A background paper commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
There is a vast difference between the rich and poor countries in every respect. The difference is very pronounced in scientific and technical research, in terms of both volume and impact. Indeed the distribution of science is even more skewed than the distribution of wealth among nations. Science in the developing countries suffers from poor funding, poor laboratory and library facilities, low productivity and poor visibility. Developing country scientists have access to only a tiny fraction of the information they need and their own contribution to science is hardly noticed by others. They are often the also-rans in world science and are rarely members of international invisible colleges or collaboratories. It is important that these countries strengthen their scientific research and their scientists become fully integrated members of the worldwide network of science. But, unfortunately, the transformations effected in the conduct of science with the advent of the new ICTs (such as high bandwidth Internet) and the ever-increasing cost of subscriptions to journals and secondary services are widening the gulf between the industrialized and developing countries. Ironically, the steep rise in the cost of S&T information has helped Third World scientists in a way, as it forced scientists and librarians in the advanced countries to think of measures to overcome the ‘serials crisis’ many of which can benefit Third World scientists. These include, among others, the Open Archives and E-print Initiatives, Public Library of Science, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), and BioMed Central. Also, eminent scientists like Bruce Alberts and editors like Richard Smith and world leaders like Gro Harlem Brundtland are championing the cause of enhanced access to information for Third World scientists. In response to such moves, commercial publishers of journals have allowed free delayed electronic access to a few high impact journals through institutions such as the Highwire Press of the Stanford University. Under WHO’s Health InterNetwork, more than 25 commercial publishers have agreed to provide free (or low-cost) web access to about 2,000 biomedical journals for scientists, faculty and students working in universities, hospitals and other public institutions in the poor countries. To benefit from these initiatives, scientists in the Third World should have access to PCs and high bandwidth Internet, and many of them do not. As Bruce Alberts suggests, even if it means subsidising, such access must be ensured. Agencies such as the Third World Academy of Sciences, Inter Academy Panel, and the Inter Academy Council and Foundations such as the Soros Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should work in unison to facilitate free flow of S&T information for the benefit of scientists and people everywhere. Scientists everywhere should stop publishing in expensive commercial journals and support efforts aimed at democratising access to scientific information. All this is easier said than done. Commercial publishers will not easily let go the stranglehold they enjoy now, and those who want to bring about drastic changes are dispersed around the world and cannot really act as a cohesive body that can take on the might of the commercial publishers. Mere idealism cannot win. Scientists in developing countries should take advantage of recent initiatives to open up free and low-cost access to scientific and technical information, examine the pros and cons of different possibilities that have become available and choose the right options and enlist the support of key organizations, both national and regional and international. They should become proactive. This is a background paper commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).