The chain of communication in health science: from researcher to health worker through open access

Leslie Chan, Subbiah Arunachalam, Barbara Kirsop

Globally, the public and private sectors spend billions of dollars each year on biomedical and health-related research. Yet in many parts of the world, health care systems are far from achieving the health outcomes targeted by the UN Millennium Development Goals The reasons for this disparity are complex, but one key factor that has been consistently identified is the failure to translate research into effective policy and practices. Not surprisingly, then, health agencies and funding bodies around the world are paying closer attention to what is now generally described as “knowledge translation,” developing mechanisms that “strengthen communication between health researchers and users of health knowledge, enhance capacity for knowledge uptake, and accelerate the flow of knowledge into beneficial health applications.”1


India ‘limping’ in science publication rates

India has been ‘limping behind’ in science publishing rankings over the past decade, a leading analyst of India’s scientific publication output has cautioned. The warning follows an analysis of the total number of science and social science papers published by countries during the period 1 January 1999–31 October 2008 in journals indexed in Web of Science. The analysis was published by Thomson Reuters earlier this year. India is ranked twelfth in the index. While China — ranked fifth in the index — has jumped from 1.5 per cent of the world share in 1988–1993 to 6.2 per cent between 1999 and 2008, “India has limped” from just 2.5 to 2.6 per cent during the same time frame, observes Subbiah Arunachalam, a scientist with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and former editor of one of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s journals. Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan have also recorded a much higher growth rate than India, he notes. “India has a long way to go. Mere ambition to become a knowledge power is not enough,” Arunachalam, who tracks India’s annual scientific publication performance, told SciDev.Net. “When we recruit new faculty we do not give them sufficient funds and other infrastructure such as lab space,” Arunachalam says. “Where will they get bright students unless the schools are strengthened? Processes take time and you cannot compress them into here and now. Long term planning is necessary.” Arunachalam told SciDev.Net he sounded the first warning of India’s stagnation in scientific publications as early as 2002 but it was largely ignored by the country’s science administrators. The country has now started to take remedial measures by announcing new institutes for science education and research, new Indian Institutes of technology, and polytechnic institutes (see Indian plans boost next generation of scientists). But these “will take at least a decade to make a difference”, says Arunachalam. But Padmanabhan Balaram, director of Indian Institute of Science and editor of Current Science — a journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences — cautions in a 25 May editorial against the growing over-emphasis on counting citations and impact factors by the scientific community worldwide. “Even as we [Indian scientists] collectively lament the lack of enthusiasm of young students of science, there is little discussion of how institutions and the researchers within them are perceived from outside. ‘Fun’ may be a word hard to associate with [the] scientific community, obsessed with quantitative performance parameters …”

Scholarly communication in the age of the commons – A southern perspective

International PKP Scholarly Publishing Conference 2009 Harbour Centre – Simon Fraser University July 8, 2009 – July 10, 2009

Keynote Abstract:

The contours of the geography of science and scholarship have been changing and the change is likely to be even more pronounced in the years to come. The dominance of the advanced countries of the West is eroding and the erstwhile colonies are no longer content to remain hunting grounds for safari science. Some of them are unwilling to play second fiddle to science in the advanced countries any longer and want to be equal partners.

The need for science to be performed everywhere and take roots in all countries is now well recognized.

The toll-access journal system that was set up some 350 years ago and which has served well till a few decades ago evolved, for historical reasons, largely to serve the needs of North-North knowledge exchange and have failed to take cognizance of the aspirations of the South. In addition, the spiraling costs of journal subscriptions have effectively locked researchers from the South out of access to new knowledge and the much-needed international dialogue, thus making the notion of universality of knowledge and science a distant ideal and not a practicable goal.

Even advocates of open access do not fully recognize how important it is today for scientists in the North to learn about developments in the South. The value of South-to-North flow of knowledge was well demonstrated by what happened during medical disasters such as avian flu and swine flu when speedy exchange of not only research results but also research data enabled dealing with the disasters quickly.

Open access to knowledge is not merely important in science but also in development. Organizations such as IDRC and to some extent DFID support open access to all the reports from development projects they support.

If OA is so very important to the South, why is the progress slow? While computers, internet access and bandwidths continue to pose problem in a number of southern countries, in general the situation is improving. The more important factor is scientists’ apathy. Scientists in the South, by and large, do not exercise their rights to the full; often they give away on a platter copyright to their research papers to journal publishers. The publishers themselves indulge in practices that would entice publishing scientists and librarians to act in ways that would benefit the publishers. Funding agencies and governments of southern countries are not as proactive as they should be.

Focused advocacy on the advantages of the public commons approach can bring about some revolutionary changes. Such advocacy should be aimed at all levels of stakeholders. Some examples of what is being done in India will be presented.


Open Access to Scientific Knowledge

S. Arunachalam

DESIDOC Journal of Library and Information Technology, Vol 28, No 1 (2008)

The open access movement, well known in the domain of journal articles, came about because of several reasons. These include scholars’ and researchers‘ willingness to share knowledge, and advances in technology which enabled opening up free access to information. It also include journal publishers who raised the subscription rates forcing researchers to look for alternative ways of sustaining knowledge sharing. The paper discusses two ways of achieving open access (OA) and argues that sharing knowledge and building partnerships have been recognised as the best and most optimal means of creating and benefiting from knowledge. It focuses on various fronts where OA is making good progress, and also deliberates on issues like OA endeavours in India, OA and sustainable development and what needs to be done in India to promote OA activities.

Global Research Libraries 2020 Asia Position Paper

S. Arunachalam

GRL2020 Asia, 2009

Predicting the future is never an easy task. (I say that in spite of the fact that India is home to millions of astrologers and followers of astrology.) Predicting how knowledge exchange will happen in about ten years from now is even more difficult because new technologies keep coming that transform everything we do in unexpected ways.

I firmly believe that the basic tenets of research libraries will continue to remain the same, unchanging like the laws of thermodynamics. (Everything else may change in physics – remember the uncertainties physicists face in defining physical reality: waves or particles, matter or energy, and so on – but not thermodynamics.) Research libraries will continue to be service organizations supporting the knowledge production activities of researchers and gathering and disseminating information. It will continue to play a key role in knowledge discovery. The major developments will pertain to the ways in which advances in new technologies impinge on knowledge acquisition, production and discovery.

Technology is a double-edged sword. In our context, it can facilitate both democratization of knowledge and privatization of knowledge. The Google book digitization project is fast becoming a distinct threat (of monopoly), and among the major institutions only Harvard University has opposed it. Journal publishers, especially in the area of science, technology and medicine and also in other areas of scholarship, are keen not to let go the current ways of doing things although technologies are in place to carry on with cheaper and faster knowledge dissemination. Institutions like ARL, SPARC, PLoS will find, at least for some time, the battle with the large publishing firms an unequal one. This tension between democratization and privatization will become increasingly pronounced in the near future. Unfortunately, public support for initiatives that will lead to greater democratization is rather slow. But then eventually, Ghandi won freedom for India and Mandela got rid of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Movements like Access to Knowledge (Yale Law School and others) and Internet archive (Brewster Khale and others) need to gain greater momentum for the democratization aspect of technology to offset the privatization efforts. But then we also see Elsevier floating free services and Google coming up with Google Knol.

As technology advances, it not merely helps us do things faster but it even transforms the way how we do what we do. Specifically, the ‘tool’ interacts with ‘content’ and advances the content. The more sophisticated the technology (or tool) the greater its capacity to transcend its original role of facilitating (or reducing drudgery). Now, technology of creating structured databases and data mining have led to developments where without actually performing an experiment Don Swanson (Chicago University) could see the connection between migrain and magnesium. Swanson is neither a doctor nor a life scientist. Ron Kostoff of the US Naval Research laboratory advanced such ‘connection finding’ further and called it the Discovery approach.

Increasingly, people will stay put in front of their computers, drawing a whole lot of tools, techniques, data and letting them all interact in the ‘cloud’ and collaborate with distant partners through the ‘cloud’.
Looking from the point of view of a traditional librarian, in some sense, we will be rediscovering what J D Bernal told his audience at the famous Royal Society conference on scientific information over half a century ago: we will no longer look for journals; we will look for individual articles (or more accurately, preprints or postprints). Going one step further we will be looking for specific parts of some work – some data or idea – and we will often pluck it from the cloud.

That brings me to the role of librarians and information officers. As always, they are the intermediaries connecting researchers and knowledge. But as the capacity of the individual researchers and the way they work change, librarians need to change too and acquire new niche roles. It is going to be exciting times in library schools.


Silicon subcontinent

S. Arunachalam

15 January 2000, New Scientist,

WHEN a group of eight-year-olds at a secondary school in Chennai (what was until recently Madras) were asked recently what they’d like to be when they grow up, most replied: “Work with computers” or “work with computers in America”. Fifteen years ago, the smart ones would have picked medicine, engineering, the civil service or banking. A few adventurous ones would have dreamed of Bollywood or cricket. And the studious types would have chorused: “scientist”.

Those days are gone. India’s young and their parents know that the domestic software industry was worth 178 billion rupees (£2.5 billion) by 1999 and is growing fast. They know that popular websites such as Hotmail, the shopping site Junglee and the people search engine who were created by Indians. They know that the world’s youngest Microsoft certified software engineer Govind Jajoo is a 14-year-old boy from Jaipur in northwest India. And they watch enviously as executives from …

UK-INDIA: Research and education partners

S. Arunachalam

University World News, 15 June 2008

The United Kingdom wants to strengthen its collaboration with India in research and higher education, says British High Commissioner to India Richard Stagg. Britain is willing to assist India in building world class universities and the two countries will collaborate in establishing a new Indian Institute of Technology, a new Institute of Science Education and Research and a new central university, Stagg says.

International cooperation in education and research is moving up the political agenda. It was then-Prime Minister Tony Blair who announced the UK-India Education and Research Initiative when he visited India in September 2005 and later launched it in April 2006.

Under this programme, the UK pledged £26 million (US$51 million) for research initiatives with India and will soon open Research Council offices in New Delhi to identify opportunities for collaboration.

Stagg describes the research initiative as one of Britain’s biggest commitments and says it signifies the importance of India as an education partner. Its two principal activities are promoting research partnerships between centres of excellence and developing joint and dual course delivery.

Following a meeting between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in January, a delegation of British vice-chancellors visited India to discuss collaboration in higher education.

British universities see India as a pool of talent that can be tapped into. Through such collaboration, the universities will have access to a large number of students although Britain is already the second most favoured destination for Indians after the US.

Yet the last time the UK was involved in setting up a major educational institution in India was in 1961 when it assisted in establishing the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Now, if the Indian government give permission, British universities are ready to set up their own campuses in India.

“It would be much cheaper for students than to take huge loans to go abroad,” Stagg says. “Also, students would not feel homesick being away from their families. So it is a win-win situation where students would get quality education but at a lesser cost.”

Such collaborative initiatives are expected to have implications far beyond education and research. Tim Gore, British Council project manager in India, says the UK-India research initiative is “the key to building trust between the two countries”.

Similarly, British Education Minister Bill Rammell says it has made “a major contribution towards stimulating UK-India research collaboration at the cutting edge of scientific and technological innovation, as well as creating stronger higher education partnerships”.

“This closer collaboration is playing an important part in developing the wider strategic relationship between the UK and India,” Rammell says.