Developing countries with free access to scientific information experienced a six-fold increase in article output since 2002, a study by Research4Life reports.
Research4Life is a public-private partnership between publishers, the WHO, FAO, UNEP, Cornell and Yale Universities, and the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers. Research4Life is the collective name of three separate programs that focus on providing free access to literature in the health sciences (HINARI), agriculture (AGORA), and environmental research (OARE).
The analysis, conducted by Andrew Plume at Elsevier, compared article output between 1996 and 2008 for countries participating in the program with the rest of the world. Article counts per country were taken from ISI’s Web of Science.
According to the report, growth in article output increased by 194% for countries with a gross national income (GNI) between US$1,251-3,500 compared to only 67% for countries not eligible in the Research4Life program.
The language of the report implies a causal relationship between access to the literature (as an input) and article publication (as an output). If you get through the promotional language, you will find the analyst, Andrew Plume, to be much more hesitant:
The massive and sustained growth in scholarly output from the Research4Life countries, over and above the growth for the rest of the world, is probably the result of many related factors such as scientific policy, government and private research funding, and other global developments. However, such a dramatic increase in research output also reflects a clear correlation with the launch of the Research4Life programmes. These statistics point to Research4Life’s profound impact on institutions and individual researchers’ ability to publish.
Plume plots the output of four participating countries (Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Bulgaria) with Japan. While we are privy to the percent change, we do not see the raw data behind the graphs. If you go to the source of data (ISI’s Web of Science and the World Bank, as I report below) you find that Tanzania published only 180 ISI-indexed articles in 2002 which rises to 397 in 2008; an increase of 217 articles (or 106%). In comparison, Japan’s output increased by nearly 8,000 articles yet this represents a growth of only 15%.
Surprising? It shouldn’t be. Developed countries cannot sustain triple-digit growth like developing countries. A focus on percent change, rather than absolute growth, obscures what is really going on in the data.
If you compare article output from other growing economies not eligible for the free literature programs (as I plot below), you will find examples of massive increases in their article output as well: India (123%), Brazil (293%), and South Korea (263%). All three of these countries have also seen huge growths in their economy and significant input into research and development.
What’s more, scientists in these growing economies are finding increasing pressure to submit their work to ISI-indexed journals with impact factors — hence their articles are now being counted when in previous years they were ignored.
In sum, the present analysis simply cannot adequately evaluate the effect of these free literature programs on research output. More rigorous analysis would have:
- Counted the frequency of citations to the list of journals included in the Research4Life programs instead of tracking total article output.
- Paired Research4Life eligible countries with similar (but not eligible) countries to control for bias.
- Control statistically for other variables which are strong predictive of article output (like R&D funding and number of professional scientists).
- Focused on usage rather than article output.
There is no doubt that providing free access to the scientific literature to those in developing countries is a good thing. These programs, and those who made them happen, should be extolled for delivering scientific knowledge to those institutions that could previously afford only a tiny portion of the world’s published literature. But making causal claims on such rudimentary analysis should have been more tentative.
The fundamental problem with this report is that there is no report. It’s a four-page press release dressed up with elements of a proper analytical study. In that sense, Research4Life got things backwards, issuing the press release and calling the journalists before a report was ever written.
Addendum (16 October, 2009)
A recent study, as reported in The Scientist, indicates that developing countries have greatly increased their spending on science:
Developing countries more than doubled their annual spending on research and development between 2002 and 2007, from $135 billion to $274 billion. That spending accounted for 24% of the world’s total R&D budget in 2007, an increase of 7% from 2002. They also increased their global share of researchers, from 30.3% (1.8 million) to 38.4% (2.7 million).
This may explain why article output increased as well.