Defend Truth


Breaking barriers or breaking the bank? The academic publishing system is extorting emerging researchers


Dr Mariette van der Walt is a science nerd with a PhD in Zoology, and a passion for cave-dwelling bats. As a published scientist and National Geographic — NEWF Africa Refocused fellow, she has transitioned from academic research to science storytelling.

Most open-access journals charge substantial article processing charges, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Open-access fees for the top-ranking scientific journal in the world will cost a bank-breaking $11,690 (R222,000).

Academics worldwide face the publish or perish dilemma, where publishing in reputable, high-ranking international journals is crucial for career advancement in the cut-throat academic environment.

South Africa, with its wealth of knowledge and unique challenges, needs to enhance its research capacity while facing numerous societal and economic hurdles. But the straw that breaks the research camel’s back is this — researchers face obstacles in publishing scientific information due to exorbitant publication costs imposed by international journals.

Where did these fees come from, how do they impact researchers’ lives, and what are some solutions to alleviate the challenges faced by emerging academics?

A brief history of scientific publication

Scientific publication can be traced back to 1665, when the first scientific journal, Journal des Sçavans (meaning “the learned journal”), was established in France. That same year, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was introduced in England, becoming the world’s oldest scientific journal still in publication.

In the 1700s, peer review gained prominence and by the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution led to diverse, specialised scientific journals. Finally, international scientific journals like Nature (1869) and Science (1880) were established to disseminate research findings across international borders and facilitate communication among scientists worldwide.

Around the same time, the concept of “impact factors” was introduced by Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), as a metric to evaluate and compare the relative prestige and influence of scientific journals. This score became widely used as a measure of “journal quality” and “influence” in the scientific community.

And then scientists had to start paying.

Some journals in specific fields started charging fees, termed article processing charges (APCs), as early as the mid-1900s. The advent of the open-access movement in the 2000s aimed to provide free and unrestricted access to research articles, and to support this model, many journals introduced APCs to cover the costs of publishing.

Most open-access journals now charge substantial APCs, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Open-access fees for the top-ranking scientific journal in the world will cost a submitting researcher a bank-breaking $11,690 (R222,000).

This creates a paradoxical situation where researchers are compelled to pay exorbitant fees (almost always in dollars) to ensure their work is visible and internationally recognised, while at the same time striving for financial sustainability and equitable access to knowledge.

In an era of digitisation, one should be asking: why are researchers still burdened with exorbitant publication fees? Especially when considering neither the submitting scientists nor reviewing experts receive payment for their hard work. Unfortunately, the answer seems to lie somewhere between profiteering and extortion.

The justification for these high fees remains a subject of debate. While open-access journals argue that the charges are necessary to ensure sustainability and cover the expenses involved in the publication process (such as editing, formatting and online hosting), critics question whether the current fee structures are reasonable and transparent.

The lack of transparency in understanding how these costs are allocated and the absence of standardised pricing across journals raises some serious concerns and has even led to boycotting by some of the world’s leading scientists.

It is widely recognised that a high journal impact factor doesn’t guarantee quality, and the obsession with publishing in what are considered “glamour mags” in certain scientific fields is harmful and ethically compromising. Unfortunately, the reality of this unfair system of “pay and publish or perish”, creates an extremely unlevel playing field for researchers from emerging countries.

Implications for South African research careers

Access to produce, read and share important findings through published literature is the crux of research, but affordability remains a persistent concern for South African scientists, with long-term consequences for their careers and future funding opportunities.

Inadequate international visibility and recognition hinder opportunities for collaboration, limit exposure to international research networks, and restrict the dissemination and impact of valuable findings. This is unjust to both the researcher and the South African taxpayer, whose hard-earned money foots the bill for the majority of scientific research conducted.

Additionally, the impact on career advancement is significant, as “how much” and “where” researchers publish are closely linked to funding opportunities and research ratings, such as those determined by the National Research Foundation (NRF) — researchers with higher h-index scores (calculated from the number of publications in high-ranking journals), receive higher NRF ratings and, subsequently, higher academic status and more funding.

Absurdly, researchers must pay big money to receive big money. The system is rigged, so how can emerging academics survive?

