The traditional journal publishing system is not serving the needs of developing countries
The developing world is not well served by traditional research publishing, but can break new ground with open access, argues Leslie Chan.
Free and unrestricted access to research results and publications, known as open access (OA), is key to speeding up scientific discovery. There is also growing evidence that OA maximises the impact of research through better dissemination and uptake of research findings.
But how can we make this a truly global and sustainable endeavour? This was much discussed at the recent Berlin 9 Open Access conference in Washington DC.
There was a recurrent theme: that in today's highly networked, open-knowledge environment, the traditional scholarly communication system — with the journal article as the key currency — can no longer serve the diverse needs of scholarship and discovery.
Conventional methods of evaluating research impact based on journal citations, particularly the reliance on Thomson Reuters' journal impact factor, need to be reconsidered and redesigned to reflect new scholarly practices and the diverse means of engagement enabled by OA and the new wave of web tools ('Web 2.0').
OA offers an opportunity to rethink what constitutes research impact, how to reward scholarship and how to encourage research sharing — issues of particular importance for the developing world.
Emphasis on international appeal
For too long, research assessment in the developing world has closely followed practices and metrics created by wealthier nations. Even organisations such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) continue to reinforce the use of the journal impact factor and the registration of patents as metrics for national research performance.
As the impact factor is heavily biased towards journals from the developed world, researchers from poorer countries have been encouraged to publish in indexed international journals rather than national or local journals as a way to gain institutional and national recognition.
This has done much to shift the emphasis of research to topics that appeal to an international readership, obscuring local research agendas.
There is also a growing emphasis on university rankings as a proxy for excellence, based primarily on research productivity — prominent examples are Times Higher Education's World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This means that the impact factor continues to dominate research evaluation despite widespread criticism of biased coverage and a flawed methodology underlying its calculation.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where researchers and institutions are given cash incentives to publish in high-ranking international journals. This is seen as essential for boosting China's presence in world science.
So while the total scientific publication output from China, as measured by Thomson Reuters' Web of Science, is now only second to the United States , the focus on external recognition undermines locally important research and creates disincentives for the government to focus on locally relevant policy and funding.
Openness can unlock potential
This should not be the model for the developing world to emulate. Instead, policymakers should encourage experimentation with practices that take advantage of the potential of openness — in research, data, source code, educational resources and innovation.
Open repositories for publications and data, new tools for knowledge discovery and new forms of representation and visualisation can bring exciting opportunities for innovations in scholarly communication. Examples are the Open Source Drug Discovery Network and the Virtual Open Access Agriculture and Aquaculture Repository.
We are seeing the emergence of what innovation-policy scholar Caroline Wagner calls the 'new invisible college' , where researchers collaborate across disciplinary and national boundaries, driven by common interests rather than by international funding agendas.
This is a good time for research institutions with nascent capacity to overtake those in well-off nations by adopting better mechanisms for the exchange of knowledge. And they may be better placed to adapt and innovate as they are not bound by tradition.
Signs to the open road
Policymakers and researchers must begin to take advantage of these capabilities. This means thinking beyond the confines of the impact factor and towards new forms of scholarly metrics enabled by social media and networking tools.
An encouraging development, announced at the Berlin 9 meeting, is the World Bank's plan to provide open access to research it funds under a licence similar to that of Creative Commons — a clear sign that the organisation is beginning to see the links between openness and innovation.
Recently, UNESCO launched the Global Open Access Portal to mobilise and coordinate OA initiatives across its member states. This late arrival on the OA scene could duplicate existing efforts, but UNESCO's action is significant and should spur other UN bodies into serious engagement with OA.
And next year's Berlin 10 Open Access meeting will be hosted by the Stellenbosch University in South Africa, making its first appearance in a developing country. It will be a good time and place to take stock of progress on re-evaluating the default measure of research quality.
Just as the rapid growth of mobile devices in many parts of Africa has spurred innovations in social entrepreneurship, mobile health applications and educational opportunities, so too could networked science based on OA be a source of innovation and local problem-solving in the developing world.
Leslie Chan is director of Bioline International, a non-profit electronic publishing collaboration, and supervisor for the International Development Studies programme at the University of Toronto.
 Royal Society Knowledge, networks and nations: global scientific collaboration in the 21st century (2011)
 Wagner, Caroline. The new invisible college: science for development. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press (2008)
Terry ( Red Plough International | Thailand )
13 December 2011
Open access is definetly part of the solution, but not enough by itself. Researchers in developing countries are generally overworked and underpaid and lack support for research in the form of mentoring and editorial support. There are few tangible incentives for researchers to publish. Open access: yes. But don't present it as a magic bullet.
Terry ( Red Plough International | Thailand )
13 December 2011
I highly recommend Caroline Wagner's book, The New Invisible College. It makes an excellent starting point for anyone interested in working with researchers outside the Western mainstream.
Jeffrey Beall ( United States of America )
15 December 2011
This article is flawed for several reasons. First, it is obviously strongly biased against the west. Second, it displays a soft bigotry against researchers in the developing world. Researchers in the developing world are just as smart as researchers elsewhere and can get their articles accepted in mainstream journals just like anyone else can. Third, the article falsely assumes that all open access jurnals are equally worthy. The fact is, there are dozens of predatory open-access publishers that exploit the author-pays model to get payments from journal authors to publish their work. Any complete analysis of open access must address these bogus publishers.
Naiyyum Choudhury ( Bangladesh )
23 December 2011
I agree with Leslie Chan about the importance of open access to the scientists of developing countries. At one time scientists in developing countries were highly handicapped because of limited availability of scientific journals for research and publications as they could not afford to subscribe to most of the journals because of high cost. In Bangladesh, the Atomic Energy Centre library was the only library which could afford renowned journals and served other institutions. Now situation has changed because of internet.
Everyone agrees that open access enables free availability of many peer-reviewed articles, journal literature, individual open articles etc. on the public internet. It permits any user to read, download, copy and print, etc., without financial, legal, or technical barriers. I appreciate comments of Jeffrey Beall about capability of scientists of developing countries, but there is no alternate to access to modern literature. I fully agree that not all free access materials are useful, but one can easily distinguish between useful and useless and for that access is important.
Let me sight example of Bangladesh where there was complaints for long by the researchers about non-availability of research journals. But a voluntary UK based organization called PERi, under its programme of International Network for Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) made a MoU with the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences and have made available more than 4000 journals and resource materials to researchers in Bangladesh. In addition, it has been funding projects on training of librarians, IT officers and researchers of different academic and research organizations about how to use its facilities. Through funding of the INASP, BRAC University in Bangladesh has successfully launched Open Access Repository (dspacebracu.ac.bd).For this repository open source software dspace developed by MIT was chosen and it was completed by 2008 with financial support of INSAP/
All SciDev.Net material is free to reproduce providing that the source and author are appropriately credited. For further details see Creative Commons.