Is it folly to believe that a medical or scientific journal can have any measurable impact upon global poverty? I don’t think so, and nor does the Task Force on Science Journals, Poverty, and Human Development, of which I’m a member.
There is, of course, very little (if any) high quality research evidence showing that journal articles lead directly to changes in behavior – it would be interesting to design a randomized controlled trial to answer this question. Nevertheless, I agree with Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ and currently on the PLoS Board of Directors, that “journals seem to be good at putting issues onto the professional and public agenda” (it’s a quote from a great article called Can medical journals lead or must they follow?).
To be somewhat self serving for a moment, although PLoS Medicine is barely two years old, we have already published papers that arguably helped raise awareness of certain health issues and that caused policy makers to take notice. Perhaps the best example is a paper, published in our Neglected Diseases section, titled Rapid-Impact Interventions: How a Policy of Integrated Control for Africa's Neglected Tropical Diseases Could Benefit the Poor. Its authors made the case that for just 40 cents per person per year we could control seven major tropical diseases in Africa, such as hookworm and trachoma, benefiting 500 million people. The paper led both to a UK parliamentary question by a member of parliament, Nicholas Soames, about the UK's funding of parasitic diseases, and to the addition of neglected diseases to a UN mandate.
So imagine what might happen if every scientific and medical journal on the planet simultaneously published a high profile theme issue or leader on poverty and human development. This suggestion might sound pie in the sky, but Annette Flanagin, Managing Editor of JAMA, is working to make it happen. She’s suggested to the Task Force that we try and get at least 100 journals signed up to her inspirational idea (if you’re a journal editor and you want to come on board, let me know).
As you can imagine, I feel passionately that the most effective way that journals can help to lift people out of the extremes of poverty is to champion open access to the world’s treasury of medical, scientific, and technical knowledge. I’m not alone in my conviction – the United Nations, for example, has repeatedly championed open access as a development tool. If you’re unconvinced that open access has anything to do with human development, I urge you to read the UN Millennium Project report Innovation: applying knowledge in development. The lead author is Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government and another member of the PLoS Board of Directors. The report includes an extremely compelling description, with some fantastic case studies, of how developing countries are improving their capacity to harness scientific and technical knowledge to solve local problems themselves. But they can only do this if they have an adequate pool of public domain knowledge in the first place.
And this is where editors can step in. As the PLoS Medicine editors say in our editorial this month, expanding the amount of essential information placed in the public domain “would give developing countries the scientific and technical information needed to solve fundamental challenges, promote public health, manage the environment, and participate in international trade.” How can we not do it?
By the way, this is the first of a regular blog written by one of the five PLoS Medicine editors (we'll be taking it in turns). We look forward to your feedback.