Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Interview with Vitek Tracz

Today I am publishing an interview with Vitek Tracz, chairman of the Science Navigation Group, and founder of the open access publisher BioMed Central.

This is number seven of
The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full interview (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details). It is being published under a Creative Commons licence.


Vitek Tracz


Building the Business Model


Vitek Tracz, founder of open access publisher BioMed Central, talks to Richard Poynder

Vitek Tracz was born in a Jewish shtetl in Poland during the Second World War. When the Germans invaded Poland his parents fled to Russia, and spent five years in Siberia. Those members of his family who stayed in Poland were killed by the Germans.

After the war Tracz and his family returned to Poland, before subsequently emigrating to Israel. Keen to attend film school Tracz later moved to London, where he settled. After making a number of films, however, he turned his hand to medical publishing, and went on to build a series of successful publishing businesses, including Gower Medical Publishing, Current Drugs and the Current Opinion series of journals.

Modus operandi

Tracz quickly developed a distinctive modus operandi, creating mould-breaking businesses that he then sold on to large publishing companies like Harper & Row, Elsevier, and Thomson Corporation, invariably at very attractive prices.

Constantly on the look-out for challenging business ventures, by the late 1990s Tracz had become convinced that the disruptive nature of the Internet would make it increasingly difficult for STM publishers to charge readers to access scholarly journals, particularly as the focus of their businesses began to shift from selling print journals, to licensing large electronic databases like Elsevier's ScienceDirect.

For a start, researchers were discovering that they were now easily able to distribute their research for themselves over the Web. Since 1991, for instance, physicists had been self-archiving their papers in the arXiv repository; and there were growing calls for academics in other disciplines to follow suit.

At the same time, the "serials crisis" had sparked a tide of unrest amongst librarians, who were struggling to pay for all the journals and other scholarly information their faculty demanded; unrest that was beginning to coalesce around the incipient Open Access Movement.

Advocates of Open Access (OA) argue that in a networked world publicly-funded research should be made freely available, not sold as part of a paid-for online service. Their reasoning is that researchers give their papers to publishers, and do all the essential peer review work, without any payment. Once the print and distribution costs have been removed from the system, therefore, most of the costs of publishing have gone away.

Intrigued by the challenge this posed for STM publishers, in 1998 Tracz created the first open access publisher, BioMed Central (BMC).

What was radical about BMC was not so much that it was an online-only publisher, but that it had turned the traditional publishing model on its head: instead of charging readers to read scholarly papers, BMC charged authors (or more usually authors' funders or institutions) to publish them — by means of an article processing charge (APC) of $525.

By front-loading the costs in this way, BMC was able to meet growing demands that publicly-funded research be available outside financial firewalls, while still covering the cost of organising peer review, and marking up and editing the papers.

Credibility

Having acquired a reputation amongst cognoscenti of the scientific, technical and medical (STM) publishing community as a creative entrepreneur with an uncanny knack for turning unlikely ideas into successful businesses (invariably by exploiting innovative technology), in launching BMC Tracz provided the OA Movement with a credibility not unlike that provided to the Open Source Movement when, in the same year as BMC was founded, IBM announced that it would support Apache, the Open Source web server software.

Importantly, Tracz had developed a plausible business model — one that was later also to encourage a number of traditional publishers to experiment with Open Access themselves.

In addition, by appointing the articulate and widely respected publisher Jan Velterop to manage BMC, Tracz was able to position the company as a spokes-organisation for the OA Movement, and thus an ally of those who believed that scientific research should be freely available.

With the assistance of Velterop, Tracz also became an effective behind-the-scenes advocate, encouraging, for instance, the then director of the US National Institutes of Health, Harold Varmus, to create the free literature repository PubMed Central, and recruiting researchers, librarians and key decision-makers to the OA cause.

It was quickly apparent however that, whatever its merits, OA publishing would never be the pot of gold that STM publishers were accustomed to. By insisting that authors assign copyright as a condition of publishing their papers, scholarly publishers had, since the war, managed to acquire exclusive ownership of a great deal of the world's research output — thereby enabling them to earn profits that most industries would give their eye teeth for.

Moreover, as publishers moved to electronic delivery it seemed that profit levels could be even greater, since publishers were increasingly no longer selling print journals that libraries could own in perpetuity, but temporary access to single papers in vast electronic databases containing millions of individual scholarly papers. Since libraries would never actually "own" copies of these papers, publishers could, in theory, charge users every time a paper was accessed. (In practice, publishers chose instead to major on "all you can eat" subscription licences. These, however, turned out to be even more controversial ).

Unsurprisingly therefore, rather than embracing OA, publishers were more inclined to conduct aggressive lobbying campaigns aimed at neutralising OA initiatives. As a result of publisher lobbying, for instance, PubMed Central was effectively emasculated before it even saw the light of day.

While Tracz believed that in time publishers would have no choice but to accept OA, it became clear that they were not prepared to give up the benefits of the subscription-based model without a fight. In short, it was going to require more than an interesting new business model to recruit them to the cause.

Publicity coup

Concluding that the OA movement would therefore need to persuade funders and politicians to force OA on the world, in 2003 Tracz (with Velterop) set out to convince the then Chair of the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Ian Gibson, to conduct an enquiry into scientific publishing. After some serious wining and dining of Gibson this they succeeded in doing.

The resulting enquiry provided a publicity coup for the OA movement, and attracted the attention of politicians and research funders around the world. It also sparked a steady stream of further reports, declarations and, in some cases, firm commitments to OA.

In October 2005, for instance, the Wellcome Trust introduced a mandate requiring that all papers resulting from research that it funded were to be made open access. And in April 2006 the European Commission published a report urging European science funders to guarantee open access to research outputs. The Select Committee enquiry also undoubtedly influenced the growing number of US proposals.

When, in July 2004, the Select Committee report (Scientific Publications: Free for All?) was published, however, it was a mixed blessing for Tracz. For while it endorsed the principle of OA, it placed a greater stress on mandating researchers to self-archive papers they published in traditional subscription-based journals, than it did on trying to insist that they publish in new-style OA journals.

Comments one publisher, speaking on condition of anonymity, "The Select Committee didn’t give OA the mandate that Tracz was expecting, because late on in its enquiry it found out about the practice of self-archiving, and realised that an awful lot of Open Access can be achieved in that way."

Growing frustration

Evidently the Select Committee concluded that, rather than make the politically-charged recommendation that authors be instructed to choose one business model over another when publishing their papers, it was enough simply to mandate them to self-archive their papers regardless of the type of journal in which they had been published.

No doubt to Tracz's growing frustration, subsequent OA initiatives have tended to follow suit, placing a greater emphasis on self-archiving than on OA publishing. This, for instance, was the thrust of the voluntary NIH Policy on public access to research introduced in May 2005, as it was of the American Center for CURES Act of 2005.

It is also the logical consequence of the recently proposed Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (FRPAA). The most radical US bill in support of OA to date, if enacted the FRPAA would introduce a mandate requiring publicly funded papers to be made freely available on the Web within six months of publication.

Moreover, unlike earlier US proposals, the FRPAA would not insist that papers are archived in a central repository like PubMed Central. Since this is likely to encourage federal agencies to mandate deposit in institutional repositories, it would increase the emphasis on self-archiving.

In short, while the many OA proposals are all potentially beneficial to BMC, they have increasingly tended to prioritise self-archiving over OA publishing.

In retrospect, this is not surprising. What has become increasingly clear is that researchers, their institutions, and research funders have more to gain — at least in the short term — from researchers continuing to publish in high-impact established subscription-based journals and then self-archiving their papers, than they do from researchers restricting themselves to publishing in low-impact OA journals, even though in the latter case responsibility for making the research available on the Web is taken on by the publisher.

More importantly, perhaps, there has been a growing feeling that wresting proprietary control from the grasp of large monopolistic publishers should take precedence over supporting new journals that, many frequently worry, rely on an "untested business model."

