Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Creating a National Open Access Policy for Developing Countries

Held in India, in the first week of November, the Bangalore workshop on Electronic Publishing and Open Access (OA), was convened in order to agree a model National OA Policy for developing countries. Guest blogger Barbara Kirsop, of the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development, was one of those attending. Below is her report.

Meeting in the idyllic surroundings of the Indian Institute of Science campus, in Bangalore, the 44 participants of the workshop included scientists and OA experts from India, China, Brazil and South Africa, along with colleagues and OA advocates from a number of other countries.

The workshop was hosted by three major Indian scientific institutions — the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Academy of Science, and the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation — and funded by the Open Society Institute.

The two-day event included thought-provoking presentations on the etymology of such terms as 'open' and 'own', intensive debate about the challenges and opportunities OA raises for developing nations, and a demonstration of the impressive Indo-Chinese Million Books Digital Library project.

With superb Indian refreshments served beneath shady tropical trees, the atmosphere was highly conducive to intensive networking and focussed discussions, and included important updates on existing OA projects, along with statistical evidence showing progress in both OA-advanced countries and developing countries

Moving on

But why was it felt necessary to hold a workshop on OA so soon after the Salvador Declaration on Open Access for Developing Countries, held in September 2005?

The Bangalore workshop was not intended to be a venue simply for confirming acceptance of the principles of OA, but was convened to bring some of the most scientifically advanced developing countries together to report on progress, and consider a model National Open Access Policy that could be offered to governments, and their funding organisations, as a practical tool for driving OA forward.

The aim, therefore, was to take the next step towards ensuring the implementation of earlier OA declarations, not just to talk about OA (the free online availability of peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles).

What was abundantly clear was that participants agreed on the fundamentals: that academic researchers, in whatever country they work, need access to the published literature in their area of research — for without that they are unable to build on the work of others, gain recognition for their own research, or form professional partnerships.

Grossly uneven

But since the cost of academic journals is prohibitive for many developing countries, scholarly communication is for them severely restricted.

This is a huge problem: A survey conducted by the WHO in 2003, for instance, found that in 75 of the poorest countries, 56% of the medical institutions had been unable to access any journals over the previous five years.

The problem with the current system, therefore, is that the playing field is grossly uneven, and seriously handicaps researchers — who are unable to access all the publications they need to make academic progress because of the high cost of journals.

Furthermore, the cost of printing and distributing local journals means that much developing world research is 'invisible' to the rest of the world, isolating research communities and limiting communication with neighbouring countries.

As a consequence, the incorporation of regional knowledge into international programmes remains minimal. Yet with the growth of global problems — think only of HIV/AIDS, avian 'flu, environmental disasters, climate change or crop failure — it is essential that the countries in which these problems are most commonly experienced have access to research findings, and can contribute their crucial experience to finding global solutions.

Without both improved access and regional visibility, the science base of poorer countries will not be strengthened, and it is well documented that without a strong science base economies remain weak and dependent on others.

But thanks to the profound media developments made possible by the Web, OA has created exhilarating new opportunities for the exchange of essential research information. And while this promises huge benefits for all academic research, it will be especially beneficial for developing nations, by providing equality of access for all.

It is clear, for instance, that wherever researchers have embraced OA, the visibility, quality and the impact of local research has flourished, and subscriptions to OA journals have even increased — a clear indication that researchers were previously information-starved.

Progress has been made

Yet while awareness of OA in many developing countries remains low, the more scientifically advanced nations have already recognised the benefits of OA, and are making fast progress — both in converting journals to OA and establishing interoperable institutional repositories

Progress has also been made in developing nations, and workshop delegates were updated on local developments. In India, for instance, the MedKnow project in Mumbai, has done much to raise the visibility of Indian medical journals in a sustainable way, and without charging authors or readers.

Meanwhile, the Bioline service has recorded impressive increases in requests for full-text papers from the developing country journals it hosts, with a projected one million requests in 2006 for papers that would otherwise be largely unknown and unavailable to local researchers.

This kind of progress highlights the amount of research information that was totally unused pre-OA, due to its inaccessibility.

Successful strategies for filling institutional repositories were also discussed at the workshop, with examples taken not only from the developed regions, but from local research institutes too. One Indian institute, for instance, is 'gently persuading' its scholars to deposit their articles by refusing travel support to those that do not archive their publications!

