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Open access publishing: Building equity into the structure of 21st century academic publishing

The old model of academic publishing

The model for the dissemination of scholarly research, accomplished primarily through the vehicle of peer-reviewed journals, remained remarkably stable for over 200 years. Authors whose papers were accepted signed over the copyright of their intellectual output to the journal, and in return, the journal disseminated those articles to subscribers, without charge to the authors. 

Journals, owned either by scholarly societies or publishers, sold subscriptions for access to their content. This model of publication is variously called a subscription or controlled circulation/controlled access model. Individuals, institutions or libraries that wanted access to the content paid subscription fees, which could (and remain) considerable in some instances. For example, Tetrahedron Letters, which provides rapid dissemination of short accounts of advances in organic chemistry and related fields, has an individual subscription rate of $929/year for 26 issues in calendar 2021. An academic library/institutional subscription is $21,621/year

Shortcomings with the old model

Although the controlled circulation model made some publishing houses and societies quite wealthy, and conferred enormous prestige to a handful of journals, the overall sharing of knowledge was available to an exclusive, homogenous and narrow audience. Authors who were western, white, tenured, male and wealthy—affiliated with established universities or institutions—amassed the lion’s share of publications and comprised the privileged audience for research knowledge.

The quality of research was fine. What was missing was the scope for diversity in both the contributors and recipient audience of the literature. To a great degree, women, people of colour and members from socio-economically disadvantaged countries were simply absent in the whole enterprise of generating and sharing of knowledge.

The backward gaze of history, especially when informed by recent global developments that champion diversity, equity and inclusion, enables modern academic researchers to understand that new models of academic research and publishing are needed. In the last 20 years, the world has changed dramatically, for the better, and scholarly publishing along with it. 

Open access publishing: A new world order

Open access (OA) publishing is a new publishing model in which academic and scientific articles are disseminated to the widest possible global audience through the internet, without charge to the end user. The costs of peer review and publishing are shifted from subscriber to article processing charges (APCs), which are borne by authors, research grants or other funding agencies. 

Authors no longer sign away their copyrights; instead, they retain them. Depending on the copyright agreement, published OA content can be shared freely among the entire community of researchers and public alike. Research, science and knowledge are freely shared and communicated to whoever wishes to consume it, regardless of nationality, age, race, gender, income, career stage, language or any other grounds. Putting it succinctly, by its design, OA publishing holds the promise that knowledge discovery and sharing is truly democratised, made inclusive and pluralised

Open Access Week 2021: Building Structural Equity

This series of articles on OA covers a variety of topics, all with a particular focus on building structural equity into the new OA model. They are written to provide you with insight, clarification and practical tools to help you exploit the expanding capabilities of OA in research and publishing. The articles will cover these topics:

Benefitting from the promise of OA publishing

OA publishing is an extremely exciting, evolving and dynamic evolution that is taking place before our eyes. It holds great promise in promoting and ensuring equity among researchers and gives rise to the belief that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. We hope the articles will give you a better sense of how you can utilise OA in your own research and publishing, and challenge you to get involved and help shape the future of OA publishing.


Read next (second) in series: Current Trends in the World of Open Access Scientific and Academic Publishing


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