You are here: Home / Access to Knowledge / Blogs / Open Movement in India (2013-23): The Idea and Its Expressions

Open Movement in India (2013-23): The Idea and Its Expressions

Posted by Soni Wadhwa at Feb 12, 2024 10:00 PM |
This report identifies some broad patterns that have materialized in the Open Movement in the country in the last decade. The report is based on a reading of the available literature on selected projects and conversations with academicians and advocates of the Open. The rough outline of the Open initiatives is accompanied by reflections on the nature of the Open here and the need to envision it differently from what it currently is.

The report was prepared by Soni Wadhwa, and the visual elements of this study have been sourced by Joseph Francis. CIS’s Access to Knowledge team is grateful to Soni for embarking on the study and making the recommendations. The full report can be read here.

Open, as an idea, has not received systematic attention in India. Openness as a philosophy is rooted in the belief that sharing ideas and resources is healthy for the knowledge economy, especially in contemporary times. This sharing does not take anything away from any entity; rather, it enables collaboration and innovation for the larger social good. With the Internet and digital technology, one can see the faster spread of such innovation across the globe while also allowing for plenty of room for its adaptation to regional contexts. Anchored in the thought and efforts of individuals such as Richard Stallman (1992; 2002; 2006; 2009) and Tim Berners-Lee (Berners Lee, 2004; Berners-Lee, Hendler and Lassila, 2001; Berners-Lee et al 1992; Berners-Lee and Tim, 2010; Berners-Lee, Tim and Hendler, 2001; Berners-Lee, Tim and Shadbollt, 2011; Bizer, Heath and Berners-Lee 2011) who take a view contrary to that of keeping public funded research and innovation locked away under copyright and patent laws, the Open Movement originated in the Global North.

In the West, specifically in the USA, with the support from the institutions such as the Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the manifestation of the Open Movement through the push for OER (Open Educational Resources) translated into a greater uptake from educational institutions such as Rice University and the MIT (through MIT OCW – Open CourseWare)(Bliss and Smith, 2017). With prestigious universities offering MOOCs (massive open online courses) through platforms such as edX and Coursera, educational resources have come to be seen as a social good: keeping them available for mass access has been an intentional move towards equal access to quality educational materials. In addition to OER, Open Access (the idea that research funded by public funds need to be made available publicly rather than behind a paywall erected by commercial publishers), as an expression of the Open Movement, has also been present in institutional funding mechanisms in the West, again, especially in the USA. A lot of research emerging out of grants extended to individuals and institutions have space for allocation of funds towards the cost of Open Access publishing for dissemination of results. Several other initiatives such as the Creative Commons,  and the Wikimedia Foundation have been working towards making Openness a reality by charting out various projects, pathways, and initiatives to keep knowledge accessible to all for learning as well as collaboration.

In India, the state of the Open Movement is thrown into stark relief by the much longer and much more engaged Western imagination and practice of Openness. Indeed, studying its contours here is equivalent to studying its absences and is therefore very challenging. Here, Open, as an idea, has come via the West and still seems to be struggling to be defined and accepted as an ideal to strive towards. It is an alien concept, deeply misunderstood by the stakeholders who control sharing of knowledge resources: policy makers, legislators, leaders of research and institutions, and researchers and academicians in general.

To suggest another example, a pilot survey of Indian faculty members’ attitudes towards use of Open Knowledge sources such as Wikipedia in Indian classrooms reveals that faculty members are very suspicious and skeptical of such sources. They see it as a source of misinformation and therefore, as unreliable.What gets missed is the idea that the content on these sources is not merely for consumption of information and knowledge but are also platforms for knowledge creation and collaboration. In contrast to the two scenarios of OER and Open Access mentioned above, India does not show a long history of organized effort towards making information and knowledge accessible to all, not just through earmarking funds or mechanisms for making publicly funded research available in the public domain via Open Access, but through nurturing a culture of the Open as the default mode of dissemination.

What, then, are we to make of the direction in which the Open Movement is headed in India? Is it possible to shape its trajectory in India? Is it possible to ascertain the ways in which the ideas or benefits of the Open can be made to resonate with the Indian educational and research scenario? Can Indian educators and researchers afford to stay out of the Open ecosystem? What alternative modes of innovation do they champion? These are the questions that this study of the Open Movement in India in the last decade (2013-2023) seeks to explore.

The study is not an exhaustive one: it looks at only some examples that engage with the idea of the Open. The selective nature of the study is informed by two rationales. One, an all-encompassing review would be impossible given the constraints on time and resources: indeed, such a review would be the task of a full-fledged tracking project (which is one of the futures that this report suggests at the end). Two, given that Open does not have a clear pathway or a central, strategic vision to drive it as a movement, the selection of projects themselves is a symptom of the disjointed ways in which the idea of Open struggles to take shape or survive in India.

The year 2013 has been chosen as a starting point for this exploration because it was the year the Wikimedia Foundation extended a grant to the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, to work with various Wikipedia communities in India towards the growth of the Open ecosystem in India. This last decade then is of grave importance to the CIS because it helps the organization reflect on their own work vis-a-vis that of other Open advocates CIS’s work, since then, is available on its website through details of its initiatives via its Access to Knowledge and Openness Programmes (see, for instance, their work on bridging gender gap on Indian Wikimedia communities, apart from a host of other training and advocacy initiatives here). This study is an aid to survey the idea and expressions of the Open as a broader movement and thus help CIS reflect on new directions and strategies to be pursued in the near future, to begin with.

