for-publication world, the money currently spent so that scholars and others in the global South can read – the subscription dollars they are currently paying – can be redirected to payment for publication. There’s no reason to think that the total cost will go up (in fact, there are good reasons to think it will go down). 

Different point of view

** MK: I have a different point of view! Subscriptions in the global South are paid by institutions; publication fees are paid by the scholars themselves. True, some universities provide financial support for their scholars when they publish internationally, but this is far from adequate, especially in light of the large differences between currencies. It is vital to consider the local economic situation and factor in the low salaries of researchers in developing countries.   

Q: You say that when people argue that authors in the global South would not be able to afford to pay to publish if there was a global flip to gold they are under a misapprehension because flipping would free up subscription money and this could be redirected to paying APCs.

Is it not the case, however, that most countries in the global South have never been able to afford much in the way of subscriptions, and so have little money in the system? If that is right, surely a mass flipping will for them simply exchange paywalls for publication walls?

Is it perhaps your view that it is not the job of open access to correct inequalities, but simply to make as much research freely available as possible?

J M-M: What I’m saying is basically that the total cost of scholarly communications won’t go up – there is nothing intrinsically more costly (in an economic sense: it doesn’t take more time or other resources) for publishing OA than publishing behind a paywall.

If the amount of money the global North is currently providing to publishers (in the form mostly of subscription payments), plus the amount of money the global South is currently providing (however little that may be) is still transferred to publishers in an OA world (through APCs rather than subscription payments), then there will be more than enough money to support continued publication (I say more than enough because currently the scholarly publishing industry is earning above-competitive profits – that is, more than they need to stay in business).

The question then is just whether there is no practical way to change the flow of funds that makes it no more difficult for scientists in the global South to participate.

I’m assuming that generally, authors don’t publish in journals they cannot read – so I’m assuming that the journals relevant (for the most part) for global South authors are those to which they *do* have access. Their institutions generally do subscribe to some journals. It’s my understanding that in some cases publishers provide steep discounts to enable them to *read* (subscribe). Then, in the gold OA world, wouldn’t we expect those very same publishers to provide steep discounts to authors to enable them to *publish*? The publishers don’t want to exclude the global South from the scholarly communication ecosystem.

Isolated island

** MK: Generally in the Middle East, access to subscription journals is free because institutions pay the cost on behalf of scholars. However, to publish in a journal authors have to pay the costs themselves. To give you an example from Egypt: The Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB) provides access to the most important journal databases. This is free for all Egyptian citizens. Before the EKB, the Supreme Council of Universities performed the same task, although the coverage was smaller. All these databases are accessible for all government universities, and any scholar is able to use them without payment. Consider also Saudi Arabia, where almost all universities pay large sums of money to subscribe to journal databases. This means that all students and scholars are able to access them for free via the university library.

My conclusion is this: today it is relatively easy for researchers in the Middle East to access and read international journals because they do not personally have to pay to do so. But it is not easy to publish in journals that charge APCs because of the high costs.

On the issue of authors not publishing in journals they cannot read: Actually, it is not necessary for researchers to publish their works in journals they read. The goal is simply to be published.

J M-M: Whatever combination of methods are currently in use (discounts from publishers, subsidies from foreign aid to global South research institutions), etc., presumably will be there to ensure at least as much participation as is currently possible.

Now, the current level of participation is not a level playing field, and that’s a bad thing. I’m not saying “it’s all good”. I’m just saying that there is no reason that switching from providing money to publishers through subscriptions, to providing it through APCs, needs to make things worse than they currently are for the global South.

And at this point, I’ll agree with the premise at the end of your question: the goals of open access are important enough (especially for the global South!) that we shouldn’t expect solving it to remedy all inequities.

The current system is *awful* for the global South: despite some deep discounts and some foreign aid, most colleges and universities and other research institutions in poor countries cannot afford to subscribe to – and thus read – most science. Heck, most smaller universities and colleges in the *US* can’t afford to subscribe to large fractions of published science.

The scientists – and citizens – of the global South – are being denied access to vast amounts of valuable scientific discovery. Opening access will be a huge benefit – and I think that done thoughtfully, the negative impact on authors can be minimized, perhaps completely avoided.

** MK: When researchers in the global South want to access international journals, they are generally able to do so because their institutions pay huge amounts of money to publishers and aggregators based in the North!  By contrast, as authors they discover they are on an isolated island!

In short, scholars in the global South (or at least in the Middle East) may actually find it relatively easy to access research information, but far from easy to disseminate their own research to a global audience. 

