Academic papers used to be locked behind paywalls — many still are. Researchers at universities without large budgets to pay journal subscription fees, as well as members of the public, are often unable to access academic research unless they paid for it themselves. This situation has started to change thanks to a push towards open access publishing, which aims to make all research freely available and accessible to everyone.
But open access publishing comes with its own difficulties and obstacles. Some forms of open access require the author (or the author’s funder or institution) to pay a substantial fee, known as an article processing charge, so that the journal will publish their paper without a paywall. For example, in November of last year, the publisher Nature set the open-access fee for a subset of their journals at a staggering $11,390. Another obstacle is that fully open access journals don’t always have great reputations.
These obstacles to open-access publishing may hit researchers without much funding or job security especially hard. A recent study by a pair of scientists from the Academic Analytics Research Center analyzed which US researchers wrote open access papers from 2014 to 2018. They found that researchers who are male, have won federal grant funding, are affiliated with prestigious institutions, and/or work in STEM are more likely to have open access papers. In other words, the most privileged researchers in STEM disciplines are over-represented in the open access literature.
This means that important research by less privileged researchers is less likely to be freely available to all and, given the citation advantage of open access work, this means it is more likely to be ignored or overlooked. Despite its admirable intentions, the open access movement has work to do to ensure that open access literature better represents the full diversity of academia.