The practice of authors or their funders paying for readers to read the work remains a fertile ground for may unwarranted practices and consequences.
Research is an essential part of human civilization. The practice of sharing of the knowledge gained through research by the investigator with other fellow human beings has played a pivotal role in all the developments in human societies since their inception. The modes of sharing of the knowledge have evolved with technological advances from oral to written to printed, and now to ‘soft’ form on the internet. With the advent of formally organized science and technology, communication of new research findings also got more organized and led to publication of scholarly research journals, initially by learned societies and academies, and later by commercial publishers as the number of researchers and volume of their findings requiring dissemination increased exponentially over the years.
The current state of research publications is plagued by multiple, inter-related as well as independent issues which make the experience of publication a night-mare rather than a pleasure. On the one hand we have the so-called high-impact factor tagged journals which often remain beyond the reach of most researchers because of considerations other than merit, and on the other end, we have a rapidly breeding genre of predatory/bogus journals that would publish ‘anything’ for a fee. Between these two extremes, are the large numbers of ‘hybrid’ as well as online-only journals that may or may not charge authors for publications and/or open access (OA). In recent years, stiff competition has encouraged an increasing number of journals to levy charges of one or the other kind to authors for publication of articles. The very high subscription charges coupled with shrinking library budgets also led to the innovative practice of authors paying the publisher a hefty fee for others to read a given paper. Many of these journals, especially the online journals, actually earn huge profits through the so-called ‘processing’ and/or OA charges. These charges have also become a good source of earning for many scholarly societies and academies as well.
The Plan-S initiative, directed to provide full open-access science publishing and launched by a consortium of the European Research Council and the major national research agencies and funders from twelve European countries, requires that publications coming out of state-funded research activity must be available in open repositories or in journals that are free to read immediately on publication. This plan ostensibly ensures that the current system of paywalls would not deny access to science to anyone. Under the Plan-S, researchers would be required to publish in an OA journal or platform or in a subscription journal provided the final, peer-reviewed or accepted manuscript is immediately made available in an OA repository or to publish in hybrid journals with subscription charges but with an OA option. In the last case, the journal must be committed to move to a fully OA model. Under this plan, the funders of research would defray the OA charges that the journal levies.
As argued elsewhere (Lakhotia 2017), the practice of levying the OA charges is primarily fuelled by commercial interests, rather than by the desire to make the science accessible to all. This practice in fact fuelled the rapid growth of predatory journals. Many of the new online only journals that have been started by publishers of ‘good’ journals consider the manuscripts rejected by the main journal, and often publish them on payment of a fee. This practice may also be close to the border of predatory journals’ practice since the reviewers for online only journals are often warned not to look for originality or novelty! Thus these journals indirectly discourage reviewers from rejecting a manuscript to ensure that the OA charges are not lost. Obviously, although peer-review is claimed to be in place, its rigor is usually missing, which brings them close to the brazenly predatory or bogus journals.
It seems that India is also seriously considering adoption of the plan-S with some modifications. I think adoption of the plan-S would further place researchers in the country to greater disadvantage. The presently available money for research is indeed grossly inadequate (Lakhotia 2018a); if the funding agencies have to make a provision for payment of publication and/or OA charges, as required under the plan-S provision, the grant available for actual research would get further partitioned and may in fact deprive may others in less-endowed institutions of any support. This would further escalate the divide.
Another reason why the Indian government should not support the plan-S is that this would only help publishers from other countries to earn money while the local journals languish. Instead, it should liberally support some of the journals published in India which have reasonably good publication policies and practices but are not able to make mark due to the ill-founded bias in favor of the so-called ‘international journals’ (Lakhotia 2018b). Journals published independently by learned societies and academies in the country, which have good publication policies and practices and which do not levy any charges, should be liberally supported so that they may develop good infra-structure, at par with those outside the country, and consequently attract good manuscripts, not only from within the country but also from outside on a competitive basis. Promotion of research and dissemination of its output should primarily be a philanthropic activity on part of the state and industry (Lakhotia 2014).
The question of published material remaining behind paywalls existed even when print only journals were available to readers on the basis of institutional or individual subscription. However, we could still read new publications without paying the access or subscription charges. Sending postal requests for hard copy reprints to authors, and evoking a fairly good response, was a common practice till a few decades ago. In principle, the current internet and email era makes is much simpler and quicker to share the pdf file of published work with anyone across the globe. Although posting of the final pdf file on personal or institutional web page is usually not permitted, I am not aware of anything in the copy-right forms signed by authors that prevents free sharing of pdf files with other researchers. Thus the view that science remains behind ‘paywall’ is an unfounded impression created by publishers, and unfortunately accepted by authors without scrutiny. Obviously, publishers do not wish to lose the money that they collect either from authors as OA charges or from readers as licensing fee for reading, and hence it is in their interest to create an impression that sharing of pdf files is not permitted. If we reinvent the old, but legal, practice of exchanging reprints, and widely share pdf files through email, no person desiring to read a published work would have to worry about the paywall. Authors can maintain a list of email addresses of potentially interested researchers and all of them can be sent the pdf file in one click; similarly the pdf file can be emailed to those who request. This does not take much time and no research money is wasted in the form of OA charges.
The practice of authors or their funders paying for readers to read the work remains a fertile ground for may unwarranted practices and consequences. Therefore, the plan-S should not be adopted.
Lakhotia S C 2014 Societal responsibilities and research publications Proc Indian Natn Sci Acad 80 913
Lakhotia S C 2017 The fraud of open access publishing Proc. Indian Natn. Sci. Academy 83 33-36
Lakhotia S C 2018a Research fund crunch, real or created, is hitting India’s academia on the wrong side Proc Indian Natn Sci Acad 84 545-547
Lakhotia S C 2018b Why are Indian research journals not making a mark?-The enemy is within Current Science 15 2187-2188
Subhash C. Lakhotia is a Professor at the Cytogenetics Laboratry of Department of Zoology, Banaras Hindu University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.