As India restructures its science governance, with the recently approved National Research Foundation, the national scientific enterprise can be a leading voice for accessible, equitable, and fiscally responsible research-publishing.
Communicating research is an integral part of the scientific endeavour. It advances scientific understanding and bridges science and society. One important way in which this happens in academic settings is through scholarly journals, which publish scientific papers.
What is academic publishing?
Academic publishing starts with a scientist submitting a new set of findings to a journal. The journal assesses the manuscript by sending it out to experts for their comments, also known as ‘peer review’; the experts offer these comments on a voluntary basis. The journal passes them on to the researchers, who may modify their manuscript accordingly.
The whole process takes a few weeks to several months. After the journal accepts a manuscript for publication, it is featured on the journal’s website and/or is printed as a physical paper.
The process of academic publishing is designed to ensure scientists’ studies are rigorous even as it makes validated research accessible to the wider community.
What is ‘pay to read’?
A scientist’s research papers are relevant to their career advancement. University and institute ranking schemes also take note of the numerical metrics related to one’s publications: the number of papers, the number of citations, the impact factor, the h-index, etc.
Driven by the academic demand for publications, academic publishing has emerged as a flourishing business. Commercial academic publishing is led by for-profit companies based mostly in the U.S. and Europe. In their traditional subscription model, libraries and institutes pay a fee to access published research.
This ‘pay to read’ paradigm restricts access to scientific material, particularly in the Global South, where universities, colleges, and even research institutes are often unable to afford the subscription fees.
What is ‘pay to publish’?
A subset of commercial publishers have adopted the open-access model, which ensures anyone can access published material. The green and diamond open-access models support self-archiving and no-cost publication, respectively, but few journals offer these options.
The gold open-access model, which allows immediate and long-term access to published work, and has been adopted by leading publishing companies, is the focus of this article.
Gold open-access journals charge the authors of the papers a fee called the ‘article processing charge’ (APC) to make the work freely available online. In this ‘pay to publish’ paradigm, publishing companies receive scientific manuscripts and conduct peer-review at no cost, while charging the scientific enterprise a digital publication fee.
What is the problem?
Academic publishing is today a lucrative industry, with a worldwide revenue of $19 billion and wide profit margins, of up to 40%. The problem is that these are profits made from public money, funnelled into a few companies, while academic scientific research is considered, as a whole, to be a not-for-profit endeavour
In the U.S. and Europe, an initiative called Plan S requires research funded by public grants to be published in open-access journals, and the APCs are paid through allocations in grants to scientists or from the funds for institute libraries.
In India, scientific research is largely funded by government grants, with scientists across the country publishing more than 200,000 articles a year. While cost-based publishing models have flourished and the number of scientific articles from India in open-access journals has increased rapidly, India decided against adopting Plan S in 2019.
What does gold OA mean for India?
Open-access publishing, driven by companies and initiatives in the Global North, is a zero-sum game for scientists and the people at large in India.
For one, the costs imposed by gold open-access worsen the financial health of research in India. In 2023-2024, the Ministry of Science & Technology, which funds a large chunk of research in India, announced an allocation of Rs 16,361 crore for its three research-supporting departments – a 15% jump from the previous year
However, across the last five years, the allocations to the Ministry of Science & Technology have seen modest hikes (8-10% between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, and 3-4% between 2021-2022), along with cuts in allocation (4% across 2021-2022 and 2022-2023). This together with pandemic-related changes in expenditure priorities and steady inflation has meant that India’s expenditure on research has stagnated.
This is further reflected in India’s Gross Expenditure in Research and Development (or GERD), which has stayed close to 0.66% of the GDP for several years – versus more than 3% for the U.S. and 2% for the E.U.
In a June 22 tweet, the Department of Science and Technology hiked the emoluments for India’s research scholars, the backbone of the country’s scientific enterprise. Now, a senior PhD scholar is eligible to receive up to Rs 5 lakh a year to cover tuition, boarding, and living expenses (setting aside concerns about the disbursal being delayed by months or, in some cases, years).
But contrast this with the cost of publishing an open-access paper with Nature Neuroscience, which charges an APC of Rs 10 lakh. The Journal of Neuroscience is less expensive, charging Rs 5 lakh; other journals, such as Molecular Biology of the Cell and eLife, charge Rs 2.5-3 lakh.
So the current dominant publishing model, together with differences in research funding vis-a-vis the Global North, means scientists in India face twin challenges: doing cutting-edge research with fewer funds while diverting funds that could be used for research or human resources to ensure their papers are being seen by their peers in other countries.
Is there a workaround for the cost?
For another, commercial research publishing also presents a moral problem. The costs of supporting open-access publishing are supported by public funds and prop up publishing companies’ profits. This is antithetical to the premise of the scientific endeavour, to make humankind as a whole more knowledgeable.
For India, this means its citizens will have to pay to ensure access to scientific material for everyone – or contend with having large swathes of taxpayer-funded research inaccessible to them.
Journals of prestige often levy higher APCs than others, but even with country-based fee reductions, they do little to close the perceived ‘excellence’ gap between research that happens in the U.S. and Europe and that happening elsewhere.
Researchers seeking fee-waivers – to which some such journals say they are entitled – have also reported being embarrassed when having to provide evidence of lack of funds, and requests for waivers are also subject to a vetting process.
For these reasons, scientists are looking for a radical new way forward.
Could India show the way?
With the significant number of scientific papers published from India every year, the country’s efforts to rethink academic publishing in line with the latter’s purpose, as much as the country’s strengths, could lead the world’s way.
Previous approaches at rethinking academic publishing have included encouraging the country’s scientists to publish in journals from India with relatively affordable open-access models. However, their limited readership and presence across the international scientific enterprise has meant for few takers.
Another approach that the government is considering is the ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ programme. Its scheme will make scholarly publications accessible to higher education and research institutions in India at a fixed cost, but in doing so, it could increase the monopoly of commercial publishers.
A third possibility is making the shift from open-access publishing to open publishing. For example, India, via its newly minted National Research Foundation, could set up a freely accessible and high-quality online repository – where scientists could feature versions of manuscripts and engage with reviews from experts as well as the people at large.
This repository could host independent experts’ comments and recommendations, as well as author responses, and be managed or facilitated for quality and visibility by a team of professionals. Researchers could respond and/or revise their findings over subsequent versions of the manuscript. Their work could be collectively and continuously questioned and evaluated by the scientific enterprise and citizens in India, both for immediate professional goals and larger national outcomes.
Executed well, this model could invite global participation, and pave the way away from numerical metrics of academic research evaluation.
- Communicating research is an integral part of the scientific endeavour. It advances scientific understanding and bridges science and society. One important way in which this happens in academic settings is through scholarly journals, which publish scientific papers.
- Academic publishing is today a lucrative industry, with a worldwide revenue of $19 billion and wide profit margins, of up to 40%. The problem is that these are profits made from public money, funnelled into a few companies, while academic scientific research is considered, as a whole, to be a not-for-profit endeavour
- With the significant number of scientific papers published from India every year, the country’s efforts to rethink academic publishing in line with the latter’s purpose, as much as the country’s strengths, could lead the world’s way.
Karishma Kaushik is the Executive Director of IndiaBioscience.