India debates open access

The Scientist

India’s premier publicly-funded research organization is pushing to make all research published at its institutions open access. But its pleas are falling on deaf ears, critics say, as individual laboratories have been slow to take up the charge.

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Last month (Feb. 6), the head of research and development planning at India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Naresh Kumar, sent a memo to the directors of CSIR’s 42 labs urging that “all research papers published from all CSIR laboratories be made open access,” either through online repositories or by publishing in open access journals. Kumar also recommended that all journals published by CSIR be made open access.

It is now up to the directors of the various labs to decide whether or not to implement the policy. Subbiah Arunachalam, an information consultant based in Chennai who was involved in formulating the recommendations, said that “whether this will actually happen is anybody’s guess.”

“The uptake [of open access policies] is rather slow in India,” Arunachalam told The Scientist. “[The CSIR directors] will not take it seriously at all. I know these guys. For them, this doesn’t look important.” The directors don’t necessarily see the benefits of open access publishing and claim that the infrastructure is too difficult to implement, he said.

Arunachalam and leading policymakers and academics are meeting today (Mar. 24) at the CSIR offices in New Delhi and again Thursday (Mar. 26) at the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore to discuss the merits of open access publishing and online institutional databases.

Indian scientists who publish their work abroad often can’t even access their own papers, said Leslie Chan of the University of Toronto, who directs the online publishing service Bioline International and will be speaking this week at the Indian conferences. “By putting these articles that are published elsewhere in some sort of repository, they become available to scientists in their own countries and elsewhere,” he said.

But the contents of institutional repositories do not have high visibility for the scientific community at large because researchers are not likely to start trawling through databases of foreign institutions, said Stanford University’s John Willinsky, who heads the Public Knowledge Project, a research initiative that develops software platforms to help journals publish online, and who is also presenting at this week’s meetings.

Instead of setting up dozens of individual databases, he suggests moving Indian journals in their entirety online through an open access publishing model akin to the Public Library of Science or BioMed Central. This would “hugely level the playing field,” Willinsky said, because the journal articles would become indexed by search engines such as Google Scholar, which helps papers get noticed by scientists around the world. “A move to open access will hugely increase the contribution [of Indian scientists] because these are journals that normally wouldn’t be subscribed to” by libraries in the West, he said.

It may be too early to consider such large-scale efforts, however. “We haven’t achieved anything yet,” said Aruchachalam, who stressed that the Indian initiative is still in its infancy.

While deliberations take place, Chan thinks that India can take guidance from recent open access efforts in developing countries elsewhere. “If India can learn from these existing projects then they don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Last month (Feb. 19), the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) announced a two-year pilot project to make one of the country’s leading journals, the South African Journal of Science, open access with no page charges for any scientists — not just South African ones — publishing in the journal. “The main driving force is to increase the visibility of the work that’s done in South Africa and other developing countries, and to make it globally accessible,” ASSAf’s president Robin Crewe told The Scientist.

A few weeks before South Africa announced its effort, the small Middle Eastern nation of Qatar launched an online repository dating back to 1970, around the time that Qatar became an independent state. The Biannual National Research Survey, released by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), provides a searchable online database containing a summary of all research conducted partly or wholly in the country before 2007. The QNRF plans to update the repository every two years. “We have in Qatar a significant gap in knowledge of past work and discoveries,” said Sattar Al-Taie, director of QNRF, in a statement. “It is important that we share our knowledge and progress internationally.”

“A lot of Middle Eastern countries are realizing that open access is a good way of promoting their research and attracting attention,” said Chan. Asian countries have been slower to warm up to open access, he notes, but they’re starting to come around.

As in India, leading Chinese scholars are appealing to transform the country’s journals. “At the moment, Chinese journals aren’t very popular” outside of the country, said Zuoyan Zhu, a developmental biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Wuhan and the former deputy head of the National Science Foundation of China. Zhu contends that adopting an open access model “will greatly help the Chinese journals get accepted by the scientific community.”

Zhu is currently preparing a report for the CAS to assess the impact and logistics of making some or all of the Science in China journals — China’s premier English-language journal series — open access. He expects to submit the report before the end of year. Kumar, however, doesn’t want India’s CSIR to wait that long. “It is requested that the open access activities are implemented at the earliest [possible date],” he wrote at the end of his appeal to the CSIR directors.

Correction (Mar. 30): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Naresh Kumar urged for journals published by CSIR’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) be made open access. In truth, Kumar’s memo urged that all CSIR journals, not just NISCAIR journals, be made open access. The Scientist regrets the error.


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