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Q&A on open access with Subbiah Arunachalam of the Centre for Internet and Society (Bangalore)

Posted by Prasad Krishna at May 05, 2011 02:00 PM |
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Amrit Dhir, a 1L at Harvard Law School, has been working with the Harvard Law School Library on open access activities. He recently had an opportunity to interview Subbiah Arunachalam of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in India. The interview was published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University on May 5, 2011.

Thanks to the HLS Library for permitting us to share this Q&A!

Amrit Dhir: What is your association with the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS)?

Subbiah Arunachalam: I am one of the founding members of the Board of the Centre for Internet and Society. Mr Sunil Abraham invited me to join and I agreed as I found the group to be a talented bunch of people much younger to me and interested in questions, the answers to which would be of interest to me.

AD: What has been your involvement with the Open Access (OA) movement for the past ten years?

SA: For the past ten years, I have been literally breathing OA! I always believed that knowledge should be free and open, but my formal engagement with OA began in 2000. That was the year when Eugene Garfield, the well-known information scientist, turned 75. He has been a great influence in my life and so I wanted to celebrate his 75th birthday with a conference. Gene had written hundreds of essays and he had put all of them together in fifteen volumes (Essays of an Information Scientist). What is more, long before the formal movement for OA began, Gene had put all his essays - in fact, all his writings - up on the University of Pennsylvania website.

For the conference, I invited another friend of mine, Alan Gilchrist, Editor of Journal of Information Science, and a world leader in advancing knowledge about thesauri. For the second speaker I invited Stevan Harnad, as I had read his article on scholarly skywriting (which was included in Garfield's Essays). I was working as a volunteer at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation whose main thrust was development, but my chairman Prof. M. S. Swaminathan helped me raise some funds. From then on I started dividing my time between development and promoting OA in India and the developing world. My prior experience as editor and publisher of science journals (at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Academy of Sciences) was a great help. For one thing, I knew a large number of scientists and academics. For another, as I had no big official position I was free to make statements freely. And I took advantage of both.

In 2001, I persuaded the Indian Academy of Sciences to convene a meeting of editors of Indian S&T journals and convince them of the advantage of their journals going electronic. About 50 editors were trained in two three-day workshops. One of them, Dr. D. K. Sahu is today the world's leading OA publisher who neither charges the authors nor the readers [http://www.medknow.com].

In 2005, the Open Society Institute (OSI) invited me to Toronto to plan a conference. I had proposed to bring scientists from India, Brazil and China and to promote OA in these three countries. I believed then, and continue to believe now, that if OA takes roots in these three countries then it would be easy to promote it in the rest of the developing world. The conference itself was held at the Indian Institute of Science in November 2006, with support from OSI and the Indian Academy of Sciences. It was at this conference, with the help of Barbara Kirsop and Alma Swan, that we produced the Bangalore Declaration, which could be used by governments and funding agencies in developing countries to mandate OA.

In January 2006, I organized a full session on OA as part of the Annual Science Congress held at Hyderabad. In 2008, I spoke to Prof. Samir Brahmachari, Director General of CSIR and convinced him of the need to adopt OA. He accepted the idea immediately and opened up all the sixteen journals published by CSIR's publishing arm, NISCAIR. I persuaded the Indian Academy of Sciences to set up a repository for all papers by all Fellows and currently the repository is getting ready and I expect it to be available online in July or August. The Academy took nearly four years, but I am glad it is finally happening.

I have groomed a number of young people to take up OA advocacy and implementation. In particular, Muthu Madhan (now at ICRISAT) has done well. He has helped six institutions set up their repositories. I took him along with me (CIS funded his trip) to the International Conference on Repositories in Amsterdam jointly organized by JISC, SURF and UKOLN in 2009.

I have written about OA both on my own and in coauthorship with Peter Suber, Barbara Kirsop and Leslie Chan. I have given interviews to key outlets and spoken at many national and international conferences including two A2K conferences organized by Yale University, several Berlin conferences, and the ICSU-UNESCO conference where I was one of two keynote speakers.

AD: What is the potential of OA, and what makes it unique to India?

SA: OA has tremendous potential not only to India, but to the world as a whole. But its value to developing countries is much greater than to advanced countries, because the serials crisis and the access to knowledge problems are felt far more acutely in developing countries. Currently higher education and R&D (Research and Development) are in an unprecedented expansion phase and therefore we would need huge investments to meet information needs if only traditional methods of access were available to us. As large publishing corporations are raising subscription costs year after year at an unacceptably high rate, Indian researchers and students would benefit if more and more scientists in the West were to make their work OA.

There is nothing unique about OA in India. Whatever applies to India applies to the larger developing countries (China and Brazil, South Africa). That is why I believe these four countries should work together in promoting OA.

AD: What do you see as the future of the OA movement in India?

