Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The OA interviews: Francis Jayakanth of India’s National Centre for Science Information

Like members of all movements, OA advocates come in all shapes and sizes, and they are driven by a variety of different motives. Some have embraced OA, for instance, because they see it as a good business opportunity, some because they want their research to be more accessible, and so have greater impact, some because they expect it will save their institution large sums of money, and some simply because they believe that OA holds out the promise of providing considerable common good.

What is distinctive about the Open Access (OA) movement, however, is that it is a leaderless revolution. There is no formal organisation or foundation to represent it, and there is no official leader. For all that, OA is generally associated with a small group of high-profile Western-based individuals and organisations that are extremely vocal in their support of OA, and who have shown themselves to be very successful at attracting attention.

Since all movements have to promote themselves effectively this is clearly a good thing. However, it does mean that the contribution of the many “foot soldiers” of the movement can too easily be overlooked. These are people who do not shout about their activities, but simply go about the business of facilitating OA quietly and modestly. 

And it is the foot soldiers based in the developing world that tend to be least visible — people like Francis Jayakanth, a library-trained scientific assistant based at the National Centre for Science Information (NCSI), the information centre of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.


Jayakanth’s ah-ha moment came in 2001, when he first saw arXiv, the physics preprint repository. “I was very impressed with the concept of electronic pre-print servers, and I wanted to do something similar for IISc publications,” he explains, adding, “[M]ost of the research publications produced by IISc are locked up in high-impact, commercial journals. For those who cannot afford a subscription to the journals, the visibility and the potential impact of research produced by IISc and published in these journals is lost.”
Francis Jayakanth

The appeal of OA for Jayakanth, therefore, is that it is “the best way of ensuring that research produced in the developing world gets wider visibility.”

Keen to help Indian researchers achieve this wider visibility, Jayakanth became a dedicated and highly effective advocate for OA. More importantly, he determined to do whatever he could in a practical way to advance the cause of Open Access in his native country.

In 2002, Jayakanth was instrumental in the creation of India’s first institutional repository ePrints@IISc. Today this repository contains over 32,000 publications — around 80% of all the publications produced by researchers at IISc. Strikingly, this has been achieved despite the absence of an open-access mandate at IISc requiring researchers to deposit their papers.

Jayakanth also threw himself headlong into the task of helping colleagues at other Indian institutions play their part in the OA revolution. He began organising and running workshops and conferences on OA, helping others to set up their own repositories, and assisting in the creation of new OA journals, and the conversion of print-only journals to OA.

Professor Subbiah Arunachalam, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, has known Jayakanth since 1994, when he was an Indian National Science Academy Visiting Fellow at NCSI for three months.

At the time, says Arunachalam, “NCSI was a beehive of activity with a number of trainee librarians learning to use computers and the emerging web technologies in their work. Francis was in charge of the servers and he was teaching a few classes.”

Arunachalam adds, “I have been visiting IISc and NCSI off and on since then and I have been following Francis’ work. Never one to seek wealth or fame, Francis believes in living simply (almost to the point of being self-effacing) and giving generously. He never says ‘no’ to anyone who requests help in setting up a repository, or speaking at, or conducting a workshop. Indeed when, for family reasons, he could not go to a workshop he had accepted he arranged with another expert to stand in for him.”

What is most notable about Jayakanth, says Arunachalam, is that where many librarians are happy to talk about OA, “Francis is one of the very few in India who have actually done something concrete.”

Foot soldier

Professor N V Joshi, the former chair of NCSI, and professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc in Bangalore, agrees with Arunachalam’s assessment of Jayakanth. As an example of his commitment to OA, Joshi relates how, when the first anniversary of the death of the former associate chairman of NCSI Dr TB Rajashekar was approaching, Jayakanth pointed out that the number of deposits in the IISc repository was hovering around 5,000. What better tribute to the memory of Rajashekhar, he suggested, than to pull out all the stops in order to achieve 5,000 by the anniversary date.

“The students and assistants worked for many days, often very late into the night (2am and beyond), to ensure that the target was reached,” says Joshi.

When I characterised Jayakanth as a foot soldier of the OA movement, however, Joshi at first bridled. “[T]hat phrase seems to have an unfortunate connotation of having a lack of leadership and initiative — and nothing can be further from truth,” he responded. “I have had the pleasure of witnessing Dr. Francis Jayakanth's exceptional organisational ability, as well as his unobtrusive leadership role in many of the programs conducted by the NCSI.”

