Scholarly communication in Biomedical Sciences, Open Access and the developing world



We are now into the fourth decade of the serials crisis and into just about a couple of decades into the communication revolution brought about by the spawning Internet technologies. The advent of Internet as a technology capable of disseminating information faster, with a wider reach and virtually free had been welcomed by the publishing industry with panic.

The panic was partly due to the fact that the huge margins of profit generated could not be possibly maintained, due to the emergence of technology that would threaten not only the existence of their economic frameworks, but also lead to the widespread copyright abuse and lead to the flourishing of the hitherto limited contraband to a global scale.

Scholarly communication and the developing world:

Two major barriers plagued scholarly communication in the developing world. Firstly the access barrier, which meant researchers were not able to access researches of their peers, due to the high costs of publications, and the publication crisis, which meant researchers had lesser avenues to publish/disseminate their research. This evolved into a vicious circle, draining expertise and scholarship and became one of the factors promoting Safari Research.

In fact, many of the developing countries had adapted to their crisis by bringing up indigenous Journals, and adapted by creating their own circle, often prominently separated from the International scenario, similar to the scholarly communication in the cold-war era.
Open Access Movements

The open access movements pioneered by the Budapest Open Access Initiative [BOAI] .The Open access movements aimed at creating a free and barrier less access structure to scholarly communication employing the now ubiquitous Internet. The open access framework was created whereby the author would pay for the peer review, and organizational expenses as well as for permanent archival. In exchange, he would get the rights to copy, distribute or disseminate as much as reprints for free. Researchers could also access the research universally for free.

The initiatives foresee that removing access barriers to literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge .The BOAI defines open access as:

“…by ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself …..”[1].

The Open Access movements are basically based on two pillar stones of Self Archiving [2] and creation of open access journals [3].

Economics of Open Access: When open access is discussed, one major question to answer is how to cover the expenses incurred in maintaining editorial assistance and peer review, publishing and archiving. The BOAI clearly describes the economic strategy that is to be employed. It quotes

“There are many alternative sources of funds for this purpose, including the foundations and governments that fund research, the universities and laboratories that employ researchers, endowments set up by discipline or institution, friends of the cause of open access, profits from the sale of add-ons to the basic texts, funds freed up by the demise or cancellation of journals charging traditional subscription or access fees, or even contributions from the researchers themselves. There is no need to favor one of these solutions over the others for all disciplines or nations, and no need to stop looking for other, creative alternatives.” [1]

The Open Society Institute [4] backed by philanthropist George Soros which is behind the initiative also has plans to support open access Journals. The Institute gives away about $ 100,000 for publication of articles of researchers of some 67 countries where the Soros foundation network is active.

Open Access Journals: A brief description of Economic Models:

JMIR [Journal of Medical Internet Research] [5]

The JMIR was one of the pioneer open access online only journals. Unlike the former journals, this one was exclusively published in the electronic form, and was free to access at its website. The journal initially did not charge anything from the authors, but from December 2003 charges a processing fee of $500 per article from every author. Fee is waived as per the BOAI support to researchers from countries where the Soros foundation is active.

BioMedCentral Journals [6] >75Nos

BioMedCentral [BMC] is a leading commercial open access publisher and publishes more than 75 open access Journals that are exclusively published electronically. All the Journals are archived in PMC also. This open access publisher charges $500 for every article as processing charges. The publisher also has a policy of waiving fees for researchers in the developing countries.

It is clear that most online only journals rely on an economic model based on charging the authors for covering the costs and making profit. None of these journals derive major share of costs from third parties like advertisements, sponsorships or provision of value added services like print copies, CD ROM formats etc. This would mean the model would be a far cry from what envisaged by the BOAI, and would mean the brunt would always fall on the shoulders of researchers.

Open Access and its impact on the Developing world:

The impact of the open access initiatives on the developing world can be mainly discussed in the following headings.

Impact on Information Dissemination

Impact on articles from the developing world

Impact on existing publishing infrastructure in the developing world

Impact on cost of research

In the sphere of information dissemination, the open access initiatives will surely do a big job. It will create a unique opportunity whereby researchers in these countries would be able to access literature, which were hitherto unavailable due to barriers to access based on economic motives. This would surely pave way for a revolution in information access and thus breaking the vicious circle of poverty in information, which was a rule.

It is clear that at the costs which many of the publishers charge authors, most authors of developing countries would find it hard to afford publishing their articles in these Journals. Though at present the BOAI has a policy of waiving publishing costs, the policy is not to be regarded as an everlasting one, but rather as charity with no guarantee that it would continue. This would mean one needs to look at other opportunities for funds to sustain the policy of open access.

The most devastating impact of the policy would be perhaps on the publishing infrastructure in the developing world. This publishing infrastructure that supported and sustained the scholarly thinking in the developing world and supported open access which was sustained at the meager profit these journals generated would find themselves at sea when they find their subscriptions being cancelled due to the huge influx of free literature. Most of these journals, supported by advertisements and subscription charges would find it difficult to reorient themselves to the e-economy. Toeing in line to the trend by charging authors would be devastating, as authors would find it economical to try out international journals rather than constrain to regional boundaries.

The movement has also the potential to destabilize the existence of smaller journals. Large commercial firms like the BMC may be able to drastically cut their costs, since they need to maintain a supporting team, which would be shared by all their journals. But this is certainly not the case of small journals that need to maintain the team, irrespective how much papers they receive.

The new economy would also have its impact on the cost of research also. Though researchers who would have the extravagance of adequate funding to cover their publication costs would find it interesting and efficient mode of publication, most of the researchers in developing countries, who often undertake research by funding from their pay cheques would find it hard to stomach the fact that they need to shell out more than ever to see their work being published.



The Open Access Initiative is something that we can hardly afford to miss, given the immense potential the movement offers at freeing scholarly communication, utilizing the Internet as a technology for mass change. At the same time we need to keep in mind that any policy that does not take into consideration or that does not seek the opinion of the majority of scholars involved will surely make no significant impact.

It is also the need of the hour to shift our vision beyond just Journals. Internet offers potential to drastically change how we view peer-reviewed literature. We need to harness the enormous potential of E-prints. The Open archives initiative [7] has done much at creating an interoperable repository of scholarly communication. Systems for open peer review of such e-prints utilizing Internet is a potentially plausible framework. This would impart transparency to peer review as well as create a cost effective method of quality assurance. More thoughts need to be directed in this direction.

While the open Access initiatives will do much at creating equity in distribution of scholarly communication, especially in the developing world, much has to be done to protect and sustain the existence of small and regional journals, which are very much essential at maintaining the health of that population, since region specific health information is essential and inseparable for maintaining the quality of health in each geographical area. Similarly the interests of smaller journals should be also taken into consideration.


[1] Budapest Open Access Initiative WebPage URL:
[2] Steven Harnads Article on Self Archiving URL:
[3] Budapest Open Access Initiative WebPage URL:
[4] Open Access Intstitute Homepage URL:
[5] Journal of Medical Internet Research URL:
[6] BioMedCentral URL:
[7] Open Archives Initiative URL: