Open access is often seen as a process of switching from the existing closed-subscription model of scholarly communication to an open one. But Latin America has had an open access ecosystem for scholarly publishing for over a decade, and the recent AmeliCA initiative seeks to develop cooperative scientific communication further still. These efforts, however, could yet be undermined by recent open access proposals from the cOAlition S consortium of research funders in the Global North, write Eduardo Aguado López and Arianna Becerril García (both Redalyc, AmeliCA, and Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México).
Plan S, which was launched by cOAlition S in September 2018 and updated after a round of consultation in May 2019, reflects a continuing desire to achieve the aims set out in the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002: to provide free, unrestricted online access to all research literature. It also highlights the uneven pace of change and continuing limitations of the existing model of scholarly publishing and communication.
However, the open access (OA) movement also faces a different dilemma. Whilst, on the one hand, more science and research is being made openly available, on the other, five publishing companies continue to control a dominant stake in producing the legitimate research outputs required for research evaluation.
Legitimacy in this instance means inclusion in the “mainstream” research indexes of the Web of Science and Scopus, agencies that produce metrics like the journal impact factor and in which commercially published journals are generally better positioned. For instance, in 2013 five publishers produced upwards of 50 per cent of the research literature listed in the Web of Science (70% in the social sciences and humanities). Furthermore, as these publishers pivot away from publishing as their main business, towards owning and managing other parts of the research “circuit”, this dominance in determining quality is only likely to increase.
Open access in Latin America
While countries in the Global North have largely bought into these systems, Latin America has until recently maintained a distinct non-commercial OA infrastructure where scientific publication is handled by academic institutions. Scholarly communication – the production, publication, distribution, and consumption of research literature – has therefore operated without charges, whether for reading or publishing, and has been financed principally via public funds destined for education and research, mainly through academic institutions.
Within this ecosystem, a number of non-commercial platforms have emerged, including Redalyc, Scielo, Latindex, CLACSO, and La Referencia. These platforms have provided software applications, interoperability, visibility, and discoverability for Latin America’s research output.
However, there has recently been increasing divergence in the region over the principles of OA and the means of achieving them. Notably, Scielo has made an agreement with Clarivate Analytics to build the Scielo Citation Index, essentially inserting its journals into the system of impact factors and rankings by letting a for-profit company take advantage of information processed with public resources from Latin America.
In contrast, Redalyc has supported the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and encouraged journals that are indexed in Redalyc to do the same, citing the importance of creating an inclusive system of scholarly communication where local languages and local relevance are recognised.
Redalyc has over 16 years’ experience of OA in Latin America, with an online collection of 650,000 articles from 1,300 journals published by 620 academic institutions in 22 countries. The more recent AmeliCA initiative, launched in November 2018, looks to build on this experience and involves the formal participation of more than 24 institutions from seven countries (so far).
AmeliCA is a cooperative infrastructure for scientific communication that is controlled by a broad-based inter-institutional academy; Redalyc and CLACSO take the lead, with support coming from UNESCO. It has been developed as a response to the specific challenges of delivering open access that are faced by countries in Latin America and the Global South.
Article Processing Charges and risks to Latin American open access
One particular challenge for researchers in the Global South is a potential shift from a “pay to read” model of scholarly communication to a “pay to publish” model in which researchers may not have the resources necessary to publish their research.
Plan S has stated that it is not focused on delivering only one business model for scholarly communication. However, Article Processing Charges (APCs) have been the only model clearly identified for financing. If Plan S is proposing to pursue a global switch to open access, we believe that this will require the recognition and support of diverse business models and a clearer definition of the resources that these organisations will need to implement these policies. The coalition has in the past been able to provide guidance to commercial publishers to help them secure funding for APC payments.
For a system that publicly subsidises scholarly communication through academic institutions, as exists in Latin America, establishing charges for authors risks undermining a structure designed to support researchers and keep public money within a publicly managed ecosystem. As Leslie Chan has argued, when opening access is decontextualised from its historical and political roots, it has the potential to become as exploitative and oppressive as the system that it seeks to replace. For these reasons, various organisations have opposed the introduction of APCs, including CLACSO, Redalyc, AmeliCA, Conacyt-Conricyt (Mexico), IBICT (Brazil), CONICYT and CINCEL (Chile).
Alternative visions and asymmetric access
Even if journals from Latin America do not charge authors for publishing, their business models still need funds to maintain the system and to invest in growth and development. There is, in particular, a constant risk that funding will not be allocated by supporting countries. This makes it harder for Latin American organisations to compete with well-resourced commercial competitors.
Of the content published in indexed journals in Redalyc, between 13 and 20 per cent (depending on the discipline) comes from European and North American authors. These papers published in Latin American journals are subsidised by institutional and governmental resources, with no cost for European or North American researchers. As such, we are living in asymmetrical circumstances: public investment in open access cannot be competitive if the resources of commercial corporations are the only ones guaranteed by global strategies.
Different forms of scholarly communication result from different perspectives on open access. One perspective is focused on commercial publishers and aims to eliminate the pay-to-read business model. The perspective of AmeliCA and other initiatives has been to create a scholar-led, non-profit system of communication that is open from the outset. Is it possible for these two systems to interact without causing other forms of exclusion? Can they coexist if major funding flows are not distributed equally? If one subsystem is altered to emulate another, new concepts, rules, and values will appear, the side effects of which could weaken the original subsystem or even lead to its complete disruption and disappearance.
Open access strategies like Plan S should be debated globally. We are still waiting to find out how cOAlition S plans to support and engage with other OA business models. We would like to see Plan S not as a narrow programme to replace the pay-to-read model with a pay-to-publish model but rather as a more comprehensive means of achieving OA.
This kind of change, making knowledge available to all with the participation of all, requires sustained communication, creativity, and dedication. Only then will we be able to transform the universal principle of OA into a programme that delivers knowledge as a public good, as was promised in Budapest nearly two decades ago.