Further examples were given of OA progress in China and South Africa, as well as from the established SciELO programme in Brazil — all of which confirmed the growth and value of Open Access policies.

Vigorous debate

It was agreed, however, that progress could be significantly speeded up if a model National OA Policy could be drawn up, and developing countries encouraged to adopt it.

It was also felt that this would be particularly effective if it was formally accepted by a group of local experts — of which there was no shortage at the workshop — who know and understand the problems faced by developing countries on the ground.

While there was vigorous debate on how to encourage adoption of such a policy, there was no dissent over the need for it, or of its basic form.

Specifically, the draft Policy document urges governments to require copies of all publicly funded research published in peer-reviewed journals to be deposited in an institutional digital repository as soon as publication is accepted, and encourages government grant holders to provide Open Access to their deposited papers immediately upon deposit. Grant holders are also encouraged to publish in a suitable Open Access journal, where one exists. This should be a condition of research funding for any papers partly or fully funded by the government.

Delegates decided to allow a further two weeks for local consultation about the final wording of the Policy, and submission of further improvements — after which the document would be made widely available.

Next logical step

While the development of any new academic practice always generates wide debate, the Bangalore workshop was grounded on the principle that OA is the next logical step in the evolutionary process of scholarly communication.

The ethos of those attending was summed up by a comment from Lawrence Laing, of the Alternative Law Forum. "Why," he asked, "are top scientists said to be gifted?" "Because", he replied, "they give their research findings to others."

It was also evident to participants that it was important to produce a new tool for ensuring continued progress; a tool targeted clearly, but not exclusively, at developing countries. It was agreed therefore that a model National OA Policy would prove to be a valuable advancement.

Clearly, the success of the Policy will depend on whether the relevant governments, funders and research institutes adopt its recommendations.

But it may be that the countries represented at the Bangalore workshop will lead the way in the adoption of Open Access policies. After all, they have most to gain and so much to contribute.

All presentations, lists of participants and the draft model National OA Policy document are available on the workshop web site.

Barbara Kirsop can be contacted on:

Monday, November 20, 2006

Open Access: Beyond Selfish Interests

Few would question that the aim of the Open Access (OA) Movement — to make all research papers freely available on the Web — is a laudable one. OA will considerably benefit the research process, and maximise the use of public funds. It was encouraging therefore to see the topic of OA aired in a number of presentations at the recent Internet Librarian International (ILI). Listening to them, however, I found myself wondering how many acts of selfishness stand between us and OA.

There is today no shortage of discussion about OA. A simple search for the term on Google demonstrates that. Most of these discussions, however, tend to take place amongst the various warring factions of the OA Movement, particularly researchers and librarians, plus the occasional scholarly publisher brave enough to put his head above the parapet.

I was interested, therefore, to hear at ILI the opinions of someone with a less partisan view; the view, moreover, of an economist. For the conference keynote was given by Danny Quah, professor of economics at the prestigious London School of Economics. True, Quah is himself a researcher, but it was clear that it was as an economist that he spoke. He also brought a welcome international perspective to the debate.

Quah had been asked by conference chair Marydee Ojala to give a paper on the weightless economy (a term Quah coined) and "the knowledge glut". In the event, Ojala commented on her blog, he didn't talk about either of these, but "the economics of publishing."

However, Ojala may have missed the point. Speaking as an economist, Quah set out to ask a very important question about the so-called knowledge economy. That is, why, despite the glut of information in the world today, is some information increasing in price? He clearly also wanted to draw to the attention of his librarian audience the important role they play in this counterintuitive development.

Maximum social good

Modern economists, explained Quah, work on the assumption that in free markets the greatest social good is achieved when supply and demand are in equilibrium. To help achieve this, he added, brokers, or intermediaries, constantly work to match customers with suppliers. In doing so, intermediaries "perform a useful function — one that increases welfare for society — and they earn the resulting appropriate rewards."

Indeed, he added, the extraordinary thing about free markets is that maximum social good is arrived at through a process in which everyone acts selfishly. "[P]eople do good for society by doing well for themselves", he said, not least the intermediaries, whose sole aim is that of "single-mindedly, just narrowly trying to get suppliers and demanders to meet."