But a few days later, Joshi emailed to say that, on reflection, he felt perhaps the term soldier was apt, at least in regard to one aspect of Jayakanth's personality. Like a soldier, he said, Jayakanth is always happy to “carry out the responsibility entrusted to him with utmost dedication, without voicing the slightest judgement about the merits or otherwise of the goal.”

A good example of this, he explained, was Jayakanth’s decision to take it upon himself to do most if not all the daily tasks of maintaining ePrints@IISc. “At the lowest end, this involved checking the batteries of the backup power system and arranging for their replacement. It also covered deciding on the specifications of computers to be ordered, negotiating with the vendors to get the best possible deal and the subsequent follow-up action for delivery on time. Though there was good technical help available, there were instances when Dr Francis himself installed the operating system, tested it extensively, and then took up and completed the task of installing and testing the various software programs (DSpace, EPrints etc. etc.). He also took care of the installation of the new versions (updating the software) and of migrating to new and more powerful machines as was necessary from time to time.”

The point he wanted to stress in listing these details, said Joshi, “is that these are the ‘technician like’ things that he did on his own, to ensure that the repository was a success.”

On the other hand, he added, since Jayakanth has also demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities, it might be more accurate to compare him to a Lt. Colonel, a Major General or even Brigadier. “I had the pleasure and the honour of being the chairman of the National Center for Science Information for some time,” he explained, “and I am happy to admit that in almost all aspects Francis Jayakanth was the de facto chairman, as I would go more or less completely by his advice on matters of policy, initiatives, administration etc.”


In addition, said Joshi, it should be noted that Jayakanth is an extraordinary teacher and mentor. “He was the key person in the unique two-year program run by the NCSI to train library science graduates in the use of modern information science. In fact, after the sudden and sad demise of Dr TB Rajashekar, it was Francis Jayakanth who saw to it (along with a few colleagues) that the program continued to run very well. In addition to the two-year program, he has conducted many workshops for the students of library science, and the response has been excellent.”

Above all, Joshi concluded, Jayakanth has evinced an exceptional loyalty to NCSI, a loyalty all the more remarkable given that he has yet to be rewarded or promoted for his efforts.

“Dr Francis continues to be at the NCSI by choice, despite the lack of recognition and status commensurate with his abilities and performance,” he explained. “He has turned down several offers and invitations from good educational institutions who were keen to have him as the librarian. He is very well regarded in the library science community in India and was a vice president (and quite an active one) of the local chapter.”

At the beginning of this year, however, Jayakanth did finally receive recognition for his hard work and dedication, although ironically not from his native country, but from a London-based organisation called the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT). On January 1st, EPT announced that Jayakanth had been chosen as the inaugural recipient of a new award for individuals working in developing countries “who have made a significant personal contribution to advancing the cause of open access and the free exchange of research findings.”

As the EPT press release put it, “Francis Jayakanth can indeed be considered an OA ‘renaissance man’, an advocate and technical expert in all aspects of Open Access development and an inspiration to all, both at the research and policy level.”

“EPT made the right choice when they chose Francis for their inaugural award,” notes Arunachalam.

Alma Swan, UK-based OA advocate and director of European advocacy at SPARC, concurs. “Francis has been responsible for a considerable amount of the progress on OA in India, but he is so unassuming that unless one were specifically involved in Indian Open Access developments, one wouldn’t know,” she told me. “Francis works quietly behind the scenes, nudging things along here, giving them a shove there. He is much admired and much consulted. His expertise and wise counsel inspire confidence, and he is a much sought-after OA advocate.”

In short, one of OA’s less visible advocates has at last been made more visible, and the leaderless revolution has rewarded one of its foot soldiers.


If you wish to read the interview with Francis Jayakanth, please click on the link below. 

I am publishing the interview 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. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.


Electronic Publishing Trust for Development said...

The selection of Francis by the EPT was not easy. Not because he was not a clear winner, but because there were so many other 'foot solldiers' that had been nominated for the EPT Award. To read more about the runners-up, link to
. Presentation ceremonies are being arranged both for our excellent winner, Francis Jayakanth, and the other worthy 'unrecognised' OA-workers in Azerbaijan, China, South Africa, for example.

Linda W said...

Many thanks for sharing this rich and insightful interview. It was interesting to read about the evolution of Jayakanth's work. It's a credit to the profession that he's able to combine a deep understanding of librarianship with (highly) advanced technology skills, and then have an even greater impact through advocacy, teaching, and knowledge sharing. Bravo!