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[BAGHDAD] An initiative to provide communities in the Middle East and North Africa with online access to scientific publications is expanding into central Asia in October, following its success in Iraq.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are now scheduled to launch the Virtual Science Library (VSL) programme run by CRDF Global, a US-based not-for-profit organisation. Funding for the central Asia programme is provided by the US Department of Energy's Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention.

The VSL is a free gateway to enable a country's entire academic community to access research publications and databases — usually only available within universities.

In April, CRDF Global initiated the three new central Asian library programmes, and training and technical consultations will take place this year, before the October launch, Charles Dunlap, director of the CRDF Global's Centers and Institution Building associate programme, told SciDev.Net.

"Each country's VSL acts as a focal point for diverse activities geared towards building capacity for collaboration and access to research knowledge ... [for] users ranging from students to ministers," said Dunlap.

Over the past six years, the VSL has been launched in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia.

"Within the countries where we work, scientists are looking to establish international ties and access to current research," said Dunlap. Such issues motivate scientists around the world, but, Dunlap explained, CRDF Global "often works in countries where experience in [carrying out those activities] isn't as well established".

CRDF Global also helps countries negotiate with publishers to help them achieve fair access prices.

According to Dunlap, one of the most successful projects has been the Iraq VSL (IVSL) — launched in 2006 — the management of which was transferred to the Iraqi government in 2010.

"The IVSL was established to help Iraq's scientific community [following decades of isolation] re-establish ties with the global scientific community and publish more effectively," said Dunlap.

The impact of the project on Iraq's science sector had been remarkable, Dunlap said. There are now more than 35,000 registered users, with 2,000 new users every month, downloading around 60,000 articles per month across all subjects.

"Making an electronic library of this size available for a country like Iraq is helping develop researchers' capabilities, following a long period of repression and war, during which obtaining information and resources was very difficult," Mohamed Galal, professor of engineering at the University of Baghdad, Iraq, told SciDev.Net.

Mustafa Hussein, professor of physics at the University of Baghdad, told SciDev.Net that, for many years, the Internet in Iraq had been available only sporadically and was closely scrutinised by the security services, making it very difficult for researchers to access information.

The level of research information access provided by the IVSL was, he said, a "wonderful change".  

Link to the VSL