Important questions

For Tracz this has raised two important questions. First, can a small private company hope to compete against a large multinational industry now worth around $8.5 billion when its very raison d’être is viewed by that industry as a serious threat to the status quo — particularly when that industry is canny enough to make concessions when necessary (by permitting self-archiving), and powerful enough to mount huge lobbying campaigns to defang OA initiatives?

What is indisputable is that the STM publishing industry has (to date) proved itself capable of hamstringing every single OA initiative proposed.

Second, can the publishing model pioneered by Tracz truly provide long-term sustainability? More specifically, can BMC attract and retain a sufficient number of customers to keep the company afloat — bearing in mind that in the world of OA publishing the customers are no longer academic librarians charged with buying traditional journal subscriptions, but the researchers who generate the content in those scholarly journals, and who do the peer review essential for maintaining quality control.

When he gave evidence to the Select Committee Enquiry in 2004, Tracz predicted that BMC would achieve profitability in 2006. This, he told British politicians, was based on the assumption that the company would need article submission levels to reach 2,000 a month before it became self-supporting. At that point in time, he added, BMC was receiving 500 to 600 papers a month.

How does the situation look today? Unfortunately, while the number of journals has grown to 158, submissions have reached only 1,200 papers a month.

In short, it appears that Tracz overestimated potential growth rates. Moreover, says an industry insider familiar with the BMC business, he also underestimated how much it would cost to produce peer-reviewed journals, even after print and distribution costs have been removed from the equation.

"Managing a peer review process demands a lot of man-hours," he explains, adding that since the number of papers submitted to BMC has grown more slowly than expected the company has also been unable to exploit anticipated economies of scale.

Rebelled

In short, Tracz made the strategic mistake of entering a new market with a significantly under-priced product. In an attempt to rectify the situation, therefore, in July 2005 BMC more than doubled its APC rate, from $525 to $1,400 (£750).

Clearly this was a risky thing to do, and around 60 BMC editors immediately rebelled, with many refusing to implement the rise. "Currently we charge authors £330 per article. Under the new contract this would rise to £750," complains Richard Feinman, co-editor-in-chief of Nutrition and Metabolism, and one of the editors refusing to sign the new contract.

Events came to a head in May 2006 when, without any consultation, BMC issued a new Code of Conduct for Editors. In discussing the document on a listserv, 43 dissident editors realised that they all shared a number of grievances, and so formed a committee to negotiate with BMC. This in its turn led to a bruising news story in The Scientist.

BMC editors, The Scientist reported, were not only angry about the price rise, but upset that the new contract would mean reducing the number of fee waivers that they would be able to offer contributors from developing countries. It would also require some editors of BMC's independent journals to sign over ownership of their journal to BMC.

"In the e-mails I have been receiving from other editors a common complaint I am hearing is that they feel they have to some extent been swindled," says Feinman. "We may be naïve, but we agreed to run journals with BMC that had certain characteristics, including an acceptable APC."

Other BMC editors, however, have been quick to brand the dissidents as idealists with little understanding of how publishing really works.

"I have always been, and remain, a strong supporter of Open Access, but I have always also stressed that someone must pay the bill, and that for OA to survive and fulfil its promises, it must adopt a financially viable business model to cover its costs," says Maged Kamel Boulos, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Health Geographics.

David Lipman, director of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, and co-editor-in-chief of BMC's Biology Direct, is also critical of the dissidents. Speaking to The Scientist he characterised their actions as "bizarrely emotional."

As the dispute spread to the Liblicense mailing list, however, it was also revealed that under the new contract editors would be paid a 20% share of revenues. This, argued critics, would create a conflict of interest issue for editors, and so breach the ethical standards of scholarly publishing.

To add to BMC's difficulties, Velterop had by now left the company, taking a new position as "internal champion" of OA at the STM publisher Springer in August 2005. Deprived of his authority and considerable negotiating skills the company has struggled to appease the irascible editors.

Growing pains

When the history of OA is written, the current contretemps will doubtless be viewed as little more than (as Velterop's successor at BMC Matt Cockerill expressed it to The Scientist) the inevitable "growing pains" of OA. Indeed, Feinman himself is keen to stress that the issues raised by the editors "are points of discussions, not bed-rock disagreement."

Adds Feinman, "I suspect most of the editors would be willing to accept the APC (at least tentatively) if there were no change in the waivers. The waivers are the life blood of the freedom we have as editors, and some journals such as the International Journal for Equity in Health exist primarily on contributions from developing countries."

Nevertheless, the event has served to draw attention to the inevitable tension between the idealism of many in the OA movement and the financial realities of scholarly publishing.

It has also led to some suspicion about Tracz's motives. "Most scientists are fed up with publishers making increasingly large profits out of the work of (largely) unpaid scientists as authors, reviewers and editors," says Neville Punchard, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Inflammation. "I think those scientists involved as editors hoped that BMC would not allow this to happen, but are now beginning to realise that BMC is just like any other publisher when it comes down to it, and has to make a profit."

What BMC has yet to achieve, he concludes, is a workable formula that can provide a "balance between OA (to keep editors and other scientists happy) and profit (to keep the owners happy)."

In other words, it has underlined the importance of creating an acceptable and sustainable business model for OA.

Secrecy

What has surely exacerbated the situation is that like many small private companies, BMC is not very accomplished at PR. And by appearing reluctant to consult and work with the editors it has tended to fan the flames of suspicion.

As Feinman complains, "In being asked to sign the new contracts we are being asked to do something that we don’t want to, but it was presented as if we apparently have no choice. BMC is treating it as though it were just a formality."

At times the company also appears a little paranoid about sharing information with those outside the company — as I discovered when I tried to update this interview, and when I tried to obtain a comment on the dispute with editors.

Unfortunately, this tends to give the impression that BMC prefers secrecy over transparency — an unfortunate public image for a company founded on the principle of openness. And it has come to seem all the more impenetrable and unresponsive to the outside world since Velterop left.

What this no doubt reflects is the character of the company's founder. For Tracz has always preferred working behind the scenes, and likes to maintain a very low public profile. As the industry insider, puts it "Essentially, I think he is a shy person, or at least a private one. He has a reluctance to personally take his ideas into the public arena. This is a pity because they would really benefit from being presented by him in public."

He adds, "I think more could perhaps be done on the diplomatic front, and BMC should involve the people who will be affected by its decisions, and who otherwise might misunderstand its intentions."

The need for a more user-friendly approach is likely to intensify as the company struggles to reach profitability. "I think BMC will need about $2,000 per article before it begins to make a profit," says the industry insider. "So I think it is inevitable that the article processing charges will have to increase [again]."

Cockerill, however, remains keen to project an upbeat picture of the situation. "We anticipate breaking even soon," he insists, "though not necessarily in 2006."

Instinctive emotional objection

But what happens if the APC does indeed have to rise to $2,000, and profitability still remains elusive?

This will, no doubt, depend on how Tracz views the company: is it a cause that he intends to see through to the bitter end, or just another business venture, intended — like his other businesses — to make him a lot of money?

Tim Hailstone, co-founder of Gower Medical (who has known Tracz for many years), believes that his adoption of OA was essentially "an instinctive emotional objection to the power of Elsevier."

The temptation, therefore, is to view his motivation as being on a par with IBM's decision to support the Open Source Movement: where the computer giant saw Open Source as a competitive stick with which to beat archrival Microsoft, Tracz perhaps viewed Open Access as a tool to subvert large STM publishers like Elsevier — although clearly in more of a David and Goliath way!

But is that right? What is it that really motivates Vitek Tracz?

"He is difficult to read sometimes, and so it can be hard to know what he is thinking," comments the industry insider. "Sometimes you think he just likes big ideas and is driven to realise them; at other times you feel he is evangelising not from a conviction, but because he is looking for an opportunity to make money."

Ask Tracz directly, and he denies that money has ever been a significant motivation. "I am perfectly happy not to have money," he says, "although it is nice to have it."