However, there is more to the year 2013 than the happenstance of the grant to CIS per se: indeed, one can spot other organized efforts emerging in the Indian ecosystem since then. NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning), which was established in 2003, began to offer MOOCs on its platform in 2014. Coincidentally, 2013 was also the year the Bichitra Project (an online variorum of the work of the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore), funded by the Ministry of Culture, went live. Together, the international foray into the Indian Open Movement and the governmental gravitas to strive towards making education and the literature of a great Indian author) accessible provide the rationale for this study’s focus on the examination of the nature of championing for the cause of the Open, its successes, failures, and potential for its growth in the next decade.

The approach or methodology to explore answers to these questions involved: analysis of primary as well as secondary research available on the different initiatives in India; interactions with experts working in the Open domain in India including some Indian academicians, especially on the discussion of Open Access which impacts their publishing record, and in turn, impacts their career advancement. The reading and the conversations supplemented each other in the process of investigation: the existing literature provided facts through texts (blogs, papers, documentation on websites and so on) while the interactions opened up more nuances of intersections through perspectives that do not always make it to the static texts.

Any study on the Open Movement in India owes a huge debt to Arul George Scaria’s gargantuan Open Science India Report (2019). At over 350 pages, it is a detailed study of Open Access projects and also includes a survey conducted among academic fraternity. It also offers concrete suggestions to strengthen access in research. It is remarkable for the larger view it takes of access to include access for persons with disabilities and access in terms of language, suggesting that research should also be accessible in Indian languages, and also in jargon-free English for wider audiences. Apart from Scaria’s study, there are journalistic pieces about Open Data in India, given the relevance it has for governance.

This current study does not aspire to be monumental like Scaria’s. However, it is hoped that its relevance to the ongoing conversations about openness would be noted at at least two levels. One, between 2019 (when Scaria’s report was published) and 2023 (the end point of this study), socioeconomic changes such as COVID-19 and the resulting remote work, one expects, have highlighted the significance of openness. For instance, given the serious constraints it posed for travel, a lot of commercial publishers kept their resources open so that further research, within medicine and outside, could keep happening. Thus, it becomes imperative to understand if the Indian ecosystem displayed any stronger endeavor towards openness. To anticipate a couple of suggestions discussed in the report below, certain things such as Indian researchers’ apathy or disdain for Open Access has not quite changed in the span of these four years. However, Government of India’s open initiatives such as Anuvadini and Bhashini around tools for navigating and producing content in Indian languages have started to appear.

Two, Scaria’s study subsumed all knowledge under “science”: in other words, science, in his report, is a metonym for knowledge. This current study, in being inclusive of humanities and the arts, especially as relevant to Open GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums), engages with knowledge or movement in general irrespective of its disciplinary boundaries.

With that statement on where this report is situated, some notes about its structure are in order. This study begins with an overview of the legal and policy environment in India. It then moves on to explore the nature of Open projects in India. There are many ways to organize the narrative around Openness, with the domain wise bifurcation of the different aspects of the Open (The OPEN Movements, 2023). In contrast, this goes on to organize the projects around positionalities, rather than the domains. That is, the different projects and initiatives are narrativised as:

Public funded projects: These are endeavors emerging from funds provided by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture and distributed via grants to Higher Education Institutes in India, especially the IITs. They stand out as one category in that they are characterized by:

  • The vision to provide basic infrastructure of education and archival material in the public domain
  • The capacity to think and execute in terms of massive impact and scale
  • A wide scope for aiming higher in terms of innovation, approach, and access

Volunteer undertakings:  These are projects undertaken by non governmental organizations such as the Sanchaya Foundation, SFLC (Software Freedom Law Centre) and FOSSUnited characterized by:

  • A niche focus on a language or a domain or an audience
  • A preoccupation with developing a community rather than delivering an output
  • A qualitative aspect to engagement and documentation, as opposed to impact in terms of numbers

Within volunteer undertakings, the role of philanthropic foundations is very briefly touched upon. There are entities such as the SRTT (Sir Ratan Tata Trust) and SDTT (Sir Dorabji Tata Trust) that supported the cause of the Open in the initial stages via their investment in the larger educational and cultural cause. These foundations also seem to have discontinued their efforts in the long term perhaps given the scope of work involved. In addition to philanthropic foundations, mention is also made of international projects. The international Open Knowledge projects in India involve the Wikimedia Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation that have funded various initiatives in India and have continued to stay invested in the larger vision as well as execution of Openness through their grants.

The discussion of the above mentioned types of projects is followed by an examination of the attitudes of academicians teaching at Higher Education Institutes towards Open Access as a specific niche within the Open Movement. Conversation with faculty members in different institutions reveals that Open as an idea is not quite clear to the academia, or at least occupies a space of dissonance: while it is desired as an ideal, it is very strongly constrained by the judgments of fellow peers and employing institutions. In contrast, conversations with experts in Open Access reveals that Open Access deserves a much stronger effort: not just to push for policy changes but also to decolonize Indian academia.

The study concludes with some threads that can be pursued from the projects the Open Movement in India has witnessed in the last decade. These points of engagement could become points of reflection for further initiatives in the next decade or two.