Tear down
this wall

The open access debate in life sciences and how it affects translation

Avi Staiman

Avi Staiman

Avi Staiman is the founder and managing director of Academic Language Experts, a company based in Jerusalem, Israel, that has helped clients translate and edit their academic research for publication since 2011.

Avi Staiman

Avi Staiman

Avi Staiman is the founder and managing director of Academic Language Experts, a company based in Jerusalem, Israel, that has helped clients translate and edit their academic research for publication since 2011.


cholarly publishing is at a critical crossroads. Universities, publishing houses and the wider academic community are contemplating the best way to publish research in the life sciences and other fields.

According to the classic publishing model, academic publishers lock research articles behind expensive paywalls. Prohibitive pricing often means that individuals are unable to afford access to scholarly publications, while university libraries and similar institutions are forced to spend large sums in order to provide their faculty with access to the research they need.

Over the last two decades, the open access movement has slowly been changing the face of publishing in the life sciences by doing away with paywalls and making research available to the public and scholars, free of charge. The open access model transfers the burden of funding research from university libraries to grant-making bodies in the public and private sectors. The spread of open access has been slow but steady, with 55% of academic journals in the life sciences now offering either entirely open access or an open access option.

On the one hand, publishers contend that the expensive subscription model is the only way to maintain a robust peer review process, ensuring that the research meets rigorous academic standards. On the other hand, many university libraries suffer from the crippling prices publishers charge for access to packages of their most important journals. They also complain that the process is not transparent, as publishers negotiate contracts, bound by nondisclosure agreements, with each institution separately.

There is some potential impact of the open access revolution on academic translators and editors. As the academic world becomes ever more globalized, professional academic translators and editors are increasingly playing a critical behind-the-scenes role in ensuring that research papers by nonnative English-speaking scholars, who are competing to publish their research in top academic journals like Nature, The American Naturalist and Cell, are written clearly and coherently. But open access has the potential to disrupt this emerging synthesis — perhaps for the better.

Open access: Pros and cons

In February 2019, the University of California announced that it was dropping its subscription to publishing giant Elsevier in protest of the exorbitant pricing of its journals. The subscription, which included access to 2,500 scholarly publications, cost the university $10 million per year.

“Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the US — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all,” said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley, in a statement released to the press. “Publishing our scholarship behind a paywall deprives people of the access to and benefits of publicly-funded research. That is terrible for society.”

The University of California — whose ten campuses collectively make up one of the largest research institutions in the United States — is not alone. Over three hundred German and Swedish institutions also refused to renew their contracts with the publishing giant in 2018.

However, it remains unclear whether the university’s move is the beginning of a trend, especially as publishers also have persuasive arguments on their side. Big publishers claim that a move to open access can have unforeseen consequences that may negatively impact science and its ecosystem.

Cutting library subscriptions would force publishers, they say, to compromise on important scholarly principles. This means not only peer review, but also data analysis and language services, alongside traditional publication costs.

A 2017 study estimated that life sciences publishers make a 40% profit margin from their publications. The open access model would significantly cut into this profitable revenue stream, limiting the budget available for review and quality control.

Another major issue is that universities do not always allocate funding to individual researchers to pay for open access. Scholars can end up paying thousands of dollars out of pocket just for their research to be accessible.

Finally, some journals are connected to scholarly societies that use journal subscription fees to fund their activities. A January 2019 article in Science discussed just this issue and reported that the Genetics Society of America, for instance, predicts a 33% loss of revenue. Some scholarly societies are even concerned that the financial impact may force them to sell their publications to commercial publishers.

Large scale commercial publishers and journal editors are likely to retain high language standards, so the rise of open access should have little effect on editors and translators working directly for such journals. But small- to mid-range publishers struggling to cut costs and speed up the publication process may feel the impact more and be tempted to put the onus of language on the authors.

Do these concerns merit halting the progress of open access scholarship? Do publishers really have to compromise on quality, or can they simply adjust to the new market reality and become more efficient? At the very least, the concerns raised by journals give us pause to consider whether all journals should move to open access or if there are specific cases where the traditional publication model ought to be preserved.

The impact on translators and editors in the life sciences

Academic translators and editors have already been affected significantly by these tectonic shifts in the publishing industry, and the influence of open access research will only grow. It is, of course, impossible to know with certainty what impact these factors will have on academic translators and editors. However, we can outline a few possible outcomes and identify the trends that life science authors, translators and editors should be looking out for in the months and years to come.

First, it is important to understand where funding for language services comes from. In many cases, journals have their own in-house editors or proofreaders who are in charge of making sure that all manuscripts are edited, revised and prepared for publication. However, in recent years, more and more journals are placing the responsibility for submitting an error-free manuscript and creating graphs, charts, images, diagrams and other prepublication tasks on the authors themselves. The authors receive funding for this work from their institutions or, oftentimes, pay out of pocket.