Q: So, you do agree with those who argue that scholarly publishers make excessive profits from scholarly publishing?

J M-M: Yes, at least many of them, especially the large, so-called “prestige” publishers. I’ve been quite open about this in public statements.

** MK: About this, I totally agree.

Salary disparities

Q: As you will know, researchers in the South are increasingly incentivised to publish in international journals. These are usually owned by publishers in the North, and the cost of publishing in them is prohibitively high, even with pure gold OA (as opposed to hybrid OA). As you point out, some publishers offer APC waivers, but not all do, and these could be withdrawn at any time.

There are other objections to waivers too (see here for instance). If those in the South are now also incentivised to publish in international journals (which charge $1000s to publish a paper) how can pay-to-publish gold OA be a global solution? Would it not be fairer, and more sensible, to work towards a system that, to quote from The Lord of the Rings, could offer “One ring to rule them all”?

J M-M: I think I’ve mostly answered this in my answers above. There is no easy solution for global income inequality (to say the least!), and we shouldn’t try to load everything onto the way we pay for scholarly communication.

I genuinely believe the global South will be better off with a well-executed gold OA system: will have access to *much* more published research (to read), and shouldn’t have any less overall access to publishing its own research. Not *enough* access, or equal access – again, income inequality is a pernicious problem and it won’t go away. But things are much worse now with pay-to-read.

I don’t understand the last sentence in your question: I don’t know what the “one ring to rule them all” system is. But if it would produce universal open access, *and* make it easier for the global South to participate (without damaging our ability to validate and certify science), then I’d probably support it!

** MK: In considering this issue it is important to know that $1,000 is equal to the following values in local currencies in some Arab countries:

-          17,700 Egyptian pounds
-          18,000 Sudanese Pound
-          115,000 Algerian Dinar
-          1,507,000 Lebanese Pound

In the case of Egypt this means that if I want to publish in a journal that charges an APC of $2,000 I will have to pay 35,000 Egyptian pounds, which is equivalent to the salary of a professor for 6 months.

As I see it, the best solution for the Middle East is to focus on building up local journals that are then recognized internationally by citation databases and other tools of evaluation.

Some bad articles will get published

Q: Finally, I wanted to raise the issue of predatory publishing, which some believe those in the global South are particularly vulnerable to. I realise opinions are divided on this, but the concern is sufficiently great that last year the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Department announced [P. 15] that pay-to-publish papers will no longer be considered for faculty promotion in the 31 National Institutes of Technology.

This seems to suggest that no form of pay-to-publish model is now acceptable in India. Is this not a big impediment to a global flip? Or does India need to rethink its approach?

J M-M: I haven’t looked into the situation in India. I do think that so-called predatory journals are a problem. But attempts to exploit unwary consumers are present in *every* market solution (to the production of every good and service!). Just because someone will try to take advantage of consumers doesn’t mean we should abandon that market solution, or we wouldn’t have any markets for anything.

Right now, we have “predatory” publishers proliferating the number of subscription journals, and the number of low-quality articles published to fill them, to exploit consumers (universities and other institutional subscribers). So-called prestige publishers like Elsevier are doing this.

Because the current system separates those who produce the research (authors) from those who pay for subscriptions (libraries), for-profit publishers have found that they can vastly expand their profits by overpublishing – authors insist to their chairs and deans and provosts that we “need” to subscribe to all these journals (because they are publishing in them and want the prestige), and ever-increasing amounts of research funding is being transferred to the shareholders of for-profit publishers.

One solution – imperfect but it’s what we’ve got – is to resist subscribing to lower quality journals by using our heads and evaluating their quality.

In a gold OA world, various publishers may publish poor science because some authors will be willing to pay them for the privilege because they think it will advance their careers. We’ll have to be alert to that. We should judge the quality of journals on what they *publish* however, not on what their business model is.

We’re not *stupid* consumers – we should use our heads, and evidence, and make good decisions. And bad scientists who want to pay to publish bad science in bad journals will not succeed very well....our evaluation systems are not so broken that we can be fooled so much of the time.

So sure, some bad articles will get published, but that’s true today too.

** MK: I totally agree with the last sentence “some bad articles will get published”. And I would add that they will be cited as well, even if an author cites them in order to indicate that they are bad articles. The tools of evaluation and measures (e.g. the IF) just count the citations.

I support the Indian decision to not consider pay-to-publish papers when considering faculty for promotion. This seems to me to be a particularly important decision for India to take, as it is said to be the main source of predatory publishing.

Mahmoud Khalifa's own Q&A is here

The final part in this series can be read here

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