Unequal access to and distribution of public knowledge is governed by
Northern standards and is increasingly inappropriate in the age of the
networked “Invisible College”.
Academic journals remain the primary distribution mechanism for research
findings, but commercial journals are largely unaffordable for
developing countries; local journals—more relevant to resolving
problems in the South—are near-invisible and under-valued.
Donor solutions are unsustainable, are governed by markets rather than
user needs, and instil dependency.
Open access is sustainable and research driven and builds independence
and the capacity to establish a strong research base; it is already
converting local journals to international journals.
However, as open access becomes the norm, standards for the assessment of
journal quality and relevance remain based on Northern values that
ignore development needs and marginalise local scholarship.
There is growing recognition that the capacity to conduct research and to share the
resulting knowledge is fundamental to all aspects of human development, from
improving health care delivery to increasing food security, and from enhancing
education to stronger evidence-based policymaking. Today, the primary vehicle for
disseminating research is still the peer-reviewed journal, which has retained much
of its traditional form and function, although now it is largely digital. But
despite improved access to the Internet, researchers in the developing world
continue to face two problems—gaining access to academic publications due to
the high cost of subscriptions, and getting their research published in
“international” journals, because their work is either considered to be
only of local or regional interest or does not meet the quality standards required
by the major commercial indexes. The cartographic representation of the world
according to the volume of publications from each country in early 2000 starkly
depicts a world of highly unequal contribution and participation in science (Figure 1).
This inequity has led to the misguided notion that little, if any, research of
substance is generated in the global South, and that the needs of researchers in
poor countries are therefore met solely by information donation from the North. The
one-way North to South flow of knowledge is not all that is necessary for
development, and the Research4Life program only addresses part of the problem
(http://www.research4life.org/). The Research4Life program is the
collective name for three journal access programs–HINARI, AGORA, and
OARE—and comprises a public–private partnership between major commercial
publishers and three United Nations (UN) agencies (Box 1).
Box 1. Main Journal Access Programs
HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative) is managed
by the World Health Organization [WHO] in partnership with
Yale University Library and the program provides free or very low
cost online access to the major journals in biomedical and related
social sciences to local, not-for-profit institutions in qualified
low income countries.
AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture) is managed by
the Food and Agriculture Organization in partnership with Cornell
University and provides access to over 1,200 international journals
covering agriculture, fisheries, food, nutrition, veterinary
science, and related biological, environmental, and social sciences.
It also includes several important databases and indexes.
OARE (Online Access to Research in the Environment) is coordinated by
the United Nations Environment Programme at Yale University and
provides access to more than 2,000 scientific journals in a wide
range of disciplines contributing to our understanding of the
The recent announcement by the commercial publisher Elsevier (a HINARI founding
partner) of withdrawal of access to their journals from Bangladeshi institutions,
and the subsequent announcement that Bangladesh is in transition towards a paid
licensing scheme , is sobering. It reminds us that large multinational
publishers are driven primarily by commercial motives and market shares, and that
HINARI may be serving as a marketing device to prepare the ground for national site
licenses in the countries with rising GDP or growing research needs. Site licensing
is a standard subscription practice of commercial publishers for providing
institution-wide electronic access to their journals. Fees for site licensing
generally vary according to the number of institutional users. It is also common for
large multinational publishers to combine all of their journal holdings into one
large “take-it-or-leave-it” bundle, often referred to as the “Big
While the Big Deal is a legitimate commercial strategy, even rich institutions in
the North can ill-afford the continuing rising cost. It is very clear that for
low-income countries, the so-called information philanthropy  is not a long-term sustainable
solution to ensure access to publicly funded research publications, a prerequisite
for developing a strong and independent research base.
Misguided Dependencies on Free Subscriptions
Coming as these programs do with the blessings of the UN agencies and powerful
commercial publishers, it has been hard to wean research communities off dependency
systems and onto true open access (OA) resources. These resources include the
growing number of OA journals and institutional repositories worldwide that are now
accessible free of cost to anyone with Internet access. The growing volume of OA
resources provides a far greater degree of freedom for researchers to exchange and
collaborate, for knowledge to be translated into useable forms by frontline health
workers, and for emerging technologies such as text mining and semantic tagging for
faster knowledge discovery to be used. It must be underscored that such usages and
redistribution are not permitted by donated content included in the Research4Life
programs, even though users are free to read such content. Further, while the
”free access” programs purport to be providing essential articles to
researchers in poor nations (excluding countries such as India where the publishers
have an existing market), access is not country-wide, but is only available if the
researchers work in the registered institutions.
For scholarly publishers and researchers in the South, OA is particularly important
because it provides an unprecedented opportunity for South–South exchange and
for local research to become an integral part of the global knowledge commons. More
importantly, research findings from regions with similar socioeconomic conditions
may be far more relevant than research from the richer countries. This is
particularly true with health care and medical treatments.