He added: "It is far from the brokers' minds, and rightly so, that in merely doing their job a greater social good might be attained."

Nevertheless, he concluded, the model is not foolproof. When social institutions are created or destroyed, for instance, the opposite effect can occur. And when this happens the system may not automatically be able to repair itself.

That, he argued, is precisely what has happened in the scholarly journal market. Where economists would expect an increase in supply to have caused prices to decrease, the rapid growth in published research we have seen over the past several decades has led to an increase in the price of scholarly journals.

Even more puzzling, he added, this has occurred during a period of unprecedented advances in the technology for distributing information. As he put it, "In the face of arguably the greatest improvement in information dissemination technology in pretty much all of recorded history … academic journal prices have not fallen but actually increased."

And journal prices have increased in an extraordinary manner. By 2000, Quah said, the average annual subscription of science and technology journals had reached $1,200, having increased by 80% over the previous decade. In the case of biomedical journals, he added, the market experienced a more than doubling of prices in the seven years after 1994.

An important feature of this price inflation, added Quah, is the difference in price between journals produced by commercial publishers, and those produced by non-profit publishers.

So where, for instance, in 2001 the top 10 most-cited economics journals produced by commercial publishers had an average annual subscription rate of $1,370, the cost of the top 10 most-cited economics journals produced by non-profit publishers was just $190.

How could it be, asked Quah, that the market is able to tolerate a 600% mark-up like this?

And in case anyone accuse him of trying to compare apples and oranges, he added, we should note that the same disparity is evident when costs are calculated on a price-per-page basis: thus where the cost of a page produced by non-profit publishers averaged 18 cents, the figure for commercial publishers was 82 cents.

Likewise, when calculated on a per-citation-basis the average non-profit price was 15 cents per citation, compared to $2.40 in the case of commercial publishers.

"Evidently," concluded Quah, "the premium that the marketplace willingly pays commercial publishers remains high — between 5 and 16 times according to these back-of-the-envelope calculations."

Peculiar economic commodity

So why has a glut in scholarly information led not to a fall in price but to an increase? Because, answered Quah, "Information is a peculiar economic commodity. It does not trade easily or conveniently in conventional markets."

As a consequence, he added, "the social institution that has emerged historically to allow information exchange, production, and dissemination is an intellectual property rights (IPR) system."

The problem with the IPR system, however, is that while it is a good way of assigning priority, and according proprietary rights in new information and ideas, it is not an effective pricing mechanism, said Quah.

In short, when the IPR system is used for pricing, rather than assigning priority and ownership, it causes problems — because while ordinary property rights foster market competition, intellectual property rights create and sanction monopolies. As such, rather than facilitating market competition, IPRs stifle it.

The market outcome, said Quah, is one in which price is separated from cost, "and the price mark-up over cost turns out to be whatever the marketplace will bear."

Add to this the fact that the market for scholarly journals is inelastic, he said, and it becomes apparent why there is no market control on the price of scholarly journals.

While Quah did not directly state it, his point was surely that the dysfunction in the market for scholarly journals is a direct result of publishers insisting that, as a condition of publication, researchers have to sign over copyright in their papers, thereby giving publishers an exclusive right to distribute them (at whatever price they want).

Certainly, Quah's analysis touched a raw nerve for some in his audience. Conscious that ILI organiser Information Today is itself also a commercial publisher, the company's president Tom Hogan suggested that Quah's figures did not take into account the fact that learned societies are able to subsidise their publishing activities through membership subscriptions.

"As I said during my talk," Quah replied cannily, "my aim is not to point fingers."

In short, Quah's thesis appeared to be that in a free market diverse selfish actions are aggregated in such a way as to maximise public good — an economic theory first enunciated by Adam Smith in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. Smith devised the metaphor of the "Invisible Hand", which economists today frequently use to characterise the way in which in a free market multiple selfish acts can lead to outcomes that have beneficial consequences not just for those individual actors, but for society at large.

In the case of the information market, Quah argued, the IPR system has destroyed the benign social function that the invisible hand can have.

Quah's talk spurred me to think about the various actors in the OA drama, and their different motivations. Might we, I wondered, reach a better understanding of the problems besetting the scholarly journal market if we considered the motivations of the different actors, and the selfish actions that drive the market? Could this also alert us to the dangers ahead, and help us see what needs to be done?


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