What Open Access to Sci-Tech Research Can Achieve

A global movement is on to make sci-tech research accessible to all. How soon will Indian industry and consumers embrace it?

Published: May 14, 2013
Image: Sameer Pawar

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”— Aaron Swartz


It is difficult to disagree with this argument (published in Guerilla Open Access Manifesto), and many other similar ones, that Swartz, a 26-year-old digital rights activist, made. Much of the scientific knowledge in the world is gained with the help of public money, but it remains inaccessible to the public.

In January, when Swartz committed suicide while facing prosecution for hacking into JSTOR, a digital archive of journals that many universities pay to access, the debate spilled over into public consciousness. His means might have been illegal, even sloppy some would say, but the ends he strived for were fair.

Swartz did not just parachute onto the scene. The idea of open access in publishing came about in the mid-1990s. It took a while for the community to figure out how to do it. Who would bear the cost of free publication, the author or the funding agency? What slowed the movement further are the mysterious finances of this industry, estimated to be nearly $29 billion. Nobody discloses their numbers, and campus libraries strike separate deals with the publishers, often under non-disclosure agreements.

But much of the established practices are set to be disrupted. By 2011, 11 percent of research papers worldwide were published in fully open access journals; the rate is growing in double digits. This year, two countries took seminal decisions: In February, the Obama administration said all public-funded research would have to be made freely available within 12 months of their publication; from April, the UK’s research councils are making public-funded research open to all. Come January 2014, the European Commission will walk down the same path.

In India, there’s no public outcry as yet. At least not like what the world has recently seen from Chicago or Cambridge (UK) universities, where academics collected signatures in protest against commercial publishers. One reason, says P Balaram, director of Indian Institute of Science and an open access advocate, is Indian institutions have managed to keep their subscription costs in check by forming consortia that negotiate deals with publishers. But, he says, there’s scope for better bargains as most publishers sell bundled services, many of which are not needed or used by institutions.

The debate is likely to heat up in the coming months. Among other things is a Delhi-based startup, Knimbus (www.knimbus.com/open), which has thrown open its cloud-based knowledge platform that connects creators and users of scientific, technical and medical knowledge. Through this platform, anybody can access over 13,000 journals, 3,000 ebooks and 400,000 theses. More than 100 institutions, a few outside India, are using it.

But aren’t open access books and journals already out there, just a mouse-click away?

Yes. But data shows that the bulk of commercial research is accessed by platforms like Scopus, PubMed, Web of Science, or ScienceDirect.

“Every library web page in Indian universities has a section on open access with links to journals etc, but when you look at open access consumption, it is quite low… People need platforms. Without Google, consumption of the web would be much less,” argues Rahul Agarwalla, chief executive and founder of Knimbus. He thinks the immediate beneficiaries will be smaller institutes and small and medium enterprises, with the latter hardly having budgets, or even incentives, to consume research.

Meanwhile, institutions like Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are creating their own repository that will be accessible to all. Ironically, they have been driven to it by commercial publishers who counter open access models with pleas of editorial value and prestige that researchers get by publishing in well-known journals.

Until now, subscriptions were renewed every year with a nominal rise in rates. Now, publishers charge a fee based on previous years’ downloads.

“With a usage-based model, if one paper is downloaded by 20 researchers in one institution, we have to pay an amount in dollars for each download. If we have to access journals from top-end publishers, we could end up paying Rs 50 crore a day,” says RR Hirwani, head of CSIR’s Unit for Research and Development of Information Product.

To break this monopoly, CSIR has asked all its 38 institutions to create their respective repositories. This is possible because publishers allow researchers to archive their ‘pre-print’ papers in institutional archives. Once the repositories are created—30 are ready—they will be connected to CSIR Central, a server that makes it accessible to anyone. Over time, all institutions will have to move towards such repositories and the government will have to eventually make it mandatory, says Hirwani.

How will this affect the modest $300 million to $500 million scientific publishing industry in India?    

The role of the publisher is changing, the published product is no longer a book, says Vivek Mehra, managing director of SAGE Publications India. “Publishers are no more the gatekeepers, but are like guides… helping consumers find the pearl in the ocean.” He admits “profitability per unit” is adversely affected by the shift to open access, but the “number of units” is also growing exponentially in India.

If research has to reside in public databases, somebody has to do it. Libraries need to improve infrastructure, funding agencies need to align policies. Equally critical is the role of the user community itself. Maybe they can take a page out of Wikipedia.

(This story appears in the 17 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Arun

    The Indian Academy of Sciences has a repository wherein they try to gather all research papers published by their Fellows, both living and deceased. CSIR laboratories - most of them - have repositories of their own and all of them are harvested by the group led by Dr Raj Hirwani in Pune. Important journal publishers in India - Indian Academy of Sciences, INSA, CSIR\'s NISCAIR, ICMR, ICAR, etc. - have made their journals open access. All these can make available ONLY papers written by Indian researchers or those published in Indian journals. Those may not account for even 3% of the world\'s research output. The other 97% are published by scientists outside India and appear in journals published outside India. We need access to them. Free access to them will be possible only if they are also accessible through OA repositories (such as arXiv, RePEc, PubMed Central) and OA journals. While we may do all that we can to promote OA in India, we should also join the worldwide OA movement and promote OA throughout the world. Things have started happening now ten years after the Budapest meeting came up with the first declaration on OA. The US Congress is considering the FASTR bill and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has issued a mandate for most research carried out with public funding in the US to be made open. Similar developments have taken place in Europe and Australia as well as the UK. It is rather unfortunate that the science administrators, with a few exceptions, in India have turned a deaf ear so far to pleas for mandating open access to publicly funded research.

    on May 23, 2013
  • Utkarsh

    Agreed with Aaron Swartz. I personally try and use SSRN as much as possible. All are public universities should ensure that the research output from them like thesis and research papers must all be published for free access on an online platform. Organizations such as jstor are really pissing off.

    on May 19, 2013
  • Sridhar Gutam

    I agree with the author that somebody has to take the lead to make research outputs into public databases. For this, Open Access India, an online community was formed for advocating Open Access to Science and Scholarship in India. Through its page on facebook and blog , it is pursuading the researchers in India to share their research outputs for public good. Few days back the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has place its OA policy for comments on its website. On behalf of the Open Access India, community, we are submitting our comments/suggestions and wish all other stakeholders to do the same so that a strong and effective OA policy would be developed in India.

    on May 17, 2013
  • Dr. Asoka Misra

    " Let knowledge come from all directions ", as they say it; then, WHAT'S THE PROBLEM IN WELCOMING O-A WITH OPEN ARMS (Excepting , of course the great Business Anglers !!!! )

    on May 14, 2013
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