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:

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