A common saying is “Necessity is the mother of innovation”. This proverb came to my mind when I started the research for this article. Certainly, I was expecting to find information related to the difficulties of implementing Open Access policies in Latin America and the barriers this region faces regarding the distribution and access of scientific knowledge. I did find that, but beyond my initial expectations, I also acquired a surprising new perspective on the topic related to tradition and innovation.
The beginning of the open access movement is frequently associated with the Budapest Open Access Initiative introduced in 2002. However, initiatives prioritizing open access can be identified at least ten years before. In 1991, the first preprint online repository, ArXiv.org, was founded. In 1993, the Open Society Institute was created. Then, in 1997, Brazil launched the Scientific Electronic Library Online, an online network and journal collection that only indexes Open Access publications.1,2 Therefore, Latin America clearly has a tradition of such initiatives.
Open Access system in Latin America and the Caribbean
The region has a very innovative Open Access system supported by government and institutional funding, enabling a sustainable model of free-to-publish and free-to-read scholarly communication. Journals’ portals are sponsored by public funding at a national, regional, and institutional level and theses’ repositories provide access to research to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Examples include the São Paulo Research Foundation Virtual Library (Brazil) and the Academic repository from Universidad de Chile. In addition, Argentina, Mexico, and Peru have Open Access laws approved by their government.
This funding system and collaborative approach helped to advance the number of Open Access publications in the region. According to UNESCO3, the digital libraries SciELO [Scientific Electronic Library Online in Brazil] and Redalyc [Network of Scientific Journals from Latin America, Caribbean, Spain, and Portugal in Mexico] make available to the public more than 1000 Open Access peer-reviewed journals.
In the Directory of Open Access Journals, 16,749 journals are registered, of which 19.2% are from Latin America and the Caribbean. The country with more indexed journals is Brazil (50.9%) followed by Colombia (12.5%), Argentina (9.9%), Mexico (5.9%), and Chile (4.4%). Notably, the contribution of the United Kingdom and the United States with Open Access journals represents 10.9% and 5.6%, respectively.
Despite all these numbers and traditions, the progress of Latin America Open Access initiatives is constantly threatened by internal and external challenges. The availability of funding, the need for infrastructure, the lack of visibility, and the use of international evaluation metrics. All these aspects overshadow and hamper the significant progress and protagonism of Latin American countries in global scholarly communication.
Challenges to open access progress in Latin America
It may seem contradictory how Open Access helped advance the scientific culture in Latin America while the region faces many challenges to advance Open Access initiatives. But this contradiction can be explained by several internal and external pressures.
For instance, the number of Open Access publications from the countries in the region indexed at the Scientific Electronic Library Online decreased from 2014 to 2016, while the number of publications from the same region indexed at Web of Science (a global database) increased.4 This trend is reinforced by a contradiction between the Latin American Open Access initiatives and the metrics used for researcher evaluation.
While government agencies support the Open Access digital libraries through specific requirements for free access to funded research, the same agencies use international indicators (e.g. journal impact factor) to evaluate researchers. This approach is leading to a detrimental effect on the adherence to such platforms, which is harming Open Access initiatives in Latin America in the long term.
As argued by Aguado López and Becerril García in the article “Latin America’s longstanding open access ecosystem could be undermined by proposals from the Global North”5, the continued use of platforms that favor metrics such as impact factors, and consequently, the commercial publishers only contribute to void the competitiveness of Latin American Open Access production.
The most obvious challenge in Latin America is the funding of infrastructure to develop and keep digital libraries and databases. It is not uncommon that law requires the free availability of public-funded research but the country/region lacks minimal infrastructure, such as an online data-sharing portal.3 Implementing metrics aligned with the region’s reality should be prioritized to encourage funding maintenance to sustain the digital platforms. Such metrics may include the number of downloads, access, and social media share as proposed by Altmetric. This will give value to the high cost of developing and keeping digital libraries’ infrastructure and their essential role to have accessible data.
Another crucial aspect of data accessibility in Latin America is internet access. The internet provides the space to establish Open Access repositories and e-journals. However, internet access is a major issue in some countries and regions.6 While, the USA, and EU have an internet penetration of 95% and 89.4%, respectively, this indicator in Latin America is lower corresponding to 66% on average.7
Other problems Latin American countries face are less evident. The scientific peer-review system unfortunately is sometimes biased by authors’ origin or institutional affiliation impairing the international visibility of Latin American research. Some researchers argue that developed countries should help the region to overcome these challenges.8 Open Access reach will indeed be higher if every country in the world that produces scientific knowledge is committed to it. However, it is important to consider the particularities of each country and what each of them has already done. It is also important to acknowledge that many initiatives in Latin America were very fruitful and that the research done in many Latin American countries is of very high quality, independently of the level of country development.
Currently, the main challenge to Latin American Open Access is the decision to adhere or not to a European initiative such as Plan-S. The problem of combining Plan-S and Latin American initiatives relies on the type of Open Access aimed. According to Plan-S, the Open Access publishing would follow the payment of article processing charges, which would be transferred from authors to institutions or funding agencies. However, the traditional and successful model in Latin America aims for an Open Access publication without financial requests, neither to authors nor to readers.
To Latin American countries, adhering to Plan-S could mean choosing between paying fees for Open Access or paying for publishing infrastructure such as the digital journal’s database. Thus, this may not constitute something that the region can compromise at the expense of its traditional Open Access system.
A better way to solve this dilemma is through an extensive debate including all stakeholders. Latin American countries should have their voice heard when they state open access, open data, citizenship, and science as their focus for the region.9 The reality of each region should be considered to establish a global initiative.
1. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Open Access: History & Policies, An Overview of Our Changing System of Scholarly Communication.
2. Costa, M. P. da & Leite, F. C. L. (2016). Open access in the world and Latin America: A review since the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Transinformação 28, 33–46.
4. Minniti, S., Santoro, V. & Belli, S. (2018). Mapping the development of Open Access in Latin America and Caribbean countries. An analysis of Web of Science Core Collection and SciELO Citation Index (2005–2017). Scientometrics 117, 1905–1930.
5. Aguado López, E, and Becerril García, A. (2019). Latin America’s longstanding open access ecosystem could be undermined by proposals from the Global North.
8. Onie, S. (2020). Redesign open science for Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nature 587, 35–37.
9. UNESCO Montevideo. (2020). Open Science in Latin America and the Caribbean: a strong tradition with a long journey ahead.
Cover illustration by Dana Dumea