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HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS

The West already monopolized scientific publishing. Covid made it worse.

An audience member is swabbed for covid-19 at Yaounde's Olembe Stadium, ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations opening ceremony.
MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY / REUTERS
The pandemic has privileged Western scientists, who are often able to publish papers based data gathered in Asia or Africa.
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

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For nearly a decade, Jorge Contreras has been railing against the broken system of scientific publishing. Academic journals are dominated by the Western scientists, who not only fill their pages but also work for institutions that can afford the hefty subscription fees to these journals. “These issues have been brewing for decades,” said Contreras, a professor at the University of Utah’s College of Law who specializes in intellectual property in the sciences. “The covid crisis has certainly exacerbated things, though.”

The coronavirus pandemic triggered a torrent of academic papers. By August 2021, at least 210,000 new papers on covid-19 had been published, according to a Royal Society study. Of the 720,000-odd authors of these papers, nearly 270,000 were from the US, the UK, Italy or Spain.

These papers carry research forward, of course—but they also advance their authors’ careers, and earn them grants and patents. But many of these papers are often based on data gathered in the global south, by scientists who perhaps don’t have the resources to expand on their research and publish. Such scientists aren’t always credited in the papers their data give rise to; to make things worse, the papers appear in journals that are out of the financial reach of these scientists and their institutes.

These imbalances have, as Contreras said, been a part of the publishing landscape for years. (And it doesn’t occur just in the sciences; economists from the US or the UK, for instance, tend to study countries where English is the most common language.) But the pace and pressures of covid-19 have rendered these iniquities especially stark.

Scientists have paid to publish their covid-19 research—sometimes as much as $5,200 per article. Subscriber-only journals maintain their high fees, running into thousands of dollars a year; in 2020, the Dutch publishing house Elsevier, which puts out journals such as Cell and Gene, reported a profit of nearly $1 billion, at a margin higher than that of Apple or Amazon. And Western scientists are pressing to keep data out of GISAID, a genome database that compels users to acknowledge or collaborate with anyone who deposits the data.

“We really want to share our data,” Senjuti Saha, a microbiologist working in Dhaka, told Nature, “but it is heart-breaking and demotivating when we know we worked so hard to generate data, but we don’t get the credit for it.”

Is academic publishing just for the rich?

Karsten Schubert realized how much anger journal publishers draw when he put out a tweet in early January. Schubert, a political theory lecturer at the University of Freiburg in Germany, had stumbled onto the “accelerated publication” service that Taylor & Francis, a major publisher, offers for some of its biomedical journals—the very journals likely to publish covid research. If a scientist pays $7,000, she can expedite the peer review process and, if the article is found suitable, be published in as few as three weeks. Peer reviewers, who normally work for no pay, are in this case compensated by a relative pittance: $150.

Taylor & Francis isn’t the only publisher to have instituted such a model. Nevertheless, Schubert’s tweet blew up, and not just among scientists. A writing professor suggested a boycott of Taylor & Francis. Devesh Kapur, a professor of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University who writes frequently on the representational imbalances in academia, told Quartz that he was “deeply troubled” by the system, and that it compounds other problems. For instance, Kapur said, researchers in poorer countries aren’t able to access journals so that can they keep themselves abreast of global research trends in their field.”

In an email, a Taylor & Francis spokesperson told Quartz the accelerated review system has been in place for 15 years, and that it was necessary for rapid drug development. Two executives at different pharmaceutical companies, asking not to be named, disputed this argument, saying that research rarely had to be hastened into publication at that pace.

But Taylor & Francis did not respond directly to the point that its model privileges those able to pay. “The academic publishing industry is dominated by Anglophone journals from the US and UK,” Schubert said. “Students at prestigious US and UK institutions are best equipped to succeed in a publishing system effectively run by their supervisors, creating enormous barriers for academics from other countries, especially from the global south.” 

The battle over covid data

For more than a year now, scientists in the West have been calling for covid data to be deposited into an “open” database—a database that, unlike GISAID, doesn’t control access and use of its contents. These scientists (including Francis Collins, former director of the US’s National Institutes of Health) contend that a more open database will speed up analysis and research; GISAID, many have said, slows down such efforts.

As of December 2021, GISAID held more than 6 million genome sequences of the coronavirus and its variants. During the early weeks of omicron’s detection in southern Africa, for instance, researchers in the region uploaded thousands of viral sequences, enabling scientific analysis elsewhere that helped countries prepare for a new wave.

The drive to find an alternative to GISAID has, however, met resistance in the Global South. A May 2021 editorial in IOL, the South African news outlet, called the campaign “a wolf in ‘open data’ clothing,” arguing that the Western habit of appropriating the work of scientists in developing countries echoed the “moral bankruptcy” of the vaccine nationalism of wealthy countries. Christian Happi, a microbiologist at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria, made a similar point to Nature: “Imagine Africans working so hard to contribute to a database that’s used to make or update vaccines, and then we don’t get access to the vaccines… It’s very demoralizing.”

Jorge Contreras noted some moves, during the pandemic, by publishers and institutions to make the field more equitable. Taylor & Francis, for instance, joined a Wellcome Trust initiative to make its covid-related publications freely available. “This is a great effort,” Contreras said. But his view on what the academic publishing crisis means for the developing world, he said, “is still largely as it was…about nine years ago.”

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