Unlock local research potential with open access

The traditional journal publishing system is not serving the needs of developing countries Copyright: Flickr/moonlightbulb

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The developing world is not well served by traditional research publishing, but can break new ground with open access, argues Leslie Chan.

Free and unrestricted access to research results and publications, known as open access (OA), is key to speeding up scientific discovery. There is also growing evidence that OA maximises the impact of research through better dissemination and uptake of research findings.

But how can we make this a truly global and sustainable endeavour? This was much discussed at the recent Berlin 9 Open Access conference in Washington DC.

There was a recurrent theme: that in today’s highly networked, open-knowledge environment, the traditional scholarly communication system — with the journal article as the key currency — can no longer serve the diverse needs of scholarship and discovery. 

Conventional methods of evaluating research impact based on journal citations, particularly the reliance on Thomson Reuters’ journal impact factor, need to be reconsidered and redesigned to reflect new scholarly practices and the diverse means of engagement enabled by OA and the new wave of web tools (‘Web 2.0’).

OA offers an opportunity to rethink what constitutes research impact, how to reward scholarship and how to encourage research sharing — issues of particular importance for the developing world.

Emphasis on international appeal

For too long, research assessment in the developing world has closely followed practices and metrics created by wealthier nations. Even organisations such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) continue to reinforce the use of the journal impact factor and the registration of patents as metrics for national research performance.

As the impact factor is heavily biased towards journals from the developed world, researchers from poorer countries have been encouraged to publish in indexed international journals rather than national or local journals as a way to gain institutional and national recognition.

This has done much to shift the emphasis of research to topics that appeal to an international readership, obscuring local research agendas.

There is also a growing emphasis on university rankings as a proxy for excellence, based primarily on research productivity — prominent examples are Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This means that the impact factor continues to dominate research evaluation despite widespread criticism of biased coverage and a flawed methodology underlying its calculation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where researchers and institutions are given cash incentives to publish in high-ranking international journals. This is seen as essential for boosting China’s presence in world science.

So while the total scientific publication output from China, as measured by Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, is now only second to the United States [1], the focus on external recognition undermines locally important research and creates disincentives for the government to focus on locally relevant policy and funding.

Openness can unlock potential

This should not be the model for the developing world to emulate. Instead, policymakers should encourage experimentation with practices that take advantage of the potential of openness — in research, data, source code, educational resources and innovation.

Open repositories for publications and data, new tools for knowledge discovery and new forms of representation and visualisation can bring exciting opportunities for innovations in scholarly communication. Examples are the Open Source Drug Discovery Network and the Virtual Open Access Agriculture and Aquaculture Repository.

We are seeing the emergence of what innovation-policy scholar Caroline Wagner calls the ‘new invisible college’ [2], where researchers collaborate across disciplinary and national boundaries, driven by common interests rather than by international funding agendas.

This is a good time for research institutions with nascent capacity to overtake those in well-off nations by adopting better mechanisms for the exchange of knowledge. And they may be better placed to adapt and innovate as they are not bound by tradition.

Signs to the open road

Policymakers and researchers must begin to take advantage of these capabilities. This means thinking beyond the confines of the impact factor and towards new forms of scholarly metrics enabled by social media and networking tools. 

An encouraging development, announced at the Berlin 9 meeting, is the World Bank’s plan to provide open access to research it funds under a licence similar to that of Creative Commons — a clear sign that the organisation is beginning to see the links between openness and innovation.

Recently, UNESCO launched the Global Open Access Portal to mobilise and coordinate OA initiatives across its member states. This late arrival on the OA scene could duplicate existing efforts, but UNESCO’s action is significant and should spur other UN bodies into serious engagement with OA.

And next year’s Berlin 10 Open Access meeting will be hosted by the Stellenbosch University in South Africa, making its first appearance in a developing country. It will be a good time and place to take stock of progress on re-evaluating the default measure of research quality. 

Just as the rapid growth of mobile devices in many parts of Africa has spurred innovations in social entrepreneurship, mobile health applications and educational opportunities, so too could networked science based on OA be a source of innovation and local problem-solving in the developing world.

Leslie Chan is director of Bioline International, a non-profit electronic publishing collaboration, and supervisor for the International Development Studies programme at the University of Toronto.


[1] Royal Society Knowledge, networks and nations: global scientific collaboration in the 21st century (2011)

[2] Wagner, Caroline. The new invisible college: science for development. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press (2008)