The publisher I spoke to, however, dismisses such claims with a wave of the hand. "Vitek can be very seductive, but under his charm he's pretty ruthless. He can absolutely judge his prey and adapt accordingly. So behind this charming dinner companion expressing interest in your work, and in your thoughts, you sense a calculator working away in the background, trying to establish whether there is any money to be made from talking to you."

Moreover, he adds, Tracz's complex corporate structure, and the elaborate financial arrangements he puts in place in order to maximise his financial gains when selling a company, belie any claim that money is not important to him. "His wealth is ultimately completely offshore; so when he sells a business, some of it will go to paying off a loan, and the rest will disappear overseas, to a bank in Switzerland, or wherever. It seems to be part of some amazing tax planning strategy."

Got religion

Yet during his rare public appearances it is hard not to believe that Tracz is a man who has got religion.

When giving evidence to the UK Select Committee Enquiry, for instance, he spoke so quickly, so excitedly, and at such length that the chair Ian Gibson, pleaded: "May I ask you quite humbly to keep the answers a bit shorter, and answer the question? I understand the enthusiasm and determination, but I do not want to be here at midnight and I am sure you do not either, and we should like to get some more information from you."

Tracz is also at pains to stress that OA is more than just a commercial issue. While conceding that he is a businessman, and so believes that making profits is a legitimate activity for scholarly publishers, he adds, however, that since OA is plainly beneficial to society "there is an ethical reason for insisting that it happens."

Hailstone thinks that while he may have been powerfully motivated by money when he was younger, nowadays Tracz is more interested in leaving his mark on the world. "Vitek has got a lot of money now. I think he would quite like to be famous for something. He loves the idea that he could be the guy who was responsible for completely changing STM journal publishing. And he loves the idea that BMC is in some ways the spokes-organisation for the OA Movement."

But why does it matter what motivates Tracz? It matters because the danger facing OA today is that if he pulls the plug on BMC, then sceptics' claims that a viable OA business model is not possible will be seen to have been exonerated.

The threat is real. In the past, says Hailstone, Tracz has been happy to drop businesses if he sees no future for them — a fate, for instance, that befell Praxis Press, a clinical medicine web service for practising physicians that Tracz co-founded in 2002, but subsequently walked away from.

The fear therefore is that if Tracz were to abandon BMC, it could inflict serious damage on the OA movement. "Whether it likes it or not BMC, is carrying a lot of open access on its shoulders," says Feinman, "so it should feel an obligation to do things right."

In reality, of course, the logic of OA is sufficiently compelling that it is no longer a matter of if, but when — irrespective of business models. For while today's sanctification of market forces might appear to imply that "the market" will be the only arbiter of OA's fate, anyone with a historical perspective will know that most societies will always find a way of funding something if its social value is perceived to be high enough. The case for OA has now been argued so often, and so well, that it is surely a done deal.

New territory

Nevertheless, the failure, or abandonment, of BMC would certainly slow progress. The challenge for Tracz, therefore, is to keep the show on the road while the larger OA struggle plays out.

The problem, says Hailstone, is that Tracz is not actually very good at the day-to-day task of running a business. "Vitek is better at building businesses to a certain level than he is at running them. So he is very good at spending money on a business, but not actually very good at making money out of it."

The alternative, of course, would be for Tracz to sell BMC. Again, says Hailstone, this may not be possible. "I won't say that Vitek will never be able to unload BMC," he says, "but of all the businesses he has started I think it is the least likely that he will be able to sell."

Certainly eight years after founding the company, Tracz has apparently yet to find someone willing to take it off his hands, despite frequent rumours that a deal is on the cards. Maybe a sale is being negotiated right now. But we don't know.

If not, however, Tracz is surely entering new territory: unable to sell the company, he may have no choice but to soldier on. And without Velterop there is perhaps no one better qualified than Tracz to run the company. On the other hand, he will be increasingly conscious that subsidising BMC indefinitely is not a practical solution, even for a wealthy entrepreneur committed to a worthy cause.

Time will tell what happens. Clearly how history judges Tracz will depend on the way events unfold. "BMC," predicts the industry insider, "is likely to go through a patchy period, both with editors and the market, but these are growing pains, and I think it has a reasonable future. I do hope it succeeds, because it really has introduced a new paradigm."

Either way, he adds, "Vitek should have a star role in the history of Open Access, because he was one of the first to pick up the signals, and to get in touch with Varmus, and the other people who started PLoS (initially as a pressure group). He has also been talking to NIH for a long time. More importantly, he had the vision and the guts to do something about OA."

Not typical

What is undeniable is that Tracz is not a typical entrepreneur, both in temperament and in style. With a reputation for eccentric dressing, for instance, he is a far cry from the well-groomed entrepreneurs that inhabit Silicon Valley.

Hailstone relates how, when he and Tracz turned up at the oak-panelled City of London solicitors to complete the sale of Gower Medical, Tracz arrived in a leather jacket, with his trousers tucked into a pair of boots. Due to his unconventional dress, says Hailstone, when Tracz asked where the toilet was, "the snooty receptionist thought he was a taxi drive and directed him to the public toilet across the street."

But as Tracz explained to a former employee, "Even if I were to spend lavish amounts of money on my appearance and attire I would always end up looking like a refugee."

To his credit, however, Tracz inspires a degree of loyalty and commitment from those who work for him that most Silicon Valley CEOs would die for.

##

Tracz’s various businesses are run out of an office block in Cleveland Street — in an area of London that artists and writers like Dylan Thomas and George Orwell, who between the two world wars frequented the Fitzroy Tavern in neighbouring Charlotte Street, dubbed Fitzrovia.

Across the street from Tracz's office is the Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry, one of the many buildings dotted around Fitzrovia that belong to University College London.

Tracz arrives three minutes late; an insignificant delay that nevertheless elicits solicitous enquiries as to whether I had been waiting long.

Dressed in a plastic macintosh, walking with a slight stoop, and with an air of distraction, Tracz could be mistaken for a down-at-heel civil servant fretting over a lost briefcase. With his mac removed, however, his clothes emit a more luxurious air, particularly the dark shirt with puckered cloth that, to my untutored eye, looks like seersucker.

His large office is sufficiently bare that it is immediately apparent that Tracz conducts his real business elsewhere; perhaps in the triangular house he built for himself with the proceeds from the sale of his first company? The regulation plastic furniture and workmanlike bookshelves contrast oddly with the wooden floorboards and tasteful wooden slats on the windows, the latter currently shutting out what travel guides like to call the "neglected charm" of Fitzrovia; neglected charm that today is suffused with the gloomy atmosphere peculiar to late autumnal London afternoons.

Dominating one corner of the room is a wooden architect’s desk — the very one perhaps on which Tracz designed his house? Pinned to it is a poster advertising an exhibition of drawings by the Polish graphic artist Andrzej Krauze.

On the other side of the office is a large desk dominated by an oversized computer screen and a keyboard. Apart from several rows of catalogues from art auctioneers Sotheby's and Christie's, the bookcases house little more than a few maps and a large chrome coffee machine. Tracz's first action on entering the room is to switch on the coffee machine and make a stiff shot of dark espresso.

At first restrained, Tracz becomes increasingly effusive as the interview proceeds. Evidently having concluded that what excites journalists more than anything else are good human-interest stories, practically every answer threatens to balloon into a series of increasingly amusing and fascinating anecdotes and observations. Sadly, it later transpires that many of his stories cannot be published, for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

Two hours later, his face flushed, Tracz's stories are still flowing. My tape, alas, runs out, and I have to rush to catch my train.

This interview with Tracz initially took place in December 2004, a shortened version of which was published in Information Today, in January 2005. A follow-up conversation then took place by telephone in April 2005. It was not possible to arrange a further update with Tracz prior to publication.


####


If you wish to read this interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me. Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: aotg20@dsl.pipex.com. It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews project. Further information about The Basement Interviews can be found at the Open and Shut? site.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Open Access: Science in which no one is left behind

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Professor Subbiah Arunachalam (Arun), Distinguished Fellow of the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). In his first conversation with Richard Poynder, Arun explained why Open Access (OA) is essential for Indian research, and outlined current developments in India. Here he explains where OA fits into the wider debate about the digital divide, and discusses some of the challenges confronting OA today.


