Withdrawal of journal access is a wake-up call for researchers in the developing world

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Guest blog by Leslie Chan, Barbara Kirsop, Subbiah Arunachalam (Trustees for the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development)

The news (see http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d196 ) that several publishers have withdrawn access to health journals from the academic communities in Bangladesh has come as a wake-up call about the limitations of the HINARI programme. Many on the HIFA-2015 (Healthcare Information For All by 2015)  forum feel this annoucement is a disaster, and that the only way to resolve the situation is to launch a concerted effort to restore journal access to those in Bangladesh.

In our opinion, this would be a retrograde step since, owing to the commercial nature of the journals in question, the same situation will inevitably arise in the future. Donor programmes do nothing to build research capacity, and access is governed by marketing decisions rather than research needs. The Electronic Publishing Trust for Development has been working in partnership with many other organisations (including Bioline International , SciELO , MedKnow Publications, and Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook (OASIS) ) to promote the development benefits of open access journals and archived articles in open access institutional repositories.

But in the face of powerful UN organisations (WHO, UNEP, FAO) and commercial publishers of prestigious journals offering ‘free access’ it has been difficult to persuade dependent communities that open access is sustainable and could do much to strengthen research in poorer countries.

We would like to make the following points:

1. HINARI is primarily about access to knowledge from the North by the South. The
underlying assumption that this is all that is needed must be challenged. Using Virginia Barbours firefighting analogy, information  about useful techniques involving high tech equipment and sophisticated training may be made freely available on the web, but it may not be applicable to firefighters in poor countries where the infrastructure is missing. The information may be irrelevant and therefore of little use. Meanwhile local knowledge about how to prevent and fight fires (or in our case, carry out new research) is not recorded and shared because of lack of infrastructure. Even when it is recorded and “published”, it is largely inaccessible because of the low visibility of “local” journals. So the sharing of locally relevant research information can never be solved by HINARI, even if accession to all the withdrawn journals (Northern journals) were restored.

2. The current scholarly communication system is controlled by the North and how knowledge is legitimized, validated, and rewarded is based on criteria set by the North. This structural inequality is a long-standing problem for research and dissemination from the South. It follows that the need for open access is more pressing for researchers and front line health workers in the developing world, because it promises not only access, but participation in research exchange and new forms of knowledge dissemination. Programs such as HINARI have actually slowed down progress towards open access in these parts of the world because – coming with the legitimacy of the UN organizations – they have diverted attention from the need to build truly local and sustainable infrastructure. More importantly, they have diverted attention from looking at alternative mechanisms for knowledge creation and sharing.

3. Open source digital repository software and journal publishing systems are now widely used and scholars and research bodies in the developing world are starting to take advantage of these tools and share experiences. There are also a variety of sustainability models for the equal distribution of research publications that are beginning to emerge, and these need to be nurtured and discussed more broadly at the local and the national level.

4. Health knowledge (and indeed all publicly funded knowledge) is a global public good and as such, requires a different funding and global governance system. The current approach, whereby each institution purchases its own subscriptions is one reason why we have a highly dysfunctional system of paying for scholarly publications.  At a pre-International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) conference in 2010, Leslie Chan proposed a “1%” challenge” to library directors.  If all the major research libraries around the
world were to set aside 1% of their acquisitions for commercial licenses into a global open access fund, there would be hundreds of millions of dollars available to support diverse open access initiatives around the world. This is one of many possible scenarios that could solve funding for open access. The dismay felt in many developing countries caused by the announced withdrawal of access to information in Bangladesh signals the need to think differently and collectively.

5. It should be recognised that when publications are made freely available, usage by developing countries is very high indeed, proving the overwhelming need for all information to be available open access and on a sustainable basis. As an example, the link to statistics of usage of the Venezuelan University de Los Andes institutional repository, see http://www.saber.ula.ve/stats?level=general&type=access&page=downviews-series&start=01-01-2011&end=02-01-2011&pyear=2011&pmonth=01&anoinicio=2011&anofim=2011&mesinicio=01&mesfim=01, shows how important these resources have become. Similarly high usage figures are recorded by organizations provindg an open access platform for local journals, eg SciELO, Bioline International and MedKnow Publications. Pre-open access local journals become post-open access international journals, with records showing that improved submissions, impact and sales of hardcopy versions follow from increased visibility and access.

6. Where is the leadership of the WHO in this important debate? Where are the other UN agencies? Since open access to all publicly funded research, not only in health, but in agriculture, the environment and all other aspects of research is urgently required to help solve global problems, these organisations should be leading the way.

The following links to websites and articles may be of interest to readers concerned about access to research information by the academic communities in the developing world:

Bioline International – http://www.bioline.org.br

SciELO – http://www.scielo.org

MedKnow Publications – http://www.medknow.com

Electronic Publishing Trust for Development – http://www.epublishingtrust.org

Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook (OASIS) – http://www.openoasis.org

[i] “The chain of communication in health science: from researcher to
health worker through open access”. Open Medicine 2009; 3(3):111-119

[ii] “Open Access: a giant leap towards bridging health inequities. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009;87:631-635

[iii] “Access to Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development: Options
for Developing Countries”. Ariadne Issue 52 (July 2007).

Competing interests Leslie Chan, Barbara Kirsop and Subbiah Arunachalam are trustees of the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development, which promotes open access. Leslie Chan is the Director of Bioline International.

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