Research Article: Towards Open and Equitable Access to Research and Knowledge for Development

Date Published: March 29, 2011

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Leslie Chan, Barbara Kirsop, Subbiah Arunachalam

Abstract: Leslie Chan and colleagues discuss the value of open access not just for access
to health information, but also for transforming structural inequity in current
academic reward systems and for valuing scholarship from the South.

Partial Text: There is growing recognition that the capacity to conduct research and to share the
resulting knowledge is fundamental to all aspects of human development, from
improving health care delivery to increasing food security, and from enhancing
education to stronger evidence-based policymaking. Today, the primary vehicle for
disseminating research is still the peer-reviewed journal, which has retained much
of its traditional form and function, although now it is largely digital. But
despite improved access to the Internet, researchers in the developing world
continue to face two problems—gaining access to academic publications due to
the high cost of subscriptions, and getting their research published in
“international” journals, because their work is either considered to be
only of local or regional interest or does not meet the quality standards required
by the major commercial indexes. The cartographic representation of the world
according to the volume of publications from each country in early 2000 starkly
depicts a world of highly unequal contribution and participation in science (Figure 1).

Coming as these programs do with the blessings of the UN agencies and powerful
commercial publishers, it has been hard to wean research communities off dependency
systems and onto true open access (OA) resources. These resources include the
growing number of OA journals and institutional repositories worldwide that are now
accessible free of cost to anyone with Internet access. The growing volume of OA
resources provides a far greater degree of freedom for researchers to exchange and
collaborate, for knowledge to be translated into useable forms by frontline health
workers, and for emerging technologies such as text mining and semantic tagging for
faster knowledge discovery to be used. It must be underscored that such usages and
redistribution are not permitted by donated content included in the Research4Life
programs, even though users are free to read such content. Further, while the
”free access” programs purport to be providing essential articles to
researchers in poor nations (excluding countries such as India where the publishers
have an existing market), access is not country-wide, but is only available if the
researchers work in the registered institutions.

For scholarly publishers and researchers in the South, OA is particularly important
because it provides an unprecedented opportunity for South–South exchange and
for local research to become an integral part of the global knowledge commons. More
importantly, research findings from regions with similar socioeconomic conditions
may be far more relevant than research from the richer countries. This is
particularly true with health care and medical treatments.

Another major potential of OA is the correction to the current structural problem of
the academic evaluation and reward system, which has been dominated by a set of
narrowly defined citation measures, most notably the journal impact factor (JIF),
owned and controlled by the information conglomerate Thomson Reuters. The
consolidation of the JIF as a global yardstick for measuring the quality of journals
has created a highly competitive landscape of journal ranking and citation gaming,
with journals from the developing countries being consistently marginalized [4],[5].

Acceptance of new forms of metrics for measuring research impact and adoption by the
funding agencies would require a substantial cultural shift, but this is a great
potential of OA that must be heeded. At the same time, there needs to be a
fundamental shift from thinking of knowledge as private property for national
competitive advantage, to the collective thinking of knowledge as a Global Public
Good [7], much as
fresh water and the air that we share. In the highly interconnected world we live in
with the constant movement of people and livestock, it is well understood that
phenomena such as communicable diseases and climate-related environmental changes do
not recognize national boundaries, much less abstract measures such as gross
domestic product (GDP). The sharing of knowledge discovery across borders and the
building of a global knowledge commons is increasingly important for solving
problems that we all face.

The advent of the Web and the shift from “Big Science” to networked
science creates unprecedented opportunities for developing countries to tap
OA’s potential and contribute on an equal footing. Rather than investing scarce
resources in retrograde efforts to mimic or duplicate the scientific institutions
and practices of the past century, developing country policymakers can leverage
networks by creating incentives for scientists to focus on research that addresses
their concerns and by finding ways to mobilize knowledge for local problem solving.
As network accessibility across Africa and other developing regions continues to
grow, it is important that researchers begin to take full advantage of the new
networking tools and collaborative opportunities to address local issues as well as
to attain international research opportunities on limited resources. We are all part
of what Caroline Wagner called the “New Invisible College”, a global
networked college based on mutual interests and open sharing of knowledge, and free
from market control of public goods [13]. This highly distributed college is the foundation for
the new knowledge commons where the GDP of the country where one resides is neither
a passport nor a barrier to participation.



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