Professor Subbiah Arunachalam


RP: When we spoke last time you explained how, because Indian research institutions and universities cannot afford to subscribe to as many science journals as those in the West, Indian researchers are at a disadvantage. I'm conscious that it was precisely in order to address this issue that scholarly publishers — including large commercial publishers like Elsevier, Springer and Blackwell — agreed to participate in a number of low-cost or free access schemes — schemes like HINARI, AGORA, and OARE. Have these not resolved the access problems faced by Indian researchers?

SA: No. In fact, although India’s per capita GNP is less than the $1,000 figure below which free access to journals under HINARI and AGORA was supposed to be triggered, the publishers participating in the schemes have proved unwilling to provide Indian researchers with free access, on the plea that they enjoy a sizeable subscription income from India.

Lip Service

RP: So while paying lip service to equality of access, in practice scholarly publishers are only willing to help developing countries if doing so will have no impact on their revenues?

SA: Exactly. They are only providing free access to developing countries that do hardly any science. As a consequence, they are getting undue credit for their philanthropy.

RP: So what needs to be done?

SA: What we have learned is that we cannot rely on the publishers to help resolve the problem. Journal publishers in the West not only overcharge for their journals — a tendency that led to the serials crisis and the development of the Open Access Movement in the West — but they are doing everything they can to stall the progress of OA. The management of the American Chemical Society, for example, appears willing to go to any lengths to stall the progress of PubChem.

It is also clear that both WHO and FAO should have negotiated a better deal with the publishers. As it stands, they have not protected the interests of India; and they have not protected the interests of the other developing countries whose per capita GNP is below $1,000 and yet who are denied free access to the HINARI and AGORA journals.

What organisations like WHO and FAO should do now, however, is devote their time and energy to promoting Open Access throughout the world.

RP: It is not all bad news though. Last time we spoke, for instance, you said that access to the scholarly literature is improving for Indian researchers?

SA: That's true. Even in India, in the past four or five years, librarians have formed consortia and taken out subscriptions to large aggregations of journals like ScienceDirect. The INDEST consortium, for instance, has enabled leading higher educational institutions in India to acquire electronic access to a very large number of journals, especially from some commercial publishers. This means that Indian scientists in some of the better institutions — such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Technology — can access a much larger number of journals today than, say, ten years ago. That is a good development.

But the debate has moved on. The aim now should not be simply to provide Indian researchers with access to a few more journals, but to level the playing field in terms of information access; and in my view OA archiving is the only effective way of doing that. The fact is that scientists in developing countries have the most to gain from OA, since they are currently the most deprived of access to scientific information.

So while librarians in India — and in the rest of the world — have improved access a little by pushing for consortial deals, I wish they had been more proactive in promoting open access archiving.

A problem of semantics

RP: One reason for this may be that many influential librarians are not sufficiently aware of the access problems faced by countries like India. When I spoke earlier this year to Catherine Candee, a librarian in the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of California, for instance, she told me that during a recent trip she made to Asia she was consistently told by librarians there that they had no budget crisis, and that they could buy whatever journals they needed.

Indeed, she suggested that some libraries in Asia are better off than those in the West. These countries, she said, "are throwing money at the problem and building wonderful national infrastructures to support universities, especially in Malaysia and Thailand. Consequently they just don't feel the financial pinch in the way that libraries in the West do."

Candee wasn't talking about India, but it was striking to me that she apparently believes that some libraries in the developing world face fewer constraints on their library budgets than libraries in the US. What's your reaction to Candee’s comments?

SA: This is a problem of semantics. Often in the West, the term Asia is used to refer to the Asian tigers, China and Japan and excludes South Asia! Yes, “some libraries in the developing world face fewer constraints on their library budgets than libraries in the US.” But those American libraries may have much larger needs in terms of the number of journals their faculties want them to subscribe to.

A useful exercise would be to compare the number of journals subscribed to by major American university libraries with the number of journals available in the Asian libraries that Catherine Candee talks about.

Digital divide

RP: Unlike many OA advocates you are also active in the "digital divide" debate. Where does OA fit into the larger problem of the digital divide?

SA: Yes, I am among the very few people around the world who works in both areas. For that reason, when I was asked to give a talk at the Volkswagen Foundation debate on the digital divide in 1998 I spoke about how developing countries can take advantage of the new information and communication technologies to bring about rural development on the one hand, and to improve information access for scientists on the other.

I made the same point at the Sixth International S&T Indicators Conference, held at the University of Leiden in 2000; and I was encouraged to see that the Conference Chair, Professor Ton van Raan immediately saw the connection I was making.

RP: Can you expand on that connection?

SA: Sure. If you think about it, development at its best is based on scientific knowledge and advances. For this reason Professor M S Swaminathan, chairman of our Foundation, talks about lab-to-land, land-to-lab, and land-to-land knowledge transfer. While OA will certainly benefit lab-to-lab transactions, the increased flow of knowledge will also help scientists address the problems of the rural poor.

RP: And it is here that OA connects with the wider issue of development too?

SA: It does. And as the former president of the US National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, has pointed out, improved connectivity in rural areas can also help farmers and fishermen to make their concerns known to scientists so that they can reorient their research to address the problems faced on the ground. So OA feeds into discussions about the digital divide, and also into the wider issue of development.

Unfortunately, however, such connections did not come through very well in the discussions that took place at the World Summit on the Information Society, both in Geneva and in Tunis.

RP: You referred to a debate at the Volkswagen Foundation. I think this was with Nicholas Negroponte, and the issue being debated was whether the digital revolution can solve the information problems faced by those in the developing world. Negroponte believes that providing cheap computers to students in the developing world can make a significant difference, and to this end he demonstrated a $100 laptop computer at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis. Do you support his initiative?

SA: It could turn out be good, if it succeeds. But it has a few problems. Incidentally, Professor Negroponte couldn't join the debate. In his place, we had another equally distinguished computer scientist, Professor José Luis Encarnação, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute of Computer Graphics, Darmstadt.

RP: What sort of problems do you you see for Negroponte's plan?

SA: The first problem is that the minimum order that can be placed is for a million units. How many poor countries can afford that?

It may also turn out to be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

RP: How do you mean?

SA: My view is that content is king. While technology can be useful for delivering content, and dealing with it — storing it, processing it, manipulating it, exchanging it, and so on — virtually all development projects which start with a technology emphasis have failed. My emphasis, therefore, would be on the people and their needs, and then I would work out how best to use technology to satisfy those needs.

RP: There have been similar low-cost technology projects before. Haven’t there?

SA: Right. In India, for instance, we had the Simputer. The problem with such projects is that they often never mature for want of timely support.

What I also objected to about Negroponte's approach, by the way, was how he publicised his initiative at Tunis. It was announced with a huge fanfare at a major international meeting, with no less a person than Mr Kofi Annan as the chief guest. And this was before the product was even ready! That kind of hype does not sit well with genuine development work.

Holistic approach

RP: All in all, then, you are sceptical about the benefits of Negroponte's initiative?

SA: I am. The key point is that development should be holistic: you can't adopt a fragmented approach. That is why in our Information Village Research Project, we not only have knowledge centres to help people get access to the information they need, but also skills-building programmes, and micro credit programmes.

RP: In other words, it's not enough to provide the tools: you also need to show people how to use those tools?

SA: Exactly. What use to people is information if they can't use it to their advantage? And if they don't have the necessary skills how can they use the information to their advantage?

Then, even if you have some knowledge, and you have developed the necessary skills, you still generally need some capital to set up an enterprise. As I say, development needs to be holistic.

RP: You say that content is king, which is fair enough. Nevertheless, it is still necessary to provide access to that content. The logic of OA, after all, is to provide access to scholarly journals electronically. Yet too often the network infrastructure in developing countries is inadequate. Indeed, in the 1997 Die Zeit interview I referred to during our last conversation you argued that the infrastructure in India was inadequate for Indian researchers who wanted to access online research, and you gave the example of how Professor Ganapathy Baskaran, a leading condensed matter theorist, had to wait several months simply to have a telephone installed in his house. Has the technical infrastructure improved substantially since then?