Empowering South African researchers

To address these challenges and empower South African researchers, concerted efforts are needed from various stakeholders.

Systematic reform: the way researcher success is measured requires transformation. We should move beyond reliance on journal impact factors as the primary measure of research quality.

Instead, a range of alternative metrics should be considered, such as citation counts as well as contributions beyond traditional journal articles. The value of diverse scholarly outputs should be recognised, both by researchers and academic institutions.

These outputs include publicly available data sets, policy briefs, public engagement activities and science communication. This will not only rid us of predatory journals and unethical publishing but also share the research with the communities from which they stem and those who will benefit the most.  

Enhancing open access initiatives: although it is already happening to some degree, more tangible efforts should be made to increase access to scientific publication through open-access initiatives. Collaborations between South African higher education institutions and international journals through publishing agreements can help waive the costs associated with APCs, enabling researchers to publish in reputable international journals without financial strain.

Promoting collaboration and networking: facilitating partnerships between local and international researchers can foster knowledge exchange, enhance research networks, and provide opportunities for mentorship and collaboration, both scientifically and financially. This can help bridge the knowledge gap and elevate the visibility of South African researchers on the global stage.

The challenges faced by South African researchers in accessing and publishing scientific information must be addressed to harness the full potential of the continent’s scientific community.

South Africa has a wealth of knowledge to share, but ultimately, the transformation of the academic publishing landscape is necessary to empower South African researchers and address the systemic barriers they face.

By dismantling the systematic biases and financial roadblocks associated with publication and access, we can promote knowledge sharing, collaboration, and innovation.

Through these collective efforts, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and vibrant global academic community. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gail Jennings Jennings says:

    Thank you for this article! I find the narrative around open-access disingenuous, as it’s allegedly to make it easier for researchers in the ’emerging economies’ to have access to research, but in effect it makes it more difficult for researchers in the ’emerging economies’ to publish (particularly practitioner-scholars, not linked to a university). So it serves the citation rate of those who can afford to pay open-access publications. I tend toward supporting paid-for access, and then share pre-prints on ResearchGate as a workaround:(

  • chris butters says:

    Yes, excellent and important, thank you. In Norway where I have had much of my career, the institutes usually help to pay these charges. Being semi retired with no longer any institute label, I have to pay myself, or beg for major discounts, or just go for “inferior” journals (in my case, about sustainable cities, green design, energy transition, circular economy etc). However it’s also important that in funded research, one should be required to produce some more popularly accessible versions, i.e. to newspapers, radio or similar. If not, researchers risk mainly only talking to themselves. And yes, open access is hugely important, since VERY few people read the “closed” ones. … such as Elsevier.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    The big publishing houses make enormous profits on the back of publicly funded research and free peer reviewing by fellow academics. As the author suggested, in the digital age, there should be more transparency on how the subscription fees and APCs are determined. Digitisation surely brought enormous cost savings to the publisbers. An encouraging development is the Transformative Agreements that SANLiC has entered into with some of the largest publishers. This allows SA researchers to have their APCs waived automatically when you submit your paper for review to many leading journals.

  • Joe Soap says:

    Whereas publishing in open access journals does provide the benefit of “free” access to the published articles (valuable to researchers in low income countries whose institutional libraries might not afford subscriptions to higher ranked journals), there are always costs involved which have to be covered requiring some form of publication fee, excessive or not. Many journals are hybrid and permit open access (with cost to authors) or subscription access (free to authors or with costs for hard copy publication in colour). The article above is not accurate when it indicates higher NRF ratings result in higher research income – the current NRF model provides a single grant – once within a five year cycle – the amount being the same regardless of ones rating. The cut in research funding coincided with free education under NSFAS which in time will contribute to a brain drain of researchers and academics.
    A source of funding that remains is the subsidy from higher education based on publication in accredited journals – the latter aspect contributing to the growth of new journals – some termed “predatory”, some of which publishing research of lesser quality and consequently not being accepted for accreditation. I support the view of Gail Jennings below where researchers without access to subscription journals can request pre-prints from authors via Researchgate or other methods.

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