Open Access: UP hosts panel discussion on making research available to all

Posted on December 19, 2018

A panel discussion held at the University of Pretoria earlier this year debated the $25 billion (R356 billion) turnover flowing into for-profit publishers of academic research. 

After a very vibrant and interactive discussion, all participants and delegates agreed that the universal open access model is preferable to the traditional subscriptions model. Combined with open data, it would make science more efficient, accessible and affordable for all.

The discussion was hosted by UP’s Department of Library Services, and opened with a screening of the documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, which focuses on the need for open access to research. Produced and directed by Jason Schmidt, a professor at New York’s Clarkson University, the documentary raises questions regarding the rationale behind the massive turnover that flows into for-profit publishers. It also examined the 35-40% profit margin associated with top academic publisher Elsevier, and compared this with the profit margins of some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.

Open access is a publishing and distribution model that makes scholarly research literature freely available online, for everyone to access, without restrictions. Before the open access model existed, almost all peer-reviewed articles based on scholarly research were published in print journals whose subscription fees could be prohibitively expensive – despite the fact that authors are not paid for their articles.

Currently, there are more than 12 000 academic journals accessible in the Directory of Open Access Journals, and more than 3 500 archives are included in the Directory of Open Access Repositories. About 28% of peer-reviewed articles today are open access, and the number is increasing with each passing year.

Among the biggest challenges to open access are article-processing charges (APCs). The currently dominant open access model demands that authors pay APCs to make their work freely available, but many cannot afford these charges, even at wealthy universities.

The panel discussion participants after the screening of the movie were Mr Glenn Truran: Director of the South African National Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC); Ms Susan Veldsman: Director: Scholarly Publication Unit (Academy of Sciences in South Africa); Prof. Nithaya Chetty: Professor in the Department of Physics (University of Pretoria); Prof. Andries van Aarde: Senior Research Fellow in the Dean’s office (Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria) and Mr. Dickson Ajisafe: Doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Sciences (University of Pretoria).

Legacy publishers offer gold options that set APCs at levels designed to preserve current profits. Thus, publishers will continue to dominate the scholarly publication market, because researchers have incentives to publish in prestigious journals.

During the discussion, Mr Truran voiced his concern that South Africa pays more for access to research papers than some European countries do. Representing the student voice, Mr Ajisafe remarked that open access unquestionably remains a channel for postgraduate researchers to make their voices known to a wider community. He also called on the UP Department of Library Services to make open access information more accessible to UP’s postgraduate community.

They agreed that finding solutions to these challenges demands collective action, and expressed their hope that this event would be just the beginning of many more conversations in the open access debate.

- Author Marguerite Nel

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