SA: Oh, yes. Things can and do change, and today the telecom infrastructure is far better in India. After all, how would we have been able to become the business process outsourcing capital of the world if it hadn’t?

RP: So how good is the network infrastructure today?

SA: Well, it is now possible to get a telephone installed in any Indian city or town on the same day. It is also possible to buy a cell phone off the shelf, and to start talking straightaway.

Of course, there is considerable variation in the facilities and bandwidth available, depending on where you are. But it is now possible to get broadband connections (256/512 kbps) in all cities, and also in many towns in India. Indeed, in parts of the city of Pune they have developed a wi-fi network similar to the one being developed in Philadelphia. There are also thousands of cybercafés, which offer hourly rates as low as a dollar for three hours use!

So things are improving pretty fast and now that Sam Pitroda — the man who brought the telecom revolution to India — has been appointed as the Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, things will surely develop even faster.

Some progress

RP: Ok. Let's return to the topic of OA. Last time we spoke you argued that while institutional repositories (IRs) offer the best way of providing OA in India there is currently "more talk than action". To help things along, in May 2004 you organised two three-day workshops in Chennai to encourage the creation of institutional repositories. As I understand it, the atmosphere at the time was quite upbeat. Last July, however, you posted a message to the oa-india@dgroups mailing listing saying that you were disappointed that some of the IRs that had subsequently been established contained only abstracts of papers, not the full-text. You also expressed some sadness that many of those who had attended have failed to establish an archive at all, despite promising to do so. Given the benefits of OA to India, why are Indian research institutes dragging their heels?

SA: What I write in the oa-india list is meant to provoke my Indian colleagues! Actually, the situation is not all that bad. As I reported at Berlin-4, there has been some progress since the workshops were held.

What you have to understand, however, is that there are several Indias, and the India of academic institutions and government laboratories is not the same India as the corporate India represented by large IT companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services.

By and large it takes time to change academic and government institutions in India, as it does in most developing countries! We just need to keep trying relentlessly to succeed.

Greater visibility

RP: When you and I corresponded in the wake of the workshops you said: "By placing Indian papers in interoperable archives, we can gain greater visibility for work done in India. But we also need to read papers written by scientists elsewhere, especially in the advanced countries. It is important for us, therefore, that scientists in advanced countries also place their papers in publicly available archives". Which is more important: for Indian researchers to self-archive, or for scientists in developed nations to do so?

SA: Both are equally important. We need access to research produced by scientists in other parts of the world so that we can stand upon the shoulders of giants and see further. We also need to make our papers easily available to other researchers in order to gain greater visibility, and so have an impact on world science ourselves.

The main difference, perhaps, is that achieving the second aim is in our own hands. All we can hope to do in terms of what happens in developed countries is to try and persuade scientists there to adopt OA, and it is great that two senators in the US are trying to introduce legislation to mandate OA for publicly-funded research.

We are also very happy to see organisations like the NIH, Wellcome Trust, JISC, OSI, and PubMed Central pushing for OA in the West. We are similarly pleased to see that the European Commission now also supports OA.

RP: As you say, this is a two-way street. In a paper you published on SciDevNet last year with Leslie Chan and Barbara Kirsop, you gave the example of tuberculosis, pointing out that India's National Tuberculosis Institute houses more than 100 years' worth of epidemiological and surveillance reports from various rural regions in South India. "Much of this data," you said, "is available only to a small number of [presumably Indian] researchers. If made available through an open access archive, the data could be of tremendous value for tuberculosis research, not only in India but world-wide." Can you say more about how scientists in developed nations could benefit from Indian researchers embracing OA?

SA: As I said during our last conversation, today Indian researchers publish their papers in a few thousand journals, many of which journals are low impact, and have only a small circulation. While most of these papers are average, some of them will be first-rate. Moreover, in areas like malaria and other tropical diseases, Indian work is likely to be of particular value in terms of advancing our understanding of the subject.

The problem is that if these papers are only available in local and/or low-circulation journals, then the rest of the world may not read them. If, on the other hand, they were easily accessible via open access channels their visibility would be that much greater.

A few months ago, by the way, the people running the OA archive at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) released some download statistics. These showed that tens of thousands of hits were coming from the USA. Were it not for IISc's archive, all those American researchers would likely still be unaware of the papers that they have been accessing in this way.

Prejudice

RP: Part of the problem, as you point out in the SciDevNet paper, is that scientists in the developing world often face prejudice when trying to publish in mainstream journals, but are reluctant to publish in their own national journals, precisely because these local journals have less impact, and provide little in the way of international exposure to their research. Is there not an argument for Indian researchers to simply abandon the traditional peer-reviewed scholarly communication system, and post their papers directly in IRs without bothering with print journals? By doing so they could avoid the pain of being rejected by the "old boys' club" that currently controls publication in the major science journals, while achieving the higher visibility that comes from making their research freely accessible on the Web?

SA: That would be suicidal. I would prefer Indian scientists to publish in the best journals whenever they can. And they should always publish their papers in refereed journals. There is a big difference between merely placing your paper on your own website and placing a refereed paper in an interoperable archive.

Yes there is prejudice, and there is discrimination but, as I said earlier, things can and do improve. The American South is now very different from the world portrayed in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Likewise, South Africa today is very different from how it was under the apartheid regime.

A few years ago, India was seen as poor food-importing country, but today Mr Bush comes calling on our Prime Minister to negotiate nuclear deals. And corporate America is ready to invest in India, not just in manufacturing and business process outsourcing, but in R&D too.

Different perspectives

RP: There is in the West some debate and confusion about what an institutional repository ought to be. In your writing you generally use the term archive, and talk in terms of an Open Access Archive, or OAA, rather than an IR. What is the difference between an OAA and an IR?

SA: I use the term archive to denote something that primarily archives research papers, and the term repository for an omnibus archive.

RP: What is an omnibus archive?

SA: An omnibus archive contains theses, conference papers, PowerPoint presentations, press clippings, and so on. Personally, I would prefer not to mix research papers with other types of documents, as it tends to confuse the OA message.

RP: Indeed, and part of the confusion seems to flow from the different perspectives of researchers and librarians. All researchers want is to maximise the impact of their research by making it as widely available as possible, and this can be achieved by means of a simple technical solution like the GNU EPrints software. Librarians, by contrast, tend to view repositories as a species of digital library, which raises costly and complicated issues like preservation, and encompasses a much greater range of digital objects. The reslting tension between OA advocates and librarians is evident both in the West and in India: in an article published in The Hindu earlier this year, for instance, the president of the Madras Library Association, Dr A Amudhavalli, seemed to be implying that an IR is merely another word for a digital library.

SA: Right, and many Indian librarians would agree with Dr Amudhavalli, I am afraid. The National Aerospace Laboratory and the Raman Research Institute, for example, have set up omnibus repositories. By contrast, at the Indian Institute of Science — where the late Dr T B Rajashekar played an important role in setting up the archives — they have created two separate archives: a GNU EPrints archive for research papers, and a DSpace repository for theses.

RP: This confusion between OA archives and digital libraries is reflected in the wide range of estimates bandied around with regard to the costs of creating an OAA. Figures quoted range from $A3,000 to $A10,000 [$2,2600-$7,500], to $300,000, to $1 million. Last time we spoke you said the costs were inconsequential. Can you elaborate on this?

SA: In the Indian context, the costs are not a big deal at all. Many large institutions will have a server, or can buy one for about $2,000-$3,000. Most institutions also already have an Internet connection; and existing staff can handle the work. My view, therefore, is that no major higher education or research institution in India can cite cost as a factor for not establishing an OA archive.

Mandating is essential

RP: Creating an OA archive, of course, is only the first step. You then need to fill it. Again, this has proved problematic both in the West and in India?

