• Open access can shrink the global knowledge gap

    Helen J. Doyle


Advances in science, medicine, and technology play an important role in both economic development and the improvement of people's lives. Indeed, SciDev.Net itself was founded on the premise that scientific knowledge is of great value to the developing world. But a range of cultural, economic and political barriers means that new knowledge does not flow freely between developed and developing regions of the world, resulting in an enduring knowledge gap between the two. 

Changes in both attitudes and technology, however, mean that knowledge need no longer be confined primarily to economically robust institutions or regions. The cost of sharing the results of scientific and medical research, in particular, is falling as electronic dissemination replaces paper and print.

As a result, open-access publishing – which makes published literature freely and universally electronically available – is on the rise. Although it is mostly scientists in industrialised nations who are originating and accessing the material, this form of electronic publishing is also a potentially powerful way of minimising the knowledge gap between the developed and developing world.

The open-access business model

In the prevailing business model for open-access publishers – in particular, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and BioMed Central – the publishers charge a scientific author what they consider to be a reasonable fee for the services they provide, including peer review, editing, production, marketing and distribution. This contrasts with the traditional model of scientific publishing, in which such costs are covered primarily by journal subscriptions paid by researchers or their institutions, and supplemented by advertising and other sources of revenue.

Shifting a publisher's main source of revenue to a 'pay-to-publish' system eliminates the need to generate income through subscriptions, site licences or pay-per-view services. All of these restrict access to the journals, and thus to the scientific knowledge they contain.  

Admittedly, the long-term viability of open-access business models based on charges to the author will require a redistribution of funds within the scholarly publication system. But when this happens, costly subscriptions, predicated on restricting access to articles as indicated above, will be eliminated. Libraries, institutions and agencies providing research grants will be able to use funds directly to offset the costs associated with publishing. And readers universally will benefit, as access to all scientific literature will be free. 

Open-access publishers acknowledge that this model has raised concerns about authors who may not have ready access to funds to pay publication charges. And it is essential that the open-access model is not elitist, and that it includes researchers who may be unable to pay because of limited funding in their discipline or region.

Both PLoS and BioMed Central address this concern by offering fee waivers for authors who cannot pay the full publication charge. Requests for fee waivers are easily shielded from reviewers and editors to ensure they do not influence the peer-review process.

Global open access

International support for open-access publishing is gaining momentum and visibility. More than 3000 individuals and 236 institutions have signed the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), which states: "Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge."

In a similar vein, participants at the first phase of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) voiced their support for open access to scientific knowledge in a draft declaration stating: "We strive to promote universal access with equal opportunities for all to scientific knowledge and the creation and dissemination of scientific and technical information, including open access initiatives for scientific publishing."

Ensuring equal opportunities for participating fully in both the generation and application of scientific knowledge requires that those in the developing world, as well as countries with economies in transition, have not only access to the published literature, but also the opportunity to contribute to it. Open-access publishing can go a long way towards solving the access problem, since such journals are free to the reader. And one way of increasing opportunities for researchers in developing countries to contribute to the scientific literature is to ensure that research grants include funds to support the cost of publication in open-access journals.  

Open access vs free access

Admittedly, new programmes such as Health InterNetwork Access Initiative (HINARI) or Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) – established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, respectively – help to address the knowledge divide by providing limited free access to scientific and medical literature in certain countries. But HINARI, for example, is seen as a type of 'social contract' viable only if institutions in developed countries are willing to pay higher prices for their journals than colleagues in developing countries.

Furthermore, the differential pricing scheme on which both HINARI and AGORA are based excludes many countries in the middle of the economic scale, such as China, India and Brazil, where even though investments in research are growing rapidly, funding for all aspects of research remains tight, and researchers would therefore benefit significantly from open access. So while laudable in intent, these initiatives remain based on the traditional model of generating profit for publishers by controlling access through subscriptions and site licences.

Open access is not free

Of course, while open-access journals are free to read, they are not free to produce, and the funding has to be found. The most obvious source is the scientists whose work is being published. Indeed, the world's two largest private funders of biomedical research, the UK-based Wellcome Trust and the US-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), have already agreed to pay any open-access publication fees for the scientists they support.

In relative terms, the costs involved are not particularly high. The Wellcome Trust, for example, has estimated that the cost of supporting open-access publication of the research it funds – assuming each paper cost US$1,500 to publish – would represent 1.7 per cent of its investment in biomedical research over a five-year period. The Trust clearly believes that this is a reasonable cost to ensure that its investment in research has maximum impact, and it has become a strong advocate of open-access publishing. 

Other funders should follow the lead not only of Wellcome and HHMI, but also the various national funding agencies that have signed the Berlin Declaration in support of open access, and invest in narrowing the knowledge gap by supporting open-access publication.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has committed US$200 million through its new Grand Challenges in Global Health programme to combating one of today's biggest health problems: the lethal diseases that plague the developing world. This programme will encourage research by scientists in the developing world – and it would be a significant step in this direction if a small percentage of the funds were allocated towards disseminating these scientists' results through open-access publication. Even 1 per cent – less than the Wellcome Trust's estimate of its potential publication costs – could be a highly effective contribution.

The ability of private funders to respond more quickly and flexibly to social and economic changes can open the way for their larger, often more cumbersome, public counterparts to follow their lead. In the spirit of the WSIS statement, for example, international research projects funded by UN agencies should include funds earmarked for open-access publication. This would ensure the fastest and broadest application of new knowledge generated by or through publicly supported programmes such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the Global AIDS Fund, or agencies and funding mechanisms such as the WHO or the Global Environment Facility. 

Many philanthropic organisations, aware of the power of information to achieve social transformation, already support programmes that increase access to new knowledge. The Open Society Institute, for example, a programme funded by the George Soros Foundation and one of the original signers of the BOAI, makes various grants to support open access, including funds to waive publication fees in open-access journals on behalf of a number of universities.

Following this example, other foundations that support research and development, knowledge dissemination or global participation in the knowledge economy, should consider creating an international open-access publication funding pool. By supporting the free and unrestricted communication of research discoveries across the global community, such a pool would build on and enhance the philanthropic endeavours that these foundations currently support.

Bridging the knowledge divide

Advocates of open access recognise that not everyone has affordable, reliable or unrestricted access to the Internet to read electronic publications. The digital divide between more and less developed regions of the world, indeed even between communities within individual countries, must be addressed creatively and aggressively. 

But the continued existence of the digital divide must not prevent us from acting on the knowledge divide, and open-access publishing is a powerful way of doing this. Given sustained support from research funders, aid agencies, philanthropists and others, a commitment to open access will open the way for a dynamic, multidirectional flow of scientific data, information and knowledge.

The author is director of development and strategic alliances at the Public Library of Science in San Francisco, California, United States, and previously directed the science programme at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She thanks Andy Gass for comments on the article.