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Access to Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development: Options for Developing Countries

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Barbara Kirsop, Leslie Chan and Subbiah Arunachalam consider the impact of donor access and open access to research publications on the sustainable development of science in developing countries.

The term 'sustainable development' was first coined by the Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations in 1983 [1]. It denotes 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' Although defined originally to meet the concerns relating to environmental damage, it has since been used to encompass the broader needs of society through economic, social and political sustainability.

Over the past few decades, it has been widely recognised that sustainable economic growth cannot take place without a strong science base. In 1982, a UNESCO report stated that 'assimilation of scientific and technological information is an essential precondition for progress in developing countries'. Again, a few years ago, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs instituted a project known as SIST (Système d'Information Scientifique et Technique) the major goal of which is to facilitate sustainable development through support of regional research along the priorities defined by the countries themselves (health, renewable resources, agronomy, human and social sciences, Information and Communication Technology) [2]. Other authoritative organisations such as the InterAcademy Council [3], the Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India [4] and many international individuals affirm this position [5][6].

How, then, can low-income countries strengthen their research capacity?

Research is an international activity where progress builds on the reported results of colleagues around the world. It follows that access to published results in a refereed journal is a critical ingredient to forging a strong research environment. But, as is now well recorded [7], the cost of access to published journals has become prohibitive for developing countries and has deteriorated in the past decade as journal subscription prices exceed general inflation figures three- or four-fold. A number of initiatives have been set up to try to overcome this problem [8].

This article compares two broad approaches - donations and free open access - in terms of their sustainability and ability to build scientific research capacity. We define Donor Access (DA) as free accessibility to published, refereed journals made possible by publishers, through targeted funding or the programmes of charitable organisations. Open Access (OA), is defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative [9] as free accessibility to peer-reviewed literature online through:

  • open access institutional repositories (IRs) or centralised subject repositories, that contain refereed journal papers deposited by authors, or
  • open access journals that provide free content to readers.

There is confusion and some overlap in that:

  1. some printed toll-access (TA) publications are made freely available online,
  2. some TA publications are free only for limited periods of time (e.g. for the first month after publication),
  3. some TA publications provide free access to only part of their publications (e.g. research findings only, or back issues only),
  4. some TA publications are free to selected end-users only (e.g. society members), and
  5. some journals participating in the donor programmes to increase visibility are also available through OA.

We confine our comparisons to initiatives that provide free access to entire publications (full text) either through donation projects or OA.

These two approaches are compared using selected sustainable development indicators appropriate for our purpose:

  • Relevance
  • Access and ease of use/search
  • Affordability
  • Usage
  • Capacity building and permanence

Comparison by Sustainable Development Indicators

Relevance

The relevance of individual articles to specific research projects depends on many factors that include discipline, timeliness and quality and is determined by the researcher's own needs and experience. The volume of material available directly affects the ability of researchers to access relevant material.

Donor Access: Relevance of articles to users can never be determined by the publishers of journals, although the provision of a comprehensive volume of journals could cover many requirements. The UN programmes of HINARI/OARE/AGORA [10], supported respectively by the WHO, UNEP and the FAO, currently provide access for selected institutions to some 6000 titles across the three programmes. Inclusion of titles depends on the willingness of publishers to make them available without charge, which in turn is dependent on sales in different countries (see Access and Affordability, below). It should be noted that the total number of titles includes a number already made available through Open Access.

Although it is important that researchers in the developing world have access to the latest research, the relevance of articles available through the DA programmes is not necessarily appropriate to conditions they meet. Furthermore, articles published by developing country researchers in journals published in the North will not always be those made available to their colleagues through the DA programmes.

The titles provided through the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) PERI [11] Programme and the Open Society Institute-supported eIFL [12] Programme depend on the development of consortia of institutions or the 'bundling' of titles made available by collaborating publishers to different end-user communities. The Ptolomy Project [13], provides access to medical journals held in the University of Toronto's Library to surgeons in East and Central Africa, who are affiliates of the Office of International Surgery at the University of Toronto, and carries out other infrastructure activities to strengthen the regional electronic surgical communities. It is therefore a highly targeted initiative concerned with building capacity as well as providing access to the scientific literature.

Open Access: OA makes freely available all material published in OA journals or deposited in IRs and central OA repositories around the world and its relevance is limited only by the volume of material published or deposited by authors. The number of OA journals registered in the Directory of OA Journals [14] in June 2007 is 2725. The number of IRs has now reached ~ 910, though not all have been registered in the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR) database [15]. Total numbers of deposits in each repository are highly variable and change frequently due to new material being deposited, making it difficult to reach a reliable total figure. However, the ROAR service shows the growth of deposits in individual repositories. The centralised PubMedCentral repository now contains approaching 1 million records, and increasingly includes journals from developing countries. It is mirrored in the UK, and a Canadian version is planned.