SA: Indeed. Author reluctance to self archive is a universal problem. It is like smoking and drinking: although all of us know that both are bad, and can be life threatening, smokers continue to smoke, and alcoholics continue to drink. Mere knowledge that OA is good and advantageous is not enough to persuade many scientists to deposit their papers in an OA archive. That is why mandating OA is essential.

RP: There has been a lot of discussion in Europe and America about the need for research funders, governments, and/or research institutes to mandate researchers to self-archive their papers. You clearly favour mandates?

SA: Yes, I am all for mandating. Indeed, it is even more appropriate for India than for the West, because close to 80% of research funding in India comes from the government. I have suggested to both the National Knowledge Commission and the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister that they should recommend mandating OA for all publicly-funded research. I have also recommended it to the secretaries of the departments of Science & Technology, Scientific and Industrial Research, and Biotechnology.  

RP: Has there been any move to introduce mandates yet?

SA: No. To date no funding agency in India has discussed the possibility of mandating OA, and no research institution has introduced a mandate.[*Postscript: In the second week of May 2006, the Registrar of the National Institute of Technology at Rourkela issued a circular announcing the decision to mandate OA archiving of all the Institute's research papers, as well as doctoral and Masters theses.]

RP: Clearly you are doing all you can. In a message posted on the SPARC OA Forum you reported that during a special session on Open Access held at the 93rd Indian Science Congress, held in Hyderabad in January, an "Optimal National Open Access Policy" was agreed for India. Can you say more about that?

SA: Well, we have forwarded the policy recommendation to a large number of people and institutions. The proposal is that Indian funding agencies and heads of institutions mandate OA for all publicly-funded research. It may happen within a year, or it may take a few years. But it will happen eventually.

The chances are that both the National Knowledge Commission and the science establishment could play a role in bringing about a national policy of mandating OA. Unfortunately, however, the Indian science establishment is good at talking, passing resolutions, and drafting policy documents — which it has been doing regularly ever since India attained Independence — but not so good at implementation. So their action-to-talk ratio could be much better!

However, if people like Professor C N R Rao, Dr R A Mashelkar and Dr Sam Pitroda are convinced, I think things will happen quickly.

Incidentally, as I mentioned, Mr Pitroda was largely responsible for the telecom revolution in India, and as a result today we have tens of thousands of public call offices spread all over urban and rural India. Indeed, his achievement in doing this is seen by the Indian people as comparable to the Green Revolution (in which Professor M S Swaminathan played a key role), and the White (or Milk) Revolution masterminded by Dr Verghese Kurien.

RP: One issue frequently raised in connection with OA is that of copyright. Since most scholarly publishers insist on acquiring copyright in papers they publish, this can clearly act as a disincentive to self-archiving. What's your view?

SA: Yes, copyright bothers many Indian scientists and research funders. I tell them that copyright should be retained by the author(s), and should not be assigned to the journal publisher. All that needs to be given to the publisher is first publication rights. In fact, my view is that it is immoral on the part of Indian scientists to give away the copyright in papers they write with the support of Indian taxpayers.

Change dramatically

RP: As you said, most developing nations currently face unequal access to scientific information, and so would benefit from OA. I understand that you have been actively encouraging countries like China and Brazil to adopt OA. Have you had much success?

SA: Yes, I have been writing to key people in China, Latin America and Africa about the need to adopt OA. I also tried to convene a meeting of policymakers from India, China and Brazil to discuss a common strategy for OA, and the Director General of India’s CSIR, and President of the Indian National Science Academy, Dr R A Mashelkar was ready to host the meeting at INSA. Likewise, OSI was ready to fund such a meeting.

RP: The meeting didn’t take place?

SA: No. Unfortunately, the Chinese wanted more time.

I am, by the way, also talking to a number of African scientists and development activists around the world, both about improving connectivity, and adopting OA in Africa. In addition, I am trying to bring together advocates of OA, Open Source, e-Science and the information commons — all of which have similar aims, and could usefully co-operate. I am also involved in an iniative called the Open Knowledge Network.

RP: So what are your hopes for the future regarding OA, and what implications does OA have for science?

SA: It is only a matter of time before OA is adopted all over the world. When it is, the way that science is done, published and disseminated will change dramatically. What is now clear is that the impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web will be as far reaching as the invention of printing in Europe by Gutenberg a few centuries ago.

RP: What's the end game: what would an ideal international research environment look like, and what would be the primary benefits?

SA: In the ideal international research environment, scientists everywhere would have easy access to a high bandwidth Internet connection, and virtually all scientific publications would be available via Open Access. There would be also be a considerable amount of collaboration via Grid computing.

At that point, information access would become a level playing field, and the benefits of science (and technology) would reach the currently unreached. I may sound utopian, but don’t you think it is well within the realm of possibility?

Effective strategy

RP: Absolutely. Given the problems we have discussed, however, I guess the key question is: what is the most effective strategy for hastening the introduction of OA in India?

SA: An effective strategy for OA in India would include advocacy (to policymakers, scientists and librarians), education, and hands-on training. It would also help to occasionally bring in some overseas experts. Alma Swan, Stevan Harnad, Leslie Chan and Jean-Claude Guédon may all say what I say, but their presence makes a lot of difference!  

RP: Clearly, governments could play a major role in enabling OA. What should they be doing?

Governments should consider the benefits that Open Access offers to science, and they should resist the pressures that publishers — and indeed some of their own government departments — are exerting to try to stall OA. I'm thinking, for instance, about the unhelpful role played by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry in its resistance to the recommendations of the UK Science & Technology Select Committee enquiry. Governments need to realise that adopting OA will maximise the return on their investment in science.

RP: Finally, what's your message to researchers and research institutes, both in the West and in the developed world?

SA: My message to all researchers in the world is this:

  • Adopt OA whole-heartedly; it can only do you good

  • Never give away the copyright in your work to publishers, especially if your research is funded by the public

  • Don’t fall prey to the blandishments of publishers when they offer you membership of an editorial board, or ask you to guest edit a special issue, if the journal is not Open Access.

And my message to research institutions is this:

  • Set up an interoperable institutional archive and mandate archiving as soon as possible

  • Provide high bandwidth Internet access to your scientists, and always try to take advantage of advances in technology

  • Remember that the purpose of all science is ultimately to benefit the people. Be proactive in sharing your institution’s knowledge with the rest of the world.

The key point is that science and society can only progress if we all share knowledge, and build partnerships. We increasingly talk about e-Science and the information commons, but what is even more important is inclusive science — science in which no one is left behind.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Why India Needs Open Access


Anyone following the Open Access (OA) debate via mailing lists like the American Scientist Open Access Forum and Liblicense could mistakenly conclude that OA is an issue of relevance only to researchers and research institutions in the West. The reality, of course, is that OA is an international issue. Indeed, given the greater financial constraints they face, developing nations have far more to gain from Open Access.

In this first part of a two-part interview Professor Subbiah Arunachalam, Distinguished Fellow of the Chennai-based M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), explains to Richard Poynder why OA is so important for Indian research.




Professor Subbiah Arunachalam


RP:
Can you start by saying something about yourself and your background?

SA: I was born into an economically middle-class family — although socially in the upper crust — in a small town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I went to school and college close to my home, and I was fortunate to have had some excellent teachers. Thanks to my mother, I also developed a thirst for devoting myself to the public good.

RP: You are a chemist by training?

SA: Yes. I started out as a student of chemistry, and after obtaining a Masters in Chemistry at Annamalai University in 1963, I took a research assistant’s job at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute, Karaikudi. I worked there for 21 months, doing research in electroplating.

In May 1965, I moved to New Delhi, to work as an editorial assistant in the Publications & Information Directorate of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). Then in 1969, I took three years' leave to pursue research in physical chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

RP: It was at the IISc that you developed an interest in information science I believe?

SA: That's right. While I was at the IISc I spent a lot of time in the library, where I started assisting students (and faculty) who were looking for information. Years later, when asked if he knew me, a professor of organic chemistry told me that I was a living legend in the campus, and frequently referred to as "the tall man with glasses who will help anyone in need in the library".

