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  • Closing the 'publishing gap' between rich and poor

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A global 'publishing gap' condemns efforts at reducing poverty to suffer from the shortsightedness of the rich. This is because the health and science researchers closest to poverty and poor health in the developing world are the least likely to publish their work and ideas in the academic journals that influence policymakers.

Various proposals to address this problem have been made. We would like to suggest an additional strategy, which would link developing-world authors with promising work to voluntary editor/scientist mentors anywhere in the world, on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis.

The mentors could then help the authors prepare submissions that science and policy journals will accept and publish.

Authors needing help are not in short supply, nor are potential voluntary mentors. Experienced, often-published scientists at or near retirement appear especially eager to help.

We base our proposal on our experience as editors and from our long-term working relationships with colleagues in developing countries — scientists who are deeply concerned with population, health and the roots and consequences of poverty.

From this history and our position in the publishing world as co-editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy, we began to look for solutions to the publishing gap.

The result is 'AuthorAID'. Now in a developmental phase, the initiative has moved from a series of concept papers and an informal consultative process to a proposal for a five-year demonstration project – to achieve 'proof of principle'.

The proposal already has the support of the Council of Science Editors' (CSE) new Task Force on Science Journals, Poverty, and Human Development. The task force, set up by CSE president, Richard Horton and chaired by Paul Bozuwa, adopted AuthorAID at the council's meeting in Atlanta, United States, in May 2005.

Looking more closely at the editing help needed to achieve AuthorAID's objectives, we discovered a nomenclature — and some largely hidden resources.

One such resource is a group of professionals, who call themselves 'author's editors'. What they do begins with developmental editing — helping an author turn an idea or research results into a publishable manuscript. Author's editors might also help with more discrete tasks, including navigating the arcane world of peer-reviewed journals.

Where are these author's editors hidden and why? Behind many highly successful research institutions in our country (the United States) you are likely to find a small team of editors.

The institution pays them to increase its researchers' chances of getting their articles published in the most competitive places — thereby enhancing reputation. Commercial editing services do similar work for other authors at less wealthy institutions, but the author must pay. (And muckrakers have recently disclosed that pharmaceutical companies hire writers to draft articles for which they then seek authors.)

Perhaps editing assistance is kept below the radar because the authors who rely on author's editors are reluctant to acknowledge how important it is to their success. In any case, this important activity remains largely hidden from the authors whom it might benefit most.

In the age of the Internet, geography is no longer a barrier. Author-mentor partnerships might be created within a country, such as India or Vietnam. They could be created within a region by matching an author from Bolivia with a mentor in Chile or Mexico.

They could also be created across wider distances, by matching an author in Haiti or Burkina Faso with a mentor in Geneva, Lyon or Quebec, or one in Kenya with a mentor in Stockholm, London or Los Angeles. Together these teams will increase capacity to communicate knowledge locally and globally, particularly in and from developing countries.

Once launched, the AuthorAID website will invite enquiries from developing world authors. It will link promising writing projects with distinguished volunteer scientists and will enlist author's editors to provide the knowledge and know-how that will assure publication.

As AuthorAID strengthens the voices of developing world researchers, we believe it will also create a new respectability for developmental editing and author's editors. We envision the growth of a web-based 'knowledge community', where editing to improve communication findings and their implications for policy and practice is the common interest.

With the help of author's editors, AuthorAID will openly share editorial knowledge and skills in a new, dynamic web-based community.

AuthorAID's interactive website could help thousands of authors who do not have enough analytic and editorial support, other than matches arranged by a small and yet to be established, AuthorAID staff.

The mission — to reduce poverty and improve population health, and to build science and research capacity in developing countries where the problems reside — is likely to engage established scientists who want to help but lack simple means. To volunteer to work with one promising manuscript project each year is certainly feasible.

Perhaps the greatest help could come from the now-hidden author's editors. They have been helping authors for years. They know exactly what must happen to get a manuscript published, even if they are not up to date on all critical elements of statistics or molecular biology. And many are eager to help.

AuthorAID, with a lofty underlying mission, its function built around editing, will publicly honour this valuable activity, and improve science communication and policy knowledge globally.

The authors are co-editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy. They can be contacted at [email protected]

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