Open Access: An Opportunity for Scientists around the Globe

Posted by Subbiah Arunachalam at Sep 26, 2013 06:00 AM |
Researchers face two problems related to information access: making their own research more visible to researchers elsewhere and making worldwide research readily available to them. Open access (OA) can solve both of them.

This article by Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam was published in Euro Scientist on September 25, 2013.

Open access is particularly important in developing countries, where the research and higher education budgets are nowhere near those in advanced countries.  For example, libraries in most universities in sub-Saharan Africa subscribe at best to only a few journals, and are thus forced to do research literally in a literature vacuum.

Elsewhere like in India, some institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, subscribe to a few thousand journals. But many of them go unused. Thus this approach results in non-productive investment of scarce resources. In addition, when developing country scientists publish their work in expensive journals, then all too often it goes unnoticed by other researchers in their own country.

To make OA more widespread, there are two possible routes: OA journals and OA archives. OA journals and archives help to integrate the work of scientists everywhere into the global knowledge base, reduce the isolation of researchers, and improve opportunities for funding and international collaboration. OA, if adopted widely, can raise the profile of an entire nation’s research output.

OA journals

For now, there are already many successful OA journals initiatives in the developing world.  Bioline International , for example, hosts electronic OA versions of more than 35 peer reviewed bioscience journals from 17 developing countries. It is backed, among others, by the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT), established in 1996. EPT promotes open access to the world’s scholarly literature, and provides an annual award for the best contribution to the advancement of OA in the developing world.

Other worldwide OA initiatives include the African Journals Online (AJOL), which provides free online access to 462 African journals. Latin American initiatives– some of which have overlapping content—include SciELO with 1,013 Iberoamerican OA journals, RedALyC , which supports 809 OA journals and Latindex, with more than 4,600 OA journals.  In parallel, India alone publishes more than 400 OA journals. For example, the ten journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences and the 17 journals published by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research are OA.

With the emergence of OA, many new commercial publishers have sprouted recently. They are publishing OA journals largely to earn through Article Processing Charges (APC). So much so India is considered a leader in publishing predatory OA journals.

Not all commercial publishers are predatory, though. For example,Medknow Publications, a commercial publishing company founded by a paediatrician based in Mumbai, has helped more than 100 OA medical journals make the transition from print to electronic open access. In doing so, they realised that most of them are now doing much better  than before in terms of readership, print subscription, quality of editing and production,  and as a result a major multinational STM publishing company acquired the company from the founder a few years ago.

OA archives

The trouble is that a lot remains to be done in extending open access. Indeed, there are about a hundred functioning academic papers repositories in India. However, only two of them are backed by a mandate.  The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), for example, recently came up with an OA mandate for research performed in its own research institutions and for research it funds, but its implementation may take a while. The Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, has a repository for all papers by all its Fellows, both living and deceased. This is the only science academy in the world to have such a repository. The Academy was also the first in India to adopt OA for its journals. For instance, its physics journal, Pramana, became OA as far back as 1998.

To extend open access further, the archives route appears to be particularly appealing in developing countries. Setting up institutional archives does not cost much. The software needed is absolutely free and the technological infrastructure, such as the server and the internet connectivity, is already available in most institutions.

About a decade ago, I thought that the scarcity of computers and high bandwidth access in many developing countries would put them at a disadvantage. But now prices are falling and the situation has improved.  Thus, OA archiving is even more promising than OA journals. It is less expensive, allows faster turnaround, and is compatible with publishing in conventional journals.