All registered repositories are compliant with the internationally accepted Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting standard (OAI-PMH) and searchable through the dedicated OAIster search program [16], as well as through Google, Google Scholar and Yahoo search services. A further indication of the growing amount of open access material currently accessible for harvesting is therefore given by the number of compliant records searched by OAIster. This currently stands at 12 million records, though not all are full-text research publications.

Many studies have now shown that the growth in the number of deposits reflects the recognition by authors of the greatly increased impact of their articles [17] as a result of global access. In the same way, employers or funding organisations realise that the greatest returns on their research investments are met by the widest distribution of publications arising from their support. Because of the inertia of researchers to deposit their papers in their IRs, as shown in studies by Swan and Brown [18], a growing number of organisations are mandating that this be done. There are currently 23 mandates imposed by institutions, funding organisations and departments, including 5 of the 7 UK Research Councils, UK university departments and the Wellcome Trust and others in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, India, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey, the USA and the European Union (see ROAR's Material Archiving Policies database [19]). As these mandates, and others under consideration, take root and expand to other regions, the quantity of articles available will grow, increasing the relevance of the research findings freely available.

The Free Medical Journals Programme [20] provides a useful service by listing and providing links to some 400 medical journals (listed according to the length of different publishers' embargoes) to all with Internet access.

Access and Ease of Use/Search

Donor Access: Access to DA content in the UN programmes (HINARI, AGORA, OARE) requires that the organisation requesting access be located in a country in which the GDP per capita per annum is < US$1000 (Band 1, for free access) or between US$1000-3000 (Band 2, for access following a payment of £1000 per annum). In some cases, access by a few countries that fall into these bands is nevertheless restricted because publishers have local sales or sales agents. The AGORA Web site currently warns that some access has been reduced recently for Band 2 users. Free access by organisations in countries such as India is denied, even though the country falls into the GDP economic range for access. Access is through registered organisations (generally the libraries of medical or other institutes), although employees of registered organisations may access through their personal computers if within the institute. Access cannot be made from the office or home of individual researchers and requires the issue of passwords by registered libraries. A study carried out by BMC Health Services research [21] found that this has caused difficulties and inconvenience for researchers.

A recent publication from Peru gives the results of a study carried out to estimate the usage of the HINARI titles [22]. It found that in April 2007, of the 150 journals with the highest impact factors on the Science Citation Index available through the scheme, the top five could no longer be accessed. A total of 57% of all journals on offer were similarly inaccessible, although all were accessible in 2003. In the main, the remaining 43% accessible journals were already OA or 'free' to low-income countries. It is not made clear whether there had been technical problems causing access difficulties, or whether the journals had been withdrawn from the programme.

Access to DA content through the eIFL, PERI programmes depends on the inclusion of organisations in schemes to develop consortia to negotiate favourable terms for access to journals and books. All material accessible through Free Medical Journals is free to all with access to the Internet, without the need for registration or the use of passwords. Much full-text material from HighWire Press [23] is also free to all, though the service includes publications in which only the abstracts are available without charge.

Use of some DA projects depends on different user interfaces, and training programmes are organised to facilitate usage and searching. Workshops for the UN programmes are undertaken by country offices or through the work of INASP, the International Network for the Availability of Scholarly Publications, and similar organisations.

Open Access: In general, all articles published in OA journals or deposited in IRs or central repositories are freely available to all with Internet access, using the familiar search mechanisms.

The exception to immediate access is where material deposited in IRs is subject to an embargo period that may be required by a minority of publishers to allow commercial benefits. Of publishers surveyed [24], 62% allow immediate access to articles deposited in IRs. Where the minority of publishers impose an embargo period, it is still possible for interested readers to request an emailed copy of the paper through an automated 'request copy button' found in abstracts and included in the free software [25]. This function mirrors the long-established practice of distributing reprints of papers on request to individual users and ensures that findings are readily available to all wishing to build on published results.

Since many authors from developing countries publish in TA journals from the North, it is important that they also deposit their articles in IRs or central repositories to ensure the widest access for their colleagues and other researchers from low-income countries.

There may be differences in permitted usage of DA and OA articles. Whereas DA material may be subject to usage restrictions - for example, UN programme users may only download a maximum of 15% of the content of an issue or book and publishers may require other end-usage restrictions - usage of all OA material is defined in the Budapest Open Access Initiative as '. . . . permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself'.

