This article appeared in World-Information City, October 17, 2005. (World-Information City is the print newspaper distributed to delegates at the November 2005 meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.)

Open Access to Science in the Developing World

by Peter Suber and Subbiah Arunachalam

Since the birth of the scientific journal in 1665 scientists have been publishing journal articles without payment. They may expect royalties for their textbooks and monographs, but they give away their journal articles in exchange for a host of intangible benefits, such as a time-stamp that gives them priority over other scientists working on the same problem, and the prestige, citations, and impact that advance their careers.

For more than 300 years, these author-donated works were distributed in print editions, whose costs were covered by subscription fees. The rise of the internet, however, meant that the tradition of free offering by authors could finally be matched with free distribution --or open access-- to readers.

At about the same time that the internet was born, the price of journals began to grow sharply. The average price of a science journal has risen four times faster than inflation for the past two decades. The result is an access crisis in which no institutions can afford access to the full range of journals. Librarians have responded by cancelling subscriptions and cutting into their book budgets. Scientists have responded by working out alternative ways of sharing their research.

Open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. It can be delivered through OA journals, which perform peer review, or through OA archives or repositories, which do not. One of the achievements of the worldwide OA movement is to persuade 80% of non-OA journals to let their authors deposit the peer-reviewed versions of their work in OA repositories.

OA is gathering momentum around the world. Today there are over 1,650 peer-reviewed OA journals and over 500 interoperable OA repositories. In the US, the National Institutes of Health asks all its grantees to provide OA to the results of NIH-funded research within 12 months of publication. The Wellcome Trust requires OA to Wellcome-funded research within six months of publication, and the Research Councils UK are considering a similar policy with an even shorter delay. Major research institutions in Australia, China, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, the UK, and the US have committed themselves to provide OA to their research output. (Also see these.)

OA is a matter of special concern in developing countries, which have less money to fund or publish research and less to buy the research published elsewhere. Most libraries in sub-Saharan Africa have not subscribed to any journal for years. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has the best-funded research library in India, but its annual library budget is just Rs 100 million (about $2.2 million).

There are several programs, like HINARI and AGORA, in which journal publishers donate electronic subscriptions to developing countries whose per capita GDP is less than $1,000. These programs mitigate the access crisis but do not solve it. India is surprisingly excluded even though its per capita GDP is less than $500! Moreover, insofar as they satisfy demand, they reduce the urgency of deep reforms that will bring about a superior, OA system of scientific communication.

About half the world's OA journals pay their bills by charging upfront fees for accepted papers. The fees are usually paid by the author's research grant or employer, not out of the author's pocket. The Public Library of Science and BioMed Central, the two best-known OA publishers, waive these fees in cases of economic hardship, no questions asked.

There are many successful OA initiatives in the developing world. These include Bioline International, which hosts electronic OA versions of 40 developing country journals; SciELO, which hosts more than 80 journals published in Latin American countries and Spain; and African Journals Online (AJOL), which provides free online access to titles and abstracts of more than 60 African journals and full text on request. The Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT), established in 1996, promotes open access to the world's scholarly literature and the electronic publication of bioscience journals from countries experiencing difficulties with traditional publication.

India is home to many OA journals that charge no author-side fees. All 10 journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences and all four journals of the Indian National Science Academy are OA journals. INSA has already produced free-access electronic versions of back volumes for all its journals, and the Indian Academy of Sciences has launched a similar digitization project for its back run. The Journal of the Indian Institute of Science is also available in this form back to its very first issue, published in 1914. The Indian Medlars Centre of the National Informatics Centre is bringing out OA versions of 33 biomedical journals and has an OA bibliographic database, providing titles and abstracts of articles from 50 Indian biomedical journals. Medknow Publications, a company based in Mumbai, has helped 30 medical journals make the transition from print to electronic open access and most of them are doing much better now than before.

OA archiving is even more promising than OA journals. It is less expensive, allows faster turnaround, and is compatible with publishing in conventional journals.

For researchers in developing countries, OA solves two problems at once: making their own research more visible to researchers elsewhere, and making research elsewhere more accessible to them. OA, if adopted widely, can raise the profile of an entire nation's research output. When Indian research, for example, is published in expensive journals, then all too often it goes unnoticed by other researchers in India. OA journals and archives help to integrate the work of scientists everywhere into the global knowledge base, reduce the isolation of researchers, and improve opportunities for funding and international collaboration.

Although developed countries were the first to encourage OA to publicly-funded research, the model is very appealing in developing countries and likely to spread. One direct way is simply to put an OA condition on publicly-funded research grants. Another is to have universities and research laboratories set up institutional archives and adopt policies encouraging or requiring researchers to deposit their research output even if they also publish it in conventional journals.

Providing OA to publicly-funded research accelerates research, gives taxpayers (both lay readers and professional researchers) access to the research they funded, and increases the return on their investment in research. As this argument gets traction in developing countries, the transformation should be dramatic.

Doesn't the digital divide interfere with these plans? Yes and no. First, internet access is improving rapidly in many developing countries and equipment costs and connectivity charges are coming down. Second, we should work now on the content side of the divide in order to take full advantage of every increment of progress on the hardware side. Primarily, this means educating scientists about the benefits of OA and persuading universities, libraries, funding agencies, and governments to adopt OA-friendly policies.

OA helps researchers directly, both as authors and readers. It helps the institutions that fund and supervise research, from universities and laboratories to foundations and governments. It widens the distribution of research literature and lowers costs at the same time, and does so without compromising peer review, preservation, indexing, or the other virtues of conventional publishing. Above all, because OA enhances research productivity and accelerates the pace of discovery, it helps everyone who benefits from research advances. It's a beautiful solution to a serious problem.


Peter Suber is the Open Access Project Director at Public Knowledge and a Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College. Subbiah Arunachalam is a Distinguished Fellow at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

First put online September 3, 2005.

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