Take, for example, the journal African Health Sciences, edited by
Dr. James K. Tumwine and published by the Faculty of Medicine at Makerere University
in Uganda. This 10-year-old journal is thriving on the Web (http://www.bioline.org.br/hs) and gaining international recognition
and global usage, showing that OA is not only viable, but with time will become the
norm. The journal is one of a small number of African-based journals indexed by
Medline, and the journal content is also archived in PubMedCentral (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/journals/378/), ensuring the
long-term accessibility of the growing body of knowledge recorded in the journal and
by the growing community of researchers from the region. It is encouraging to know
that across Africa, the number of journals that are becoming OA is growing, as is
awareness about institutional repositories, thanks to the efforts of organizations
such as the Electronic Information for Libraries (http://www.eifl.org/) and the
Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (http://www.epublishingtrust.org/), the latter of which all three
authors are trustees.
Structural Inequity in Current Reward Systems
Another major potential of OA is the correction to the current structural problem of
the academic evaluation and reward system, which has been dominated by a set of
narrowly defined citation measures, most notably the journal impact factor (JIF),
owned and controlled by the information conglomerate Thomson Reuters. The
consolidation of the JIF as a global yardstick for measuring the quality of journals
has created a highly competitive landscape of journal ranking and citation gaming,
with journals from the developing countries being consistently marginalized ,.
This structural inequality has resulted in a citation and reputation divide in the
developing world, with a sub-community of authors who publish almost exclusively in
“international” journals indexed in the Thomson Reuters (formerly ISI)
Web of Knowledge, while others are oriented towards research and publication in
“local” journals on topics of interest to “local” audiences
. And even
though the latter may have greater impact for local or regional economic growth and
public policy, these publications are often neglected by international funders
because of the lack of an ISI-recognized citation. This underscores the need to
expand the range of metrics or indicators of impact that take into account how
“local” scholarship and scientific reporting affect a variety of
development impacts and social outcomes.
Global Knowledge Commons
Acceptance of new forms of metrics for measuring research impact and adoption by the
funding agencies would require a substantial cultural shift, but this is a great
potential of OA that must be heeded. At the same time, there needs to be a
fundamental shift from thinking of knowledge as private property for national
competitive advantage, to the collective thinking of knowledge as a Global Public
Good , much as
fresh water and the air that we share. In the highly interconnected world we live in
with the constant movement of people and livestock, it is well understood that
phenomena such as communicable diseases and climate-related environmental changes do
not recognize national boundaries, much less abstract measures such as gross
domestic product (GDP). The sharing of knowledge discovery across borders and the
building of a global knowledge commons is increasingly important for solving
problems that we all face.
But the financing of a global knowledge commons and its governance remains one of the
most intractable problems today, because there is no world body that possesses the
authority to tax globally in order to finance the production of global public goods
supranational organizations such as the WHO and the Food and Agriculture
Organization have no mandate to take on such roles. As a form of “new
commons”, the global knowledge commons enabled by OA is still poorly
understood because of its infancy, and it requires more concerted study from across
disciplines in terms of its governance and sustainability .
But there are already important lessons we can learn from the success of OA so far,
and from the world of open source software and what Benkler  has called non-market
commons–based peer production, of which Wikipedia is the best-known example.
The power of the network is profoundly transforming the nature of scientific
discovery, reporting, and collaboration, and the days of traditional journals must
be numbered. Experimentations with new forms of scholarly communication and new
forms of metrics abound and researchers are at the forefront of leading the changes.
See, for example, the recent paper on “Wikipedia: A Key Tool for Global Public
Health Promotion” . See also the recent workshop titled “Beyond the
PDF”, and the variety of models, publishing tools, and impact metrics being
developed by scientists interested in a more efficient means of collaborating and
communicating research results .
The Invisible College
The advent of the Web and the shift from “Big Science” to networked
science creates unprecedented opportunities for developing countries to tap
OA's potential and contribute on an equal footing. Rather than investing scarce
resources in retrograde efforts to mimic or duplicate the scientific institutions
and practices of the past century, developing country policymakers can leverage
networks by creating incentives for scientists to focus on research that addresses
their concerns and by finding ways to mobilize knowledge for local problem solving.
As network accessibility across Africa and other developing regions continues to
grow, it is important that researchers begin to take full advantage of the new
networking tools and collaborative opportunities to address local issues as well as
to attain international research opportunities on limited resources. We are all part
of what Caroline Wagner called the “New Invisible College”, a global
networked college based on mutual interests and open sharing of knowledge, and free
from market control of public goods . This highly distributed college is the foundation for
the new knowledge commons where the GDP of the country where one resides is neither
a passport nor a barrier to participation.
The OA movement, driven as it is by the Invisible College, is an opportunity to
re-think not only the equal distribution of all research knowledge, but to
reconsider the way in which knowledge is valued and measured.