As open access expands and revenue streams for academic publishers dry up, they may look to downsize and dispense with services that are not essential to their core business. This could mean less in-house editing by journals (an already-existing trend), which shifts the burden of polishing the language to the scholar. This may decrease the number of editing positions at the publishing houses, while at the same time creating more work to be outsourced to professional freelance editors and translators. Language professionals may have to acquire a larger range of increasingly valuable skills, including image creation and formatting, as scholars are forced to look for a comprehensive solution to their editing needs.

The popularity of open access textbooks is growing. Students often find the price of textbooks prohibitive, so some professors are moving toward a free model. LibreTexts offers free textbooks and resources in a number of subjects, including chemistry. OpenStax offers free textbooks aimed at large introductory courses, also including chemistry.

The popularity of open access textbooks is growing. Students often find the price of textbooks prohibitive, so some professors are moving toward a free model. LibreTexts offers free textbooks and resources in a number of subjects, including chemistry. OpenStax offers free textbooks aimed at large introductory courses, also including chemistry. Sources: LibreTexts and OpenStax, via the March 18, 2019, issue of Chemical & Engineering News.

On the other hand, universities and institutions will be relieved of the burden of high access fees and may, in turn, be able to devote resources to promoting, developing and improving the quality of scholars’ research and publications, including by investing in language services. This is especially true in non-English speaking countries, where language can often present a significant barrier on the road to publication. This potential investment may create new opportunities for language experts to assist authors in publishing their research.

Plan S: The next stage in the open access battle

The next stage in the fight over publication access is called Plan S. Developed by Science Europe, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC), in September of 2018, the plan will essentially force scholars who have received financial support from state-funded research institutions and organizations to publish their work in open access journals. When the plan comes into effect in 2020, its authors believe it will ensure that publicly funded research always remains accessible to the public.

The main tenets of Plan S are:

1 Authors retain the copyright to their work

2 Funders set the criteria for what services journals must provide.

3 Funders support new journals and platforms if none are available.

4 Open access publication fees are covered by the grant funders.

5 Publication fees are capped (at a yet-to-be-determined amount).

While Plan S is still being debated and still has a way to go before it reaches the implementation stage, it is clear from the preliminary discussions that funding institutions want to bring a higher level of transparency and accountability to the publishing industry. In essence, to change the way research is distributed. If by working on a large scale Plan S can make research more accessible and keep standards high, that will benefit the academic community at large.

The plan has already garnered considerable support in Europe and internationally. Large private grantmaking bodies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have joined the coalition, as have libraries and research funding bodies as far away as China. More than 1,800 researchers recently signed an open letter in support of open access. Though the letter does not specifically mention Plan S, it dovetails with the aims of the project.

However, in addition to opposition from other academics, who say that Plan S violates their academic freedom, the German Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft has also not joined the initiative, citing concerns that the plan may increase the fees paid by authors for publication.

The impact of Plan S on life sciences translators and editors

If and when Plan S, or other, similar proposals, goes into effect, it is likely to have a significant impact on language professionals who make their living translating reasearch. However, it is not yet clear exactly what that impact will be. To understand and track the overall trend, it will be important to see how submission rates to specific journals change after the plan is implemented, and the emphasis those journals place on language. Authors and their institutions may pay less or more for academic translation or editing services depending on which target journals end up gaining from Plan S.

There are a number of possible scenarios for how the plan will affect translators and editors in the life sciences. If articles are channeled to a specific group of open access journals that conform to Plan S requirements, and those journals have high language standards, it could mean more opportunities for in-house editors, translators and proofreaders.

Alternatively, if journals that put a premium on language quality receive fewer submissions (because those supported by Plan S funders go elsewhere) they may not have the budget to pay for rigorous editing. If academic institutions step in to assist their scholars, there may be more freelance work for translators and editors who work with individual institutions and scholars.

However, if academic institutions don’t step in, scholars may have insufficient funds to pay for professional language services out of pocket. As the number of journals from non-English speaking countries continues to increase, and the competition becomes more rigorous, the value of writing and grammar may become a critical component to publication and these scholars will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the specific field of academic expertise and to what extent written form plays a role in publications in the field. There is already a significant gap between language quality in many life sciences journals as opposed to the humanities and social sciences. This factor could further impact scholars’ decisions about engaging professional language services.

While it is too early to tell what effect Plan S will have on academic translation and language editors, there is no doubt that language professionals will experience the ripple effects of the changing publishing landscape. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of the issues in order to best navigate the changing tides of research. The language industry and professional associations need to play an active role in the formation of a new policy in order to ensure that language experts continue to play a critical role in the publication process.