Subsidised access may be behind developing country research boom

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[LONDON] Developing countries have dramatically increased their research output — and the leaders of schemes that provide free and subsidised access to scientific papers are claiming some of the credit.

Partners of Research4Life, the collective name for three schemes — HINARI, OARE and AGORA — have presented a study showing that, in some developing countries, output has more than doubled since their launch.

Speaking yesterday (2 July) at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists in London, United Kingdom, Andrew Plume — associate director of scientometrics and market analysis at the publishing company Elsevier, one of the Research4Life partners — described their analysis of research output in developing countries before and after 2002 when the first of the programmes, HINARI, was launched.

Plume performed a similar analysis last year (see Subsidised access ‘helps boost scientific output’) but this is the first time that the impact of all three programmes has been assessed.

Using data from Thomson Scientific, he found that the growth in research between 1996 and 2002 was 25 per cent in non-Research4Life countries; 22 per cent in ‘Band One’ countries (those with an annual gross national income (GNI) of less than US$1,250 per capita and who receive free access to Research4Life programmes) and 30 per cent in ‘Band Two’ countries (also eligible for Research4Life but with a higher GNI).

Five years later, between 2002 and 2008, the same figures were dramatically higher at 67 per cent, 145 per cent and 194 per cent respectively.

Crucially, non-Research4Life countries showed a steady growth rather than the spike after 2002 that was seen in developing countries.

"We’ve opened the door here with Research4Life to allow access to what’s known already to encourage and enable research to go on in the developing world," Plume told SciDev.Net.

But he conceded that the research does not establish a causal link and that the study did not control for many possible variables.

"We can’t necessarily attribute the entire effect to Research4Life. There can be a lot of elements driving the scholarly production of a nation forward: government funding, education programmes, assistance from other countries for scientific development," says Plume.

"What we believe is that Research4Life can certainly only be helping, it cannot be hindering production of scientific knowledge in these countries."

He said that Thomas Reuters is doing a more in-depth study, looking at citation patterns from Research4Life countries, which will be able to deduce whether these patterns change once countries receive access to Research4Life programmes.

"That will get much closer to the bone of the question than our previous studies."