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Open Access lays in fragments in Latin America which leaves it in an uncertain future

Eduardo Aguado López

Early this century, it was maintained that an old tradition and a new technology were working together to generate an unprecedented public good: open access. By tradition I mean the scientists’ historic interest for publishing —to make things public unrestrictedly—interested solely in disseminating to hold conversations and keep doing research. And by technology I mean the web which allows to disseminate without barriers, to have access in real time and demolish physical space restrictions. Back then, there was a possibility to think of a science for everyone (access). This caught the eye of scientists, researchers, universities, research centres, foundations, and the like, causing them to join this immediately. Thus a vision based on sharing and attempting to eliminate hindrances for accessing and participating in Budapest (2002)Berlin (2003)Bethesda (2003) statements became institutionalised in the North. The three statements stressed that they aimed at “removing access barriers” so that “peer-reviewed periodical literature was completely free of charge and with unrestricted access to read, download, copy, distribute and print.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, in Latin America, neither did we utter nor define. We just simply consolidated platforms capable to identify, gather and give visibility and positioning to scholarly publications from the region, being unconcerned for having a denomination. Latindex and SciELO  had already 5 years of existence. And Redalyc  was launched in its Beta version by 2002.

Platforms in Latin America to revitalise the visibility of regional journals (Latindex, SciELO, Redalyc,  CLACSO) emerged because it wasn’t easy to have the output in the region’s local languages, there was a necessity to strengthen journal publishing processes and contribute to the electronic-digital transition of regional journals. The result was an open access ecosystem like no other region had had before. As it boosted regional journals giving them visibility. It consolidated them in their editorial practices since the inclusion and durability demands were equal to or stricter than any other indexing system in the world. Editorial consolidation has been an ongoing task in which these initiatives have been involved continuously.

Why is open access laying in fragments in Latin America when such ecosystem was built like in no other continent? What are the paradigms and goals that draw open access projects more and more inside the region?

Open access conceptions are diverse and oftentimes quarrel with one another. Differences are seen even in Budapest, Berlin and Bethesda statements. Differences between public and open, open and free. Means to attain it are also diverse. Powers too. It’s a movement. And so it’s diverse, rich and complex in projects, initiatives and proposals. Partly, due this diversity, as I see it, is that it finds its strength.

Open access caused developments in various fields such as the legal, technological and the like. Let us consider a few:

      • Creative Commons  licenses allowed assignment of rights that were previously reserved. By reserving only few rights, it was legal to share with no need of contracts between the parties.
      • Protocol OAI-Open Initiative as a first way of interoperability, connected machines, incorporated initiatives and visions by making regional scientific output, through links, visible and affordable.
      •  A philosophy that defined knowledge as a common good and a right. It was believed that with this, science would be gradually taken out of the market and participation from the various stakeholders would be balanced.
      •  A sustainability model or business: the end user wouldn’t be charged with costs for accessing, this was covered by universities or the State. Considering that dissemination implies a minimum amount of the inversion to produce it justifies such vision.

Open access intervened based on the principle that somehow there was going to be influence on production, distribution, legitimacy, in other words, in the circuit of science, having an impact on the reduction of asymmetries, geographically speaking, between the North and the South and socially, within societies in three routes—access, participation and legitimacy. The BBB stressed access and spoke lightly with regards to participation and legitimacy. It is here that the foundational weakness of European Open Access lies. It didn’t intend to subvert powerful structures . of the editorial processes, ergo, by its omission, it allowed a scenario of models that keep benefiting the great monopolies such as access via APC.

At first, the vision was more local and regional. It was implied that it was not about open access but about open science, open knowledge. That is, opening the whole process of knowledge in a more horizontal dialogue and interaction and with greater participation from the South. Had we not laid the foundations of open access, it would’ve been more difficult to transit to open science.

Numbers, new projects, joining them, everything seemed favourable. The concept fitted the scholarly discourse, repositories grew, and mandates, regulations and even open access laws were issued such as Argentina’s, Peru’s and Mexico’s. No distinction was made between the actions of public or private universities. Both opened their platforms and published their journals in open access. Everything seemed hearts and flowers.