Flair for information science

RP: Did you take a course in information science?

SA: No. I never took a course in information science or librarianship. I simply developed a natural flair for some aspects of information science, largely focused on the needs of students of science seeking information for research, and those wanting to look at and "evaluate" performance in scientific research.

Anyway, in 1973, after three and a half years of not-so-successful research in the lab, I was asked to take on the job of editor of publications, and secretary, at the Indian Academy of Sciences — an institution founded in 1934 by Sir C V Raman, India’s only Nobel Laureate in Science.

RP: Where you set about re-organising the Academy's journals?

SA: Indeed, and my first task was to convince management that the Academy needed subject-specific journals, rather than the omnibus Proceedings of the Academy, published in two sections.

RP: Was that an easy task?

SA: Well, there was some opposition from older Fellows of the Academy, but the management agreed to go ahead, and we started by creating a new journal for physics (Pramana), which was until then part of the Proceedings of the Academy, Section A. Today, instead of the original two sections of the Proceedings, the Academy publishes ten subject-specific titles.

RP: In 1975 you returned to CSIR’s Publication Directorate?

SA: Yes, and I continued there until 1992. During that time, apart from editing journals and writing popular science articles, I started teaching information science at the Indian National Scientific Documentation Centre, and doing research in scientometrics.

RP: And at that time you also joined the editorial boards of a number of journals?

SA: Actually that started in the late 1970s. Gene Garfield, who has been a strong influence on my professional development, asked me to join the editorial board of Current Contents in 1977; and I have been on the editorial board of the Journal of Information Science since its very first issue in 1979. Subsequently, I also joined the editorial boards of a number of other journals, including Scientometrics, Public Understanding of Science, and Current Science.

RP: What are your primary interests today?

SA: Currently, I am active in two areas, in both of which my flair for information work comes in handy. For more than ten years I have been a full-time volunteer at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), in Chennai. There I am part of the Information Village Research Project, which uses new ICTs to empower rural communities, and an adviser to the National Virtual Academy.

I also continue to look at how we can improve access to information in developing countries, and how the literature can be used to quantify and assess science. So part of my work addresses the needs of scientists, and the other part — ICT-enabled development — addresses the needs of the poor.

As part of the latter work I am on the Executive Committee of the Global Knowledge Partnership, and on the International Advisory Board of The International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD). I am also one of the three Secretaries of Mission 2007, which aims to bring the knowledge revolution to all 637,000 villages in India, and a member of the Working Group on Libraries set up by the National Knowledge Commission.

Advocate for open access

RP: That sounds like a demanding workload. Yet you still have time available for advocating for Open Access?

SA: Well, I actually spend about one-third of my working day, and sometimes even more, on OA advocacy and promotion.

RP: When did you first take an interest in Open Access?

SA: My interest in improving access to information for scientists in the developing world started in the early 1970s, when I was still a research student at the Indian Institute of Science.

My first article on information as the key to science development, for instance, appeared in 1975, in Science Today, India’s best-known popular science journal. I also spoke about the special needs of researchers in the developing world with regard to information access at the first ISI meeting on Advances in Information Access, in Philadelphia, in 1982. There I advocated for differential pricing for journals and databases and, wherever possible, free distribution.

My interest in promoting Open Access specifically started around 1996, when I began working as a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.

RP: In an article you published on Open Access last September in the Asian information newspaper Access you said "papers written by Indian scientists, often with support from Indian taxpayers' money, are not seen, read or cited by other Indian researchers." What is the problem here?

SA: The issue is quite simple: research performed in India, and funded by Indian taxpayers, is reported in a few thousand journals, both Indian and foreign. Since some of these journals are very expensive, many Indian libraries — including sometimes the author's own institutional library — are not able to subscribe to them. As consequence, other Indian scientists working in the same, or related, areas are unable to read these papers. This is a problem common to all developing countries.

RP: How can Open Access resolve these problems for Indian researchers?

SA: If all these papers were published in OA journals, or if the authors made them freely available on the Web by self-archiving them — either in institutional OA archives or in central archives like arXiv and CiteSeer — then the problem would vanish.

Two routes

RP: As your answer implies, there are currently two main ways to provide OA to research literature: the Gold Route (in which OA publishers charge researchers, or more usually their funders, to publish papers, and then make those papers freely available on the Web), and the Green Route (where authors continue to publish in traditional subscription-based journals and then self-archive their papers themselves on the Web). In a paper you published with US-based OA advocate Peter Suber in World-Information City last October, you argued that self-archiving is the best route for Indian researchers. Why?

SA: I would point out that not all gold route OA journals charge authors (or indeed their funders) a publication fee. Currently, for instance, not a single Indian OA journal charges author-side fees.

But to answer your question: I believe that OA archiving is a better option because it would allow us to achieve 100% OA more quickly. Today there are not many Gold OA journals, so compelling authors to publish their work only in the few OA journals that currently exist would not achieve the same effect, in the short-term at least.

RP: What you are saying is that there are currently too few OA journals to enable researchers to publish all their papers OA using the Gold Route. By self-archiving, however, they could provide OA to all their work immediately?

SA: Right. Self-archiving allows authors to continue to exercise their freedom to choose which journals they publish in, while also making their papers freely available to everyone on the Web. As Stevan Harnad and others have pointed out, 92% of about 9,000 journals surveyed already allow self archiving, and there are ways by which one can overcome the restrictions imposed by the other 8% of journals.

Self archiving, by the way, has the added benefit of enabling institutions to keep track of the publication output of their faculty and students.

Not an either or question

RP: One of the issues frequently raised when discussing OA publishing is that the researcher (or his funder) is required to pay to publish. As you point out, however, Indian OA journals don't charge author-side fees. Moreover, OA publishers like BioMed Central and Public Library of Science waive their fees in cases of economic hardship. While I take your point about the current shortage of OA journals, the number is growing all the time. I wonder, therefore, if OA publishing might not be a more cost-effective route for Indian research institutes. After all, some financial investment is needed to create and maintain an institutional repository (IR)?

SA: It is not an either or question. Both publishing in OA journals and setting up institutional archives, or repositories, are important for Indian scientists. Moreover, the cost of setting up and maintaining an institutional archive is actually quite low, and certainly affordable for most Indian research institutes and universities.

Certainly if papers by Indian scientists are accepted for publication in high quality OA journals such as PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, and if the publication charges are waived, it is good. The fact is, however, that not many Indian authors are able to write papers that are accepted by such journals.

RP: So where do Indian researchers publish their scholarly papers today?

SA: Indian research appears in both Indian and foreign journals, roughly in equal proportions. The problem is that most Indian journals have a very poor circulation; for example, only six of the twenty or so journals published by CSIR has a subscriber base of over 1,000 (but less than 1,500). And most Indian papers in foreign journals are in low-impact journals. Indeed, my own bibliometric studies have shown that a very small percentage of Indian papers appear in high impact journals.

The net result is that Indian work does not reach a wide audience, affecting both its visibility and impact, and so the general impression of Indian science is poorer than it deserves. That is why having OA archives is very important for Indian researchers: they can provide much greater visibility.

RP: How would you explain the benefits of Open Access to Indian researchers?

SA: I would point out that by making their research more widely available they can increase its visibility, and thus its impact. Essentially, the appeal of OA for Indian researchers is that they can publish in a full OA journal at no cost to themselves, or to their organisation; or they can publish in any journal and then self archive their papers; and by doing so they can raise their profile within the international research community.

RP: You say that no Indian OA journal charges author-side fees?

SA: That's right.

RP: How then do these journals make ends meet?

SA: Almost all of them charge a subscription for the print version of the journal — which, by the way, is always much lower than the subscription prices of journals produced in the West. Some of them also carry advertisements; and some get grants from the government.

Publishers can also benefit

RP: OK, so they provide free access to the electronic version, but charge for print subscriptions. The situation you describe of no OA publisher charging author-side fees is unique to India is it?