The importance of data and literature reuse, and other value-added features such as data mining and social tagging, is a key advantage of OA. Building discovery tools on top of the open content offers exciting opportunities for the future of research progress, not possible where locked PDF files make searching and reuse difficult. With the emergence of the semantic web and e-science, the value of open access is even more keenly recognized, as stated by Keith Jeffery, in his eLPUB Conference 2007 keynote address [26].

Affordability

Donor Access: The cost of both DA and OA provision is a factor affecting the value and sustainability of services. DA programmes are financed by UN and other international agencies together with partnerships with publishers. As mentioned above, access to the UN programmes is only free at the publishers' discretion to registered libraries in the lowest-income countries with GNP levels below US$1000, providing there are not other publisher restrictions, such as the presence of a sales office in the country. Band 2 users must pay US$1000 p.a. for access to the DA journals. As this may be difficult for some registered organisations, they have the option of choosing not to pay this fee and still retaining access to a reduced level of material.

Open Access: Access to all material available to readers through OA (both OA journals and institutional and central repositories) or through the other consortia and 'free' programmes described above, is free to all users with Internet access. However, some OA publishers - especially those in the developed world with established titles, or new publications - may require an 'author/institution-payment' to meet document management costs, though this may be waived on proof of inability to pay. These costs, while not affecting immediate access - since access remains free to readers - may affect the future of article provision through OA journals since it remains to be seen whether the 'author's institution-pays' models are sustainable. However, most OA journals make no charge to authors, recovering their management costs in other ways, such as providing other services, advertising, charging for print version and reprints or support from institutions or international agencies. For these journals, both publishing in and reading articles are free of cost.

The cost of establishing IRs depends on the scope of the repository. A campus-wide digital archive could take time and funding to establish, but the cost of an archive dedicated solely to holding an institute's published research output is low and readily affordable by institutes in the developing world. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (personal communication, Francis Jayakanth), calculates that the set-up and running cost for a year is $6055, including the cost of a PC and a year's management. Other organisations in developing countries have said that they can use existing resources and manpower. The SHERPA organisation in the UK states, 'In the short term, the costs of setting up OA repositories are minimal. Universities already have a good IT infrastructure in place and the connection cost and use of repositories is absorbed within existing overheads, so accessing the material is effectively free' [27].

Usage

The extent to which a service is used is a clear indication of its potential impact on sustainable development. If the service is appropriate, easy to use and cost free, then benefits will follow, and in the area of research information, access to research findings presents significant opportunities.

Donor Access: Detailed evidence-based figures for usage of the UN programmes is available only to publisher partners, although a recent statement by Maurice Long, Programme Coordinator [28], reported that during the one-year period March 2005 - February 2006 there were 3,040,621 PDF downloads of full-text articles by HINARI users and 195,468 PDF downloads by AGORA users. As of May 2007, HINARI provided access to 3,700 journals from ~ 1,000 publishers and as of January 2007, AGORA provided access to ~ 1,000 journals from 40 publishers. The distribution of the downloads was not indicated. Elsevier, a publisher partner in the UN programmes, reported 2.5 million downloads in 2005, and a 50% increase in 2006. This contrasts with the findings on usage from Peru [22], where the number of users had decreased from 12,144 in April 2005 to 5,655 in April 2007. It was found that the usage of other databases had increased in the same period. The need to pay $1000 per annum for access has also left many provincial universities in Peru without access to the HINARI journals. A further technical problem relating to authentication is reported in a recent review of the UN programmes and Microsoft has joined the programmes as a technical partner to solve such problems.

It can be expected that usage of the UN programmes would increase if there were not the barrier to downloading more than 15% of the content from a single issue or book.

The extent of usage of the other programmes (eIFL, PERI, Free Medical Journals, HighWire) is not known. The Ptolomy Project records high use by some surgeons, little or no use by others, but some 300 sessions were recorded in June 2005 [13].

Open Access: The usage of OA material is increasingly documented. For example, the number of full-text downloads from ~60 journals accessed through the non-profit Bioline International site [29] that distributes OA publications generated in developing countries, reached 2.5 million in 2006 (Figure 1).