The region called journal platforms ‘gold open access’ and repositories ‘green open access.’ A significant difference to that from Europe’s golden model was that we did not have APC (article processing charges). CLACSO, Redalyc and SciELO nursed and fed gold open access. With them, the natural practice of scholarly publishing in the region became institutionalised. The green route grew through important associations, Remeri in Mexico, La Referencia in Latin America and Institutional Repositories, for example.

There were significant and growing infrastructure developments without the self-archive of academics and professors. Repositories were fed mainly on dissertations and articles in the regional journals that were already in other platforms. The output from former years and external to the region couldn’t be deposited because patrimonial rights had been transferred and nothing was being done to change such circumstances.

Despite the circumstances of repositories, actors were overwhelmed with joy. Even access departments were created in Latin American universities but the horizontal effects were still not felt. Apparently, numbers were encouraging. Open access, was said not to be a project but a policy inserted in institutions and countries. The work of Science Metrix in 2014 asserted that upwards of 50% of articles between 2007 and 2012 were in open access—some researches claimed a lesser amount. Some cases such as Brazil stood out, more than 70% was in open access. According to Archambult, 2014 many positive cases could be mentioned, however, a deeper look reveals undesirable aspects. For instance, Crawford’s (2018)  work shows an increase in open access publications—through DOAJ – but a faster growth of commercial open access (APC) worldwide. This is not the case of the region, however. Thus:

          • The expected horizontal effects and reduction of asymmetries didn’t take place. Libraries, universities and countries through consortia reorganise their expenses and, increasingly, destine them for database subscriptions and fees to access ‘recognised’ international content.
          • Editorial consortia widen horizontal and vertical control over the scholarly publishing circuit, but above all, they control the monopoly of legitimacy, as Bourdieu would put it: of “truth”.
          • The five editorial monopolies (Elsevier, Springer Nature, SAGE, Wiley, Taylor & Francis) are strengthened and adapt to the control of the circuit of science and data control. Their profit rate keeps growing and open access is an important source of income.
          • Subscriptions to individual journals change to the Big Deal model—thousands of journals are received and the cost per each drops. Packages are bought, though, balancing the benefit of the least profitable journals.
          • The scholarly publishing industry is reconstructed and contents are not priority, becoming thus, data providers. It becomes imperative to control interactions and data generated by the community’s activity.
          • The great developments ( MendeleyAuthorea , Social Sciences Repository SSR) are acquired by editorial monopolies. They are maintained in open since the new acquisitions are centred on data and interactions about science stakeholders’ behaviour or participation. The new business is to provide access to that content of which they may or may not have the patrimonial rights so as to benefit from data offered in such access.
          • Great systems of scientific information are opened —JRS —  in open access, they’re aimed at legitimising and creating the necessity to consult indicators. Bibliometric indicators, a specific task of bibliometricians, belong now to the research community.
          • Besides selling content, there’s the selling of visibility services online (Science Direct), peer review platforms (Scholar One), institutional repositories (Pure), of course, amongst others.

    This is the context where open access has been developed. Let us ask, then, why is open access laying in fragments in Latin America when such ecosystem was built like in no other continent? What are the paradigms and goals that draw open access projects more and more inside the region? Superficial though any analysis may be, it would find answers in visions, goals and contexts, which are incarnated in people, networks and projects.

    The decisive factor in the circuit of knowledge in sociology of scientific knowledge is legitimacy, as Bourdieu says: in appropriating the monopoly of the legitimate vision of science. And here some historical explanations come in. In the second half of the 20th century three process took place: a) the article was confirmed as the most accepted discursive form of science communication. Papers had a specific structure called IMRAD: introduction, methods, results and discussion; b) a legitimacy process on journals’ organization and classification began through indexing systems and these emerged as legitimised science. In 1963  E. Garfield  began an indexing system (today known as Clarivate) with an associate indicator—the impact factor. Then, in 2004 Elsevier’s Scopus with its SJR was launched. c) The slow albeit constant acquisition of journals from professional associations, universities by editorial consortia, the outcome: five editors are the ones who possess 50% of publications from all fields and amounts to 70% in social sciences and, precisely, are the journals with paywalls those which have the highest impact factors. That is, under the current and wicked system they’re the best high-quality journals.

    It is in this context and due a search for visibility—legitimacy—that open access systems began to emerge gathering journals, which according to Latindex data in 2002 amounted to 11 thousand before the academy’s growth in the region and the article’s consolidation as a communication system. Only in 2000 upwards of one thousand journals were created.

