Journal access schemes need to change

An organiser of a world’s major programme to help developing countries’ researchers access international journals agrees there is a need to make adjustments.

At the third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF-3) in Barcelona, a session on “Bridging the Digital Divide by 2015”, chaired by SciDev.Net director David Dickson on July 19, discussed how HINARI, AGORA and OARE, three unique public-private partnerships, are working in line with the UN’s millennium development goals to provide the developing world with access to critical research.

HINARI or Health Information Access to Research Initiative provides online access to one of the world’s largest collections of biomedical and health literature. Under the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO), over 5,000 journals are available to health institutions in 108 countries, benefiting many thousands of health workers and researchers.

AGORA, or Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA), enables developing countries to gain access to information in the fields of food, agriculture, environmental science and related social sciences. AGORA provides a collection of 1,275 core journals to institutions in 108 countries.

OARE, or Online Access to Research in the Environment (OARE), enables 108 low income countries to gain free access to over 2,000 environmental sciences journals.

Thousands of developing country researchers, such as Mohamed Jalloh from General Hospital of Grand Yoff in Senegal, a panel speaker, have benefitted from the programme.

However, there are problems.

The three projects use per capital GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of nations to decide on whether their researchers can get free access to journal papers, low-price papers, or are not qualified at all for any such support.

Big developing countries such as China, however, face a problem that the per capita GDP is not a real indicator of the real situation on-the-ground. In big cities and coastal areas, per capita GDP can be four times that of the poor hinterland, and yet poor hinterland researchers cannot get low-price access because China as a whole surpasses the baseline.

Kimberly Parker, a WHO librarian responsible for the implementation of HINARI, admits the problem also exists in other countries like Brazil, and the WHO will work with relevant government to overcome this.

This may highlight another shortcoming of research access plans – insufficient reaching out to individual researchers/research institutes who are urgently in need of them.

“In China, big institutions like the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Peking and Tsinghua universities have no difficulties in accessing leading international journals, although their librarians barter for lower prices from international publishers each year. But many small universities and institutes cannot afford the journal access at all,” says He Jiao, a senior editor at ScienNet.cn, a leading Chinese website for science community.

However, the plight of small institutions are hardly noticed by government officials, either because they are not within the system – such as the medical research and education system governed by the Ministry of Health – or because they have produced very few internationally famous publications.

As a result, the government has the mistaken impression that many Chinese researchers have no problem in accessing international journals, and therefore they have not acted together with international agencies to solve the problem.

Another concern over the free or low-price access programmes is that behind the apparent support of many big publishers, there is still lurks a commercial logic. Some publishers are willing to offer free online journal access because a majority of researchers in the target countries cannot afford to buy it.

But for the potential markets like China, according to some Chinese publishers, the same logic has produced different results. At a recent meeting, You Suning, editor-in-chief of journals belonging to Chinese Medical Associations, whose number are more than 100, said that because the real and potential purchase power, major academic journal editors often have harsher requirements to Chinese researchers, forbidding or delaying their ability to self-archive papers published in these journals.

The logic, apparently, is that China, as the world’s second largest paper producer, is now not only a content supplier to international journals, but also a major buyer. Self-archiving could influence the sales of the journals in questions.

Panelist Daviess Menefee from Elsevier denied the claim, saying Elsevier treated authors around the world equally.  Parker, on the other hand, agrees that there is a need to make adjustment for the programmes, to make them reach out to more people with more approaches.

“I don’t mean there is an immediate change, but it is necessary to think what we should do next to improve our projects, so that more people could be benefitted,” she told SciDev.Net.

Jia Hepeng, China coordinator, SciDev.Net

Edited 25/7/2008

Correction: In this post Kimberley Parker was originally quoted as saying:

“We have been working with the Ministry of Health of China in helping researchers get easier access…… and the Chinese government does not seem very enthusiastic about this,” Parker told SciDev.Net.

SciDev.Net Editors would like to clarify that Parker actually said that China’s government has been doing a good job taking care of the needs of its researchers to access information.

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