The promises and perils of a technological revolution
David Dickson looks at the different approaches being taken to increase access to scientific literature for developing-country researchers.
Publication is the life-blood of science. By publishing the results of their research in scientific journals, scientists communicate their findings to both their colleagues and the wider public, ensuring the steady expansion of scientific knowledge.
Equally importantly, the peer-review process — which ensures that a scientific paper is only published after other members of the scientific community have approved its content — means that publication acts as a quality-control mechanism, validating new results before they are added to the pool of scientific knowledge.
Such is the importance of this whole process that the rate of publication of scientific papers tends to be the single most important measure of the quality of a scientist's output. In some countries, the publication of a single paper in a prestigious international journal can be rewarded with a job for — and a significant salary increase. Conversely, those who fail to publish regularly tend to be condemned to scientific obscurity. Hence the infamous phrase 'publish or perish'.
But publication — and the recognition that it brings — can pose significant challenges, particularly for researchers in developing countries. One is the handicap that such researchers face in competing for space in high-profile publications, particularly if publication requires communicating in a language that is not their mother tongue. Another is the lack of access to scientific journals that many such researchers face, and the difficulty this creates in keeping up-to-date with the work of colleagues around the world.
The second of these problems is partly the result of the high price of many journals, particularly those published by commercial publishers which have found scientific publishing a lucrative business (particularly since authors do not require to be paid). But it is also partly the result of a general lack of funding for university libraries; some universities in Africa, for example, have been unable to afford any scientific journals for more than ten years.
The impact of new technologies
Fortunately a technical solution — the Internet — is now on hand. The Internet was initially invented to increase the effectiveness of scientific communication; physicists developed it as a way of circulating large amounts of data rapidly to their colleagues around the world. In achieving this objective, however, the Internet has, almost as a by-product, eliminated many of the marginal costs of scientific communication (the costs of producing extra copies of a scientific paper once it has been published for example). Indeed, it is this that now offers the greatest contribution to the scientific community worldwide.
The result has been a revolution in science publishing whose full impact is only just beginning to be felt. The most obvious way in which many developing countries are already benefiting arises from the fact that journal publishers no longer need to cover the substantial costs of printing and distributing printed journals to remote parts of the world. This has enabled many publishers to offer low-cost (and sometimes free) access to the contents of such journals for researchers in these countries under various schemes. The best known of these are the HINARI programme for medical journals, run by the World Health Organization, and the AGORA programme for agriculture- and food-related journals, run by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
A second opportunity being opened up by the Internet is self-archiving. Previously, scientists wishing to bring their work to the attention of others could do so only by circulating reprints, a costly and time-consuming process. Now their work can be placed either in a personal archive, or one operated by the research institution for which they work. In each case, it can be made easily available to global search engines, ensuring that even the smallest laboratory can occupy its rightful place in the global library of scientific knowledge.
Re-inventing scientific publishing
Many in the scientific community, however, are urging that the revolution go further than either differential pricing or open archives. They argue that the virtual elimination of the costs of distributing scientific research results — now that this can be done electronically — opens the way to a new model of scientific publishing, known as 'open access'.
Under the conventional model, the costs of publishing are primarily covered by the users of scientific information (through purchasing the journals in which this information appears). Under open access, the costs are covered by the producers of the information (for example, through their research grants); for all users, ranging from other scientists to members of the public, this information is freely available.
The open-access model of science publishing has many attractions for scientists. In the developed world, one of the biggest is that it would eliminate what some consider to be the excessive profits made by some commercial publishers. Adopting an open-access model would also put an end to complaints that buying a journal can mean paying twice for research that has already been funded from the public purse.
For researchers in the developing world, the attractions of open access are even greater, not only reducing the costs of access to scientific information (although computers and Internet access still have to be paid for), but in many cases offering the only cost-effective means for accessing the world's scientific literature.
Making the system work
There is, however, a snag. If the cost of distributing scientific information has been virtually eliminated, the cost of preparing it for distribution (which includes the cost of verifying its validity) has not. Traditionally, such costs have been covered by the price of the scientific journal in which the information is eventually published. In the new models, with this source of income eliminated, a replacement has to be found.
Proponents of open access argue that there is a simple solution: all research grants should include an allocation to cover the costs of eventual publication (and, indeed, that all government research agencies should guarantee such costs whenever they finance a research project). But this — as even such proponents recognise — has a major drawback: many researchers, whose grants are already stretched (and whose governments or funding agencies may not be prepared to cover the publication costs) could, as a result, find it even more difficult than before to get published.
Various ways have been proposed of meeting this difficulty. One that is already widely adopted (for example by PLoS Biology and BioMed Central, two of the leading open-access advocates) is to offer to waive publication fees for researchers from developing countries who cannot afford to pay. A second is to raise funding from separate sources, such as international aid agencies or other foundations interested in promoting science capacity in developing countries, to cover such a fee.
One of the hottest topics currently under debate in the science-publishing world is whether either of these approaches is sustainable. Proponents of open access remain optimistic that they are viable in the long-term — or at least, that schemes can be devised to make them so. Their critics claim that they are not, since they depend essentially on various forms of charity, and that this undermines the pressures for efficiency in communication that a market-led strategy promotes.
Only time will tell which group is right.
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's microsite on open access archiving and has been reformatted to become this feature.