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Padmanabhan Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, India and editor of India's leading science journal, Current Science, tells K. S. Jayaraman why he favours 'open archives' as the way forward for scientific publishing.

What is the main issue for science publishing in developing countries?

There is an asymmetry in the world of science publishing. Most scientific journals are published in Europe or the United States. And much publicly-funded research work done in India and other developing countries appears in those journals. The key question is, how should the fruits of publicly-funded research be made available to readers in the developing world at no cost?

Scientists have published in these journals for years, and libraries make them available to students and researchers. Why rock the traditional boat?

Many publishers are beginning to levy highly excessive charges on libraries. The IISc, which subscribes to the largest number of science journals in India, is struggling to maintain an acceptable library budget. But it was universities in California that first took up the issue of rising costs with publishers.

Publishers see a wonderful commercial opportunity and are multiplying the number of journals. Commercialism in scientific publishing has exceeded acceptable norms.

Why is scientific publishing becoming such a contentious area?

The reason is simple. Much research in countries such as India is publicly-funded. Scientists do the research work and then publish their findings. But journals use these papers to make money. The real question is: do the commercial publishers give enough back to the community that keeps them going?

Scientists need high profile journals to gain visibility for their work, and this enslaves them to publishers. They review papers submitted to journals as a free service for the scientific community. But what does the scientific community get in return? Scientists, publishers and funding agencies should think about this.

What is the solution?

One proposal is open access. But I want to argue for 'open archives'.

Open access requires the publisher to make an electronic version of the paper freely available. But open archives are electronic repositories maintained by a scientist's institution that anybody in the world can access for free.

If I publish a paper in Nature, for example, it can be made freely available in my institute's repository after six months. Some journals let archived papers be made available immediately. Because of the increasing power of Internet search engines, open archives will become a valuable resource to scientists.

How do publishers see open access and open archives?

Most commercial journals are not ready to embrace open access. Their profit model stops them providing access to electronic papers without a subscription. Publishers say there are other ways of making the journals affordable in developing countries. It is not difficult to understand the imperatives that they face.

But many publishers have no problem with the open archives approach, even if some still require a delay. They know people will still buy leading journals, even if individual papers are freely available in some archive or other. So I suspect journals will go along with open archives, as publishers will not lose anything financially. In fact, they may even benefit in the long run by greater visibility for their journal.

How is the debate going?

The main debate is between publishers and committed open access advocates. The people who should be really concerned — the working scientists — form a huge silent majority. They either have no view or choose not to engage in the controversy.

And what has happened in the debate is extremely confusing. Many proponents of open access stridently demand that everything should be completely accessible, even though they also advocate open archives as a solution to the problem.

How about the economics of open access journals?

Current Science, which I edit, is an open access journal. At the click of the mouse you can see all its articles. It is partly financed from internal earnings like advertisements, sale of reprints, and partly by public subsidy. If I worked full-time I could very easily make Current Science self-sustainable, and even make a tiny profit.

In India there are still a very large number of people who read the printed version. So subsidy then becomes an essential underpinning for the economics of open access journals, since it allows the electronic version to be made available free, even if the printed version has to be paid for.

At present, about 40 per cent of Current Science's operating costs are subsidised by the government.

Does subsidy raise any ethical issue for the publisher?

I do not see any harm in running a journal with subsidy. But it can depend on where the subsidy comes from, and in what form. It may be an easier for me to accept underwriting the costs of Current Science by getting a government grant to support it than by accepting support from outside India.

For any such journal to survive, somebody must pay.

Should developing country scientists vote for the 'author pays' model?

In the so-called 'author pays' model, authors bear the costs of publication in either traditional or open access journals. But there is an issue here too. If you take money from an author to publish a paper, it is equivalent to an advertisement, even though the journal still goes through peer review.

And the price asked for publication can be astronomical, particularly if coloured figures are printed. Most developing country scientists wanting to publish in high impact journals can't afford it.

In Europe and the United States, the costs of publishing in open access journals are underwritten by grants from bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the US National Institutes of Health. These all provide grants that are far larger than any seen by scientists in developing countries.

As an Indian scientist, I do not want my government funds to be subsidising Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals or any other non-Indian open access journal.Some journals waive these charges for authors from developing countries. But I do not think we should go begging for waivers. They do nothing to counter the ever-present danger that authors who cannot pay will be squeezed out.

So what do you propose for developing country scientists?

Since the question of who pays for open access journals is unresolved, scientists should go ahead and promote open archives. The IISc already has over 10,000 articles in its institutional repository, and that will soon rise to 20,000.

As the number of open archive institutions increases the world over, and with the wonderful archiving technology that's available, one can access many things, as long as publishers allow. I can already access a huge amount of literature without paying for it.

I think every institution should be encouraged to set up the repository. This is a problem-free model I want to promote. There may be a few glitches at start, but the next generation of scientists will be comfortable with it.

One issue that is yet to be resolved, however, is copyright. I argue that we should be permitted to put in the repository the full text article as it appears in a journal. For this, countries such as India should have a law specifying that the copyright for articles published with publicly-funded research always vests with the authors and their institutions.

Padmanabhan Balaram is director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, and editor of India's leading science journal, Current Science.