Bioline site total hits by year with breakdown
Year Total Hits (adjusted) ToC Article Titles Abstract Requests Full-text Requests Journal Info Requests Search Results
2002
224137
44548
105189
26961
7682
2003
445679
116364
149211
45944
26315
2004
854467
121546
288548
157809
33895
2005
2723472
46859
86097
434935
1100615
34202
33637
2006
5749149
75537
162622
1097370
2496511
79334
66318

Figure 1: Table showing Bioline International usage, kindly provided by L.Chan, Bioline International *

Statistics are also available from MedKnow Publications, Mumbai, India [30], which is the largest distributor of open access biomedical peer-reviewed journals in India. Since converting to OA, the usage of the free material has increased steadily (Figure 2), as has the number of submissions - including submissions from non-Indian authors, the Impact Factors of the OA journals and the income from the sale of printed versions of the journals (Figure 3).

graph (69KB) : Figure 2: Article downloads from the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine, kindly provided by D K Sahu, MedKnow Publications

Figure 2: Article downloads from the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine, kindly provided by D K Sahu, MedKnow Publications

graph (37KB) : Figure 3: MedKnow sales of printed journals rising in parallel with OA usage, provided by D K Sahu, MedKnow Publications

Figure 3: MedKnow sales of printed journals rising in parallel with OA usage, kindly provided by D K Sahu, MedKnow Publications

A similar story is provided by the SciELO service providing open access to journals from Latin America [31], as shown for example by the usage figures of material from journals published in Chile (Figure 4).

graph (37KB) : Figure 4: SciELO Chile articles accessed from 2002-2005, kindly provided by Abel Packer, SciELO

Figure 4: SciELO Chile articles accessed from 2002-2005, kindly provided by Abel Packer, SciELO

Internet distribution maps show substantial usage from the southern regions where most developing countries are located. From these figures, it is clear that free online material is increasingly well used in low-income countries. However, a survey carried out in Africa by INASP in 2005 [32] found poor awareness of OA in Africa, while the more recent survey carried out by BioMedCentral [21] found that in a study of four African teaching hospitals and one research institute in five African countries, 66% had used the Internet for health information in the last week. Of the 305 postgraduate doctors surveyed, 70% reported textbooks rather than journals as their main source of information. In two hospitals, Internet cafes were the main Internet access point. For researchers at the externally funded research institution surveyed, electronic resources were their main source of information, and almost all had used the Internet in the last week. It is clear from such studies that access to the Internet is improving steadily and new communications technologies (satellite, radio, hand-held computers, mobile phones, solar energy, long-life batteries, and cybercafes) form an increasingly important part of the knowledge environment. As cyber-ability continues to grow, the availability of a comprehensive range of content becomes the more dominant need if developments are to become sustainable.

Technology Transfer/Capacity Building

As increased availability of research publications necessarily strengthens the research and educational capacity of developing countries, it follows that any limitations on the selection of material available and barriers to access lead to reduced scientific progress and continuing dependence. In general, it is the international user-driven solutions to knowledge access problems that are most likely to strengthen research capacity and, as the new procedures for exchange of research information are incorporated into researchers' working practices, equality of access to essential information will be achieved.

Donor Access: It is encouraging that the UN programmes are recorded as being secure until 2015 [33], but it is a matter of concern that as developing country economies grow, an increasing number of low-income countries will become disenfranchised from such programmes as publishers protect their markets. It is an anomaly that the very success of the UN programmes may lead to their reduction. If the UN programmes should cease, users are left with limited resources, since unrestricted down-loading is not permitted and researchers are unable to develop their own 'reference libraries' of relevant material. Donations may leave users dependent on the goodwill of the donors and limit their ability to build locally relevant research collections and so strengthen their institutional research capacity.

The continuation of TA journals made available through the eIFl and PERI programmes is dependent only on the continuation of the consortia arrangements and the future life of the journals themselves. The long-term sustainability of these programmes is currently unclear.

Open Access: The future of OA journals and repositories seems secure as usage and their place in the knowledge society becomes increasingly established. Detractors of journals adopting the user/institute-pays strategy claim the success of the new economic models is unproven, but as confidence in their quality grows and as funders become more aware of the increased return on investment from the widest possible distribution and use, they show every sign of becoming a permanent feature of the scholarly publications process. Developing country journals distributed by MedKnow Publications, SciELO and Bioline International, for example, record an increasing number of OA journals achieving higher impact factors, as does the Public Library of Science [34].

