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A new initiative has provided scientists in developing countries with free access to online environment journals, with the aim of reducing the information gap between developed and developing countries.

Over 1,000 scientific journals are available to scientists from countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America through the Online Access to Research in the Environment (OARE) scheme, launched last month (30 October) by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and US-based Yale University.

Seventy countries whose gross national product (GNP) per capita is below US$1,000 now have free access to the journals.

By 2008, access to OARE will extend to 37 other countries whose GNP is between US$1- 3,000. The institutions in those countries will pay US$1,000 per year for the scheme.

The initiative will give more than 1,200 public and non-profit environmental institutions access to scholarly scientific and technical journals in biotechnology, botany, climate change, ecology, energy, environmental chemistry and environment studies, including environmental economics.

Eligible institutions include universities and colleges, research institutes, ministries of the environment and other government agencies, libraries, and non-governmental organisations.

James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale's Environment School, told SciDev.Net that it is an opportunity to provide environmental institutions in developing countries with intellectual resources "we in the developed world so often take for granted".

However, several environmental scientists believe the effort falls short of free open access as requested by the Berlin Declaration (2003) in which 180 institutions called for open access for all science data.

Donat Agosti, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, warns that OARE might create an elite network and hamper scientists who wish to research in institutions that are not included in the initiative.

"What will happen if [for example] you want to study some issue related to Kenya? You can't [do so] outside of the elite institutions selected by this project," he told SciDev.Net.

Tom Moritz, associate director of the Getty Research Institute in the United States agrees that many researchers will miss out if they do not have access to the key institutes that qualify for the scheme.

But OARE coordinator Paul Walberg points out that all local non-profit and civil society organisations, government offices, national libraries, research institutions, schools, colleges and universities, no matter how big or small, are eligible.

OARE will be managed in close cooperation with the HINARI scheme (Health Internetwork Access to Research Initiative) set up by the World Health Organization, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's AGORA scheme (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture), which together provide free or low-cost online research information to the medical and agricultural research communities of developing nations.