SA: As far as India is concerned, currently, a higher proportion of Indian work (12.5%) appears in OA journals than the world average (estimated to be between 8.5 and 10%). The two major Academies and CSIR in favor of OA. I and others are trying to persuade other funding agencies and research councils to adopt OA. It is a question of time before OA becomes accepted by at least some of the leading institutions. There are about 40 active repositories, but the number has started increasing.

AD: What are the impediments to realizing that future? Are there any legal concerns or legal obstacles that you anticipate approaching?

SA: There are no impediments. At least I do not see any. You may then ask why the progress is slow. It is largely because of author inertia and general ignorance. Yes, ignorance. Not many scientists really know about what is possible and what is not possible with regard to depositing their papers in a repository. They are needlessly afraid of copyright infringements. Thus all the 'impediments' are imaginary!

When it comes to journals, it is easy. We publish the journals and we decide if we want to be closed or open. MedKnow publishes 150 journals, of which 148 are open. All 11 journals of the Indian Academy are open. Even when they entered into an agreement with Springer [Publishing], they retained the right to keep all of them open on their site!

AD: How would you compare the institutional openness of India and the US to the potential and needs of OA?

SA: I have already explained why I believe OA is far more important to developing countries. But even in the West, the serials crisis is forcing librarians to adopt OA. In the West, prestigious institutions such as Harvard, MIT, NIH, Wellcome Trust, RCUK (Research Councils UK), have adopted OA and that has made a big difference. Now the US Congress is considering the FRPAA (Federal Research Public Access Act). Eventually, all institutions will have to adopt OA.

There is one advantage of institutions in the developing countries adopting OA that may be missed by many. Often research done in the South in problems like SARS, tsunami, HIV/AIDS, climate change will be of global relevance. These issues do not know any national boundaries.

AD: You have spoken of a social mission and a human-rights-based justification for supporting greater OA, particularly with regard to the hard sciences and scientific research. What is the relationship between justice and OA, both on an international scale and as it relates to India more specifically?

SA: A very good question. When Kofi Annan was heading the United Nations, it came up with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). On top of the list was poverty alleviation. What use is all the science that we do if fellow human beings are unable to even buy food and keep dying of hunger and malnutrition? This is the basis for the argument on opening up of scientific knowledge as an issue of justice. In India, the government has invested millions on R&D in atomic energy, space science, new biology and biotechnology and so on, and yet more than 60 years after we had became a Republic, poverty is rampant, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing and both the number of billionaires and the number of people below the poverty line are increasing every year. All our science and technology have not ensured basic necessities for the poor. We do not use what we know, and what we know is not known widely.

In an excellent article “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector” in 22 Quarterly Journal of Economics 879 (2007), Robert Jensen of Harvard's Kennedy School used the example of how the introduction of mobile phones in coastal areas of Kerala opened up information and brought many benefits to the community as a whole and not just to fishing families.

There is another angle to the urgent need to reduce poverty, viz. the security angle. Two years ago, I was invited to write a short essay on information and livelihood and I began my essay with these words: "We live in a divided world where far too many people live in abject poverty. To help these people get out of poverty is good for the world as a whole, for great disparities in wealth will lead to violence and terrorism and no one can live in peace and harmony."

There is yet another issue. This is related to drugs and pharmaceuticals. Many pharma companies do not want to bring to market products from their latest research because the previous products are still doing well. Profit is the motive, and it trumps public good. Also, Western pharma companies send out scouts to the old world and learn from local wisdom the medicinal value of plants and herbs and take advantage but without sharing the profits with the local people. A clear case of the North exploiting the knowledge of the South. And yet their own drugs are all under patent protection!

AD: Some see Indian civil society and even Indian government insisting on greater transparency and access to information, with such movements as the one behind the Right to Information (RTI) Act as an example. Are you optimistic about such efforts at governmental and legal reform? And, how does it relate to your work and the broader objectives you advocate?

SA: About two years ago, the Department of Biotechnology entered into a partnership with the Wellcome Trust. The was born with a view to providing generous fellowships to scientists at three stages of their careers. One of the features was that all papers published by these Fellows have to be OA. The Minister for science and technology (Mr Kapil Sibal at that time) announced this proudly. I wrote him that he should also make OA all papers by scientists receiving grants from DBT, but he did not bother to reply. There is a lot of political doublespeak. I also wrote to Members of Parliament belonging to all the major parties suggesting that they consider legislation similar to the one which brought OA to all NIH-funded research in the US. No one replied. The RTI Act and the recent happenings on the corruption front (the government yielding to the request of Gandhian Anna Hazare) are indeed very good. And I believe one day the need for OA will be recognized as important and worthy of legal status. But one may also achieve a lot through bottom-up approaches by talking to individual institutions, universities and scientists.

I am not losing hope. I will keep making my requests until OA is accepted as the norm.

AD: How would you call upon American universities and institutes to act or reform in light of the OA measures you advocate?

SA: The larger the number of American universities, research institutions and funding agencies adopting OA, the better it would be for us, as we would have more papers in the open domain. More than that, we could cite their example and convince Indian institutions to adopt OA.

Read the original interview published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society here

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