Although the deposit of articles by authors in open access IRs is slow, a recent survey by Key Perspectives reported that between surveys of author practices carried out in 2004 and 2005, the percentage of scholars reporting self-archiving activity in some form rose from 23% to 49% [35]. This steady but under-reported progress is leading to the development of a number of repository infrastructure initiatives around the world. For example, in Europe, the Digital Repository Infrastructure Vision for Europe (DRIVER) Project [36] has been set up to link and support existing IRs in the EU and encourage the establishment of others to form an EU 'Research Area'. In the UK, the Joint Information Systems Committee-supported DEPOT service [37] has been set up to assist authors wishing to gain maximum impact for their publications by depositing in open access interoperable IRs, when their institutes have not yet established a repository. Articles deposited are returned to institutional repositories once they are set up. In Australia, a Partnership for Sustainable Repositories (Online Research Collections Australia: ORCA Network) [38] has been set up. In Brazil, the IBICT institute is developing a 'toolkit' for institutes wishing to set up IRs [39]. Cross-institutional co-operation in OA initiatives are also developing in countries like India, China, and South Africa. This global interest suggests that IRs are destined to form the bedrock of the scholarly research environment in the future, providing a low cost and user-driven means to sustainable development.

Conclusion

The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) [40] emphasise the urgent need to address problems such as poverty eradication, hunger and malnutrition, child mortality, maternal health, environmental sustainability and combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. It is very clear that without strong scientific platforms built on the widest possible access to research information, these goals will not be met. The InterAcademy Council issued a joint statement to the UN [41] calling on strong international collaboration in developing programmes to implement the goals. If sustainable development is dependent on a strong national science base, then permanent access to the widest possible range of publications from the international library of research is a pre-requisite. Any restrictions in access will inevitably limit reaching independent scientific capability and adversely affect social development and economies. Limiting access to knowledge risks missing critical research findings that may lead researchers to unnecessary duplication of experiments, adding to research costs and retarding the pace of development. Furthermore, access barriers deprive researchers of the ability to make contacts and form partnerships with others working in the same or complimentary fields.

Exchange of research findings must be bi-directional since research information generated in emerging countries is crucial to solving global problems and inappropriate programmes based on incomplete knowledge may otherwise be established. Fortunately, the establishment of IRs in the developing world (~150 at June 2007) and the conversion to OA of journals published in developing regions help close the south-north digital divide that is too often considered unimportant and ignored by the development communities.

During this transition period between traditional publications and the arrival of new technology for sharing and enhancing data provided by the Internet, it is evident that the world of scholarly publishing is changing and that new technology is leading to increased access and use of research findings. As the support programmes and institutional mandates (to provide open access to publicly funded research publications) take root, the permanence and collective support for IRs will ensure a greatly increased volume of free research articles. The present generation of users will automatically turn to free resources available from their laptops, and authors will strive for the greatest impact for their research. Funding bodies will require the greatest returns from their investment in terms of visibility and use, and by their very openness, OA articles will become the norm. For developing countries, the need now is to shift the focus of information provision for research to one of a global common good where the needs of society and research for solving global problems and relieving poverty are the priority. An electronic discussion group [42] provides a forum for African, Asian and Latin American users to keep abreast of developments in both the areas of open access to scholarly literature and knowledge-based development.

While these pivotal developments in the exchange of research information evolve, the DA programmes may provide a valuable interim service, but development organisations at all levels recognise that free exchange of essential scientific knowledge combined with capacity building is the surest way to support sustainable economic growth. As the Global Knowledge Partnership states, there is a 'need for a user driven approach to development and application of technologies'. The InterAcademy Panel's statement to the UN says, 'Sustained progress in reducing poverty and related problems require strengthened institutions for science, technology, and innovation throughout the world, including in each developing nation'. It is of some surprise, then, that the UN organisations are strongly supporting short-term projects, some of which are now reported to be less used than previously, but seem to be unaware of the great benefits to be gained from OA material. It must be hoped that they will join with the growing community of universities, institutes, funding organisations and individuals who are welcoming the opportunities provided by the Internet to exchange and enhance essential publicly funded research results that form the basis of a strong and sustainable global research environment.

References

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Editor's note to Figure 1: I am indebted to the authors for extending the data available at this point in the article. Revision made 15 November 2007.

Author Details

Barbara Kirsop
Co-founder and current secretary EPT
Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT)

Email: ept@biostrat.demon.co.uk
Web site: http://www.epublishingtrust.org

Subbiah Arunachalam
Trustee EPT
Distinguished Fellow MS Swaminathan Research Foundation

Email: Subbiah.arunachalam@gmail.com
Web site: http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/infopoverty/biog.htm

Leslie Chan
Trustee EPT
Associate Director Bioline International

Email: chan@utsc.utoronto.ca
Web site: http://www.bioline.org.br

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Date published: 
30 July 2007

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How to cite this article

Barbara Kirsop, Leslie Chan, Subbiah Arunachalam. "Access to Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development: Options for Developing Countries". July 2007, Ariadne Issue 52 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue52/kirsop-et-al/


article | by Dr. Radut