    Subscription to electronic databases has an exponential growth in the region. At universities this is one of the main reasons for investment and expenditure (A. S. Pereyra asserts that subscriptions in libraries is the second reason of expenditure at UNAM). Subscription comes with dissemination, identifying underrepresentation as incorporation is sought.

    Internationalisation sought by the countries’ universities and science and technology councils identifies, to a greater or lesser extent, internationalisation and quality with journals found in the main indexing systems (Clarivate-Scopus). This has modified the evaluation criteria and the expectations of academics. Assessment and recognition systems of journals moved their support policies to journals so they could enter such indices. In this process citation was esteemed as the measure par excellence. This was reinforced by the university rankings that incorporated publications on such databases and some publications in Q1 and Q2. Consequently, quartiles became institutionalised as appropriate groups of scientific excellence. In sum, the collective imaginary made Clarivate-Scopus something official and rendered citations as indicators of academic work and success.

    In the region, SciELO’s role in making the impact factor official and citations as a quality and impact indicator is decisive and has, virtually, never been analysed. Had SciELO—the database that monopolised legitimacy of regional science vis-a-vis science and technology councils—not conceived the markup of citations and the future generation of the Impact Factor among journals—as it tried—the weight of indicators based on citations as an impact and work measure would’ve been likely different. Nonetheless, SciELO was distinguished from other similar projects, precisely, due the citations it had. Other regional databases had the number of journals and articles but only one could proudly add the number of citations. Thus it is shown on its website: 1,285 Journals, 52,356 Issues, 745,182 Articles and 16,943,454 Citations.

    16 million citations is no small thing. However, evidently, many of them, perhaps most of them, go to other journals outside the database or other countries. But never a serious study was carried out with such citations, it doesn’t exist. It was unused information due the methodological problems of a shifting universe. Many data were provided in the website but were never used except for the information about the general coordinators or countries. Why? Why, this is the great enigma. It was a wonderful database, built through the markup work of hundreds institutions and that with public funds, yet to date, it hasn’t been used. There is no reasonable explanation. Why was it not used? A hypothesis may be proposed. From the social imaginary perspective it may not have been important as a database, though citations as an indicator were important indeed, as well as the impact factor. But are there 16m citations that have never been used? Available is the regional cartography of the distribution of prestige through citations and has never been used? First hypothesis is that neither the generated citations nor those received by regional journals of the field—those were already identified—were the most important in the search for internationalisation but the journals from other countries, the “international” journals, which could only be attained through the incorporation in citation databases Clarivate-Scopus. The identification of internationalisation with the citations received from journals from other countries and the competence of Clarivate and Scopus, was what compelled it to widen its world and caused Clarivate to introduce SciELO Citation Index and other indices. Let me be clear on this, citations by SciELO Citation Index’s journals do not contribute to the impact factor of Journal Citation Reports, hence were they considered—along with other indices—as being of a lower level. Incorporation, then, did not precisely attain what was looking for.

    The adhesion of SciELO to the measurement model linked to the so-called “mainstream” and to the expansion and recognition policy with science and technology councils, the adoption of an internationalisation policy that implied a relation with the United States and Europe, ended up being adopted by the national processes of journal assessment where Scimago has also played a decisive role as the main advisory group of science and technology councils from Mexico, Colombia and Chile amongst others, and policy advisor for various universities.

    Metrics based on the impact factor, use and encouragement to use CC-BY license, preferring English over national languages, believing that APC can sustain journals financially, and above all, making agreements with Clarivate is what definitely fragmented the built open access ecosystem.

    On the other hand, systems that distanced themselves from the impact factor did not consider the likely use and abuse of metrics nor that, virtually, all assessment of different levels was going to be conditioned by it.In its foundational document Latindex criticises the IF: “The practice of assessing scientific journals based on their inclusion to indices, and especially, their impact factor defined by the SCI based on the citations received, on the margins of other indicators of quality has spread.” The importance of the original language is also emphasised: “Latin American scientific publications, particularly, those written in Spanish and Portuguese, are underrepresented in the international indices and databases from developed countries, and recently, such representation has decreased all the more.” Redalyc created indicators of production, collaboration and downloads at an author, institution, discipline, field and country level. Redalyc, resolutely manifested its disagreement with the citation index and among its goals it seeks that Spanish and Portuguese be considered as valid languages to communicate science. In its Statement on Open Access CLACSO, before the negative impact of commercialisation of knowledge and its indicators, states, “to value, when assessing researchers and their institutions, the indicators provided by repositories, open access platforms and publications, as well as other impact and relevance variables in the local and regional contexts to complement traditional international bibliometric indicators that poorly reflect the output and impact of developing countries”. Latindex, Redalyc and CLACSO are clearly opposed, each in its own manner, to the impact factor as an assessment system.