SA: Not necessarily. There may be other countries in which none of their OA journals charge author-side fees. A key factor, perhaps, is that — unlike in the West — journal publishing in India is not dominated by commercial publishers. Many Indian journals are published by government agencies like CSIR, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the Indian Council of Medical Research; by academies like the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), and by professional societies like the Indian Chemical Society.

It is worth pointing out that publishers can also benefit from embracing OA, as my friend Dr D K Sahu [CEO of the Bombay-based private company MedKnow Publications] has convincingly shown with the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine (JPGM).

RP: How do you mean?

SA: Within a very short time of going OA, JPGM started attracting far more papers, many from abroad. It also saw a considerable increase in the number of print subscribers, especially from other countries. And the number of citations per paper also increased tremendously.

In fact, JPGM now gets more than a million hits every year, and papers published in it are cited far more often now than a few years ago. Indeed were it to be indexed in Journal Citation Reports, it would be the Indian journal with the highest impact factor!

RP: So what is the current situation with regard to OA publishing in India today?

SA: Currently close to a hundred Indian journals are OA. This includes eleven journals published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, four journals published by INSA, one journal published by the Indian Institute of Science, one journal published by the Indian Council of Medical Research, and three journals published by the Calicut Medical College.

In addition, The National Informatics Centre of the Government of India operates the Indian Medlars Centre, which makes available electronic versions of 38 Indian biomedical journals, mainly published by professional societies. And Indian Journals.com, a Delhi-based company, publishes eight OA journals.

Finally, the commercial publisher MedKnow Publications publishes both print and OA electronic versions of 30 medical journals on behalf of Indian professional societies.

There is, however, a long way to go. While a few CSIR journals were available electronically for a few years (through Bioline), for example, the agreement was not renewed. And today not a single Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) journal is an OA journal.

RP: How do the electronic services offered by Indian publishers compare with those produced by Western publishers and learned societies?

SA:  The quality of the web presence of Indian OA journals varies considerably. The MedKnow journals are among the best, and their web presence is comparable to that of any Western scholarly publisher.

The Indian Academy journals, on the other hand, have considerable scope for improvement. The tragedy is they can really afford it, but for some reason they are not doing it. This inability or indifference to translate what is possible into reality is a problem you encounter in most developing countries.

Much talk and little action

RP: What about the development of Indian institutional repositories?

SA: The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) was the pioneer in OA archiving in India. In 1997, for instance, when telecom infrastructure in India was poor, the IMSc set up a mirror site for arXiv.

So far as institutional repositories are concerned, however, there is currently much talk and little action, and in total there are still only about twenty-five institutional archives.

RP: Can you say something about them?

SA: The best known is the GNU EPrints archive at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. It was the first institutional archive to be set up in India, and currently has over 4,175 papers, although not all of them are in full text. Many of the papers are uploaded by the keepers of the archive and not by the authors of the papers.  

The National Institute of Technology at Rourkela (NIT-R) has a DSpace repository with over 250 papers, and the Director is talking to the faculty about mandating the deposit of all research papers in the institute's archive.[* Postscript: In the second week of May 2006, the Registrar of NIT-R issued a circular announcing the decision to mandate OA archiving of all the Institute's research papers, as well as doctoral and Masters theses.]

The National Chemical Laboratory also has an archive. It has very few papers but a large number of PhD theses. The Laboratory’s scientists are reluctant to deposit their published research papers in the archive. The Indian Institute of Management at Kozhikode in Kerala also has an archive but, again, author reluctance to archive is rather high.

Overall, Bangalore is emerging as the Indian leader in OA archiving. The Raman Research Institute, founded by Sir C V Raman, has recently set up an omnibus archive, although it has many more press clippings than research papers. The National Aerospace Laboratory, Bangalore, has also set up an omnibus repository. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, too has set up its own archive. And Dr A R D Prasad, an ardent advocate of OA and DSpace, has set up an archive for library and information science — the Librarians’ Digital Library — at the Documentation Research and Training Centre of the Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore.

Finally, the Indian Medlars Centre at NIC, New Delhi, has an EPrints-based archive called OpenMED where biomedical researchers from anywhere in the world can deposit their papers.  

All in all, for a country of more than a billion people we have very little to show.

RP: Let me ask you a more fundamental — if somewhat obvious — question. Open Access is essentially an issue of maximising access to research information by removing the financial barriers. But why is it important for Indian researchers in particular to have better access?

SA: There are a number of reasons why Indian researchers need to have better access to scientific information. Many multinationals, for instance, are now not only establishing BPO [Business Process Outsourcing], marketing, and manufacturing operations in India, but R&D centres too.

Likewise, many automobile and pharmaceutical companies are establishing manufacturing facilities in India, and many Indian companies, especially in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors, are acquiring companies abroad.

In addition, laboratories like the Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory earn a substantial portion of their annual investment on R&D from contract research outsourced by overseas companies trying to take advantage of the lower costs of performing research in India.

Indeed, Chemical & Engineering News recently published a special section on India, significantly entitled "Indian Science Rising." As a consequence of all this, the Indian economy is picking up, and the stock market is doing better than ever before: the Sensex recently crossed the unprecedented level of 12,000.

But unless Indian researchers have access to current scientific information the current growth in research and research-based manufacturing will be seriously hampered going forward.

Moreover, Indian science benefits people in other countries as well. When Africa badly needed large supplies of antiretrovirals to combat HIV/AIDS, and was unable to procure them because of prevailing high prices in the West, for instance, an Indian company produced and supplied the drugs at a fraction of the cost.

Consider also that diseases such as avian flu spread so fast across the globe, and natural disasters such as the tsunami of December 2004 affect distant regions within such a short time, that it is vital to have high-level local research capacity to minimise the deleterious consequences. But without access to the scholarly literature it is not possible to develop this local research capacity effectively.

And bear in mind that India is home to the largest incidence of many medical problems, including tuberculosis, diabetes, malaria and blindness, and research done and treatments developed elsewhere sometimes do not help in dealing with these problems because of some locale-specific factors.

Again, therefore, it is important to strengthen indigenous research capacity. The argument that poor countries should concentrate on the basics such as food, shelter, clothing, primary healthcare, and schools, and not invest in research, is faulty.

These are some of the reasons why Indian researchers need better access to the scholarly literature.

Unequal access

RP: In an interview you gave with Die Zeit in 1997 you estimated that India published about 11,000 papers annually in the 3,300 journals indexed in the Science Citation Index, and in total about 16,000 to 20,000 papers a year. Has the situation changed since then?

SA: Not really. If there is any increase it is just marginal. In contrast, China, South Korea and Brazil have recorded a sizeable increase in their journal article output. I have written about this in Current Science. In the recent past, however, the Government of India has increased funding for research, which might help raise the number of papers published.

The fact is that with less than 3% of the world's scientific papers coming from India, and most of them being cited much less often than the world average, India contributes sub-optimally to the creation of new knowledge. The harsh truth is that India cannot emerge as a knowledge power unless her performance in science improves substantially, and quickly.

RP: You said earlier that Indian research institutions cannot afford all the scholarly journals they need. Research institutions in the West make the same complaint. At how much of a disadvantage are Indian research institutes compared to those in the West?

SA: Well it is getting better. A good initiative by the University Grants Commission — InfoNet — has provided many Indian universities with access to around 4,000 journals, a good proportion of them in social sciences.  

As another indicator of improvement, it is worth noting that in 2002 the best Indian institution, IISc, had access to only 1,381 print journals, of which 200 were accessible online. Thanks to a government supported consortium called INDEST, today IISc faculty can access 8,950 full-text journals.

The problem, however, is that many universities in the West subscribe to several times that number. Given such unequal access, Indian scientists inevitably struggle to perform world class science.

The fact is that equitable access to current scientific information is essential if India is to take its rightful place in the world.

RP: And since it tends to level the playing field, Open Access can help India to take its rightful place?

SA: Exactly. But we also need to remember that while OA is necessary, it is not sufficient in itself. There are other factors and issues that need to be addressed too.


Part two of this interview is available here.