    Latindex, Redalyc, CLACSO and IBICT have signed Mexico Declaration wherein regarding metrics they assert: “Being aware of the existence of several contradictions in the policies of regulation and implementation of OA between academic institutions and national science and technology councils, which –although they have given impetus to Open Access- use methods and metrics for the evaluation of scientific research and academic work that privilege the commercial scientific information systems and journals published by large publishing monopolies, and when “national” journals are taken into account, it is because they are indexed in those databases.” In Mexico, on December 15th, 2017, the LATINDEX-REDALYC-CLACSO-IBICT Joint Declaration recommends Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) to ensure the protection of scholarly and scientific output in open access. Its goal is to create, share, maintain and preserve the knowledge of the region.

    In brief, metrics based on the impact factor, the use and encouragement to use CC-BY license, preferring English over national languages, the belief that APC can sustain journals financially, and above all, making agreements with Clarivate, is what definitely fragmented the built open access ecosystem.

    Analysing in retrospect two different vision are seen.

    On the one hand, there’s SciELO’s proposal of giving visibility to and positioning regional output in the recognised science, the mainstream as excellence and citation metrics as appropriate measures of scientific work and impact. From this perspective, open access was a mere means to intensify visibility which is reinforced as it’s compliant with Budapest Statement and CC-BY licenses. Open access was a means, a strategy to make visible and incorporate regional output into the mainstream. This may account for the lack of technological innovation in its developments and the radical orthodox of tagging citations to the slightest detail.

    On the other hand, from its foundational document, Latindex is born as a critique to the so-called ‘mainstream.’ CLACSO and Redalyc, focusing on social sciences and humanities, however, with a critical perspective to commercialisation models, the link with society, the role of regional, national and local science, are of another sort since they work with contextualized problems in such fields. It’s natural and reasonable that they distance themselves from a model that doesn’t represent them—because social sciences and humanities have no place in it—where citation is much more relevant than the two years considered by the IF, this system doesn’t recognise the traditional communication format—books and essays. Besides, these disciplines have been developed on the margins of bibliometric indicators and there’s criticism to the quantitative methods for the inability to capture the complexity of reality. Nevertheless, for this vision open access is a principle—an implicit one—and through it is attempted to reduce access, participation and, mainly, legitimacy of science gaps so that there would be a real participation from the South.

    Two models, two diametrically opposite visions, even though they walked parallel never bumped into each other, open access obtained completely different senses for each which accounts for such fragmentation.

    Is this fragmentation what makes of open access an uncertain project? No, it’s evident that it is not this fragmentation. The vision that awards and legitimises the control of science dissemination and assessment by editorial monopolies is that which call open access into question along with its metrics.

    Such simplistic vision based on sharing without touching the structures of power of the circuit of science is what makes open access move forward without modifying its real situation, what makes confusing which way to follow. It’s the uncritical vision to open (CC-BY) the national or regional output unrestrictedly as publication patrimonial rights are transferred to the editorial consortia’s journals. On the other hand, embargoes increase, deposit obstacles multiply, the monopoly of truth, legitimacy and excellence is maintained since the latter is still linked to controlled metrics by two private monopolies (Clarivate-Scopus) who demand for the use of works (Elsevier VS Research Gate) because they hold publication rights by researchers from the South who carried out—most of times—their researches with public funds.

    Besides retaining patrimonial rights of scientific output, it is the reign of the impact factor and metrics based on citations what we must dismantle, which means affecting the structures of power with the strength and authority of Science and Technology Councils. Unless there’s progress in this direction, open access will move one step forward and two backwards.


    Larivière, V., Haustein, S. & Mongeon, P. (2015). The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS ONE 10(6), 1-15. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502