While open access (OA) is by far the most well-known form of public access, it is not the only one. Having spent two days last week at Research4Life meetings in Washington, DC and with today’s announcement that more than 80% of UK local authorities have now signed up for the Access to Research initiative, now seems like a good time to take a look at what else is on offer.

r4l logo

R4L – and especially the HINARI program – is, of course, the Big Kahuna of public access programs. Access is free to WHO Band A countries and costs $1,500 per institution for those in Band B, for a collection of journals whose estimated value is around $10 million. Launched in 2003, its stats today are impressive, with 549 publishers providing access to over 15,300 journals and nearly 30,000 books and other publications in more than 7,300 institutions across 116 countries.

However, it should also be pointed out that, while seemingly equally impressive, the downloads generated by HINARI access – 8.3 million last year* – are in fact roughly equal to the total number of downloads by Yale University during the same time period. This is not to underplay the value of R4L, but it is an indication of how far we have yet to go to bridge the access gap between the developed and developing worlds. Even with completely free access to so much content, researchers in the world’s poorest countries are only using the literature a fraction of the amount that their counterparts from wealthier countries do. There are all sorts of reasons for this, including huge variations in R&D funding, fewer researchers per capita, and lack of reliable access to the internet and/or hardware (see for example here).

Many of the same challenges face another key player in providing access to researchers in the developing world, INASP. It operates in fewer countries than R4L and provides online access to a large volume of free or heavily discounted research literature , including over 32,000 journals, both through publishers and via Ebsco databases. A key objective is to help its partner countries move toward self-sufficiency, for example, through programs such as AuthorAid, which connects new authors from developing world countries with more experienced mentors, who provide the support needed to help understand the scholarly research publication process. INASP also helps make journals published in its partner countries more readily accessible through its Journals Online project, 90% of which are open access.

Both R4L and INASP agree that, even if all research articles were available OA, many of the problems that they are working to overcome would still exist. Even EIFL, which is arguably the most active of the developing world access organizations in the OA sphere, both through its advocacy for OA policies and mandates, and its capacity-building projects, is still continuing to work with publishers to make subscription content widely accessible in developing and transition countries through negotiating deep discounts with publishers.

OA brings other challenges for researchers and librarians in the developing world. For example, while most journals offer article publication charge reductions or waivers for researchers from developing countries, many (most?) researchers in those countries are not very knowledgeable about how to publish OA, how to evaluate the quality of OA journals, or how to discover OA articles, especially green content that is only available in institutional repositories. As a result, not only will it continue to be important for publishers to support these initiatives, but also there needs to be more emphasis than ever on the training and development of librarians in developing world institutions to help them navigate our increasingly complex scholarly communications ecosystem. These organizations are, therefore, investing in such training. INASP, for example, provides training, mentoring, and other support for library consortia and their member institutions, in various aspects of e-resource management and use including setting up access, monitoring usage, marketing and advocacy, and IT systems for libraries.

Other developing world access initiatives include the New School for Social Research’s Journal Donation Project, providing primarily print-based and deeply discounted access (though many of the print subscriptions now include online access); TEEAL, which has transitioned from providing its digital collection of agricultural research journals on CD-ROM to providing it on hard drives – again at very low cost; and the Virtual Science Library initiative, which has to date created eight custom national online libraries for developing countries. As mentioned above, the first two of these are especially valuable given the often poor internet connectivity and lack of viable hardware and software in many developing world countries.

And what of public access programs in wealthier countries, where researchers typically already have access to much, if not most of the content they need? How much demand is there for access to content from the general public? Two major pilots – the UK’s Access to Research initiative and patientACCESS – should provide some valuable data about demand and usage of research content from outside the scholarly community.

As noted above, Access to Research is now available in over 80% of the UK’s public libraries. It offers walk-in free online access to over 10 million research articles and, in its first six months, more than 15,000 individual users have taken advantage of it. Feedback from both librarians and library users has been positive, and a review of the top search terms for June 2014 reveals the range of topics people are researching – from dementia (at #1), through Belgian refugees (#3), to Welsh history (#9). Fascinating!

patientACCESS provides patients and their carers with free or very low cost access to research articles on their conditions. As one of the first major publishers to participate, Wiley (my company) makes content from well over 300 journals freely available**; we have seen an average of around 450 requests a month, which has held pretty much steady since we launched the program last August.

Public access initiatives – whether intended to make research content more widely available in developing world countries or to the general public – are likely to continue to be an important element of knowledge-sharing for the foreseeable future. While OA continues to expand, it doesn’t look as if immediate gold access will be the norm for most disciplines anytime soon, and green OA typically involves embargo periods and/or access to the author accepted manuscript. So here’s hoping that publishers will continue to support these other routes to access, which make the version of record available to a wider audience immediately on publication, for as long as they are needed.

*Only includes the 27 publishers for which usage data are available, however, these collectively represent by far the majority of articles available through HINARI

**CCC charges a processing fee of $3.50 per article [clarification added August 6, 2014 – this is a charge CCC make to publishers, not to users]

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


9 Thoughts on "Public Access: Getting More Research to More People"

Having lived and worked in developing countries, there are a number of critical issues that need to be addressed (these are not universal but exist at various levels):

a) technology: access to computers, internet and bandwidth on a reliable basis and at reasonable cost for all

b) in the developed world, particularly the United States, we are introduced to books, journals and similar materials even in pre-school (parents) and throughout schooling. Thus there is both familiarity with access of materials in print and now electronically as well as the methodologies and procedures for using this information. This is ingrained without significant effort. This habit of the mind cannot be easily learned by a course in secondary, and particularly, post secondary programs for students and even for academics currently in place.

In Africa there is a distinct difference between countries that were influenced by anglophone as opposed to francophone culture.

c) In many countries there is a lack of understanding about “evidence-based” practice and assessment which is problematic in the health care area where HINARI plays a role.

In other words, it will take time for current generations entering schools to develop these habits of mind and skills. There is an urgent need to introduce these skills into faculty at the post secondary level.

The other piece that can advance the use is the introduction of smart “bots”, both analytical and “predictive” analytics to assist in this transition.

This same issue appears in many forms within the “development” community not just in accessing information but in a variety of practices such as agriculture and community development. The literature is deep but still, even for developed country organizations, there is a similar problem in applying evidence-based practice.

What is CCC’s processing fee for? That is a significant cost in this context.

This is the fee that CCC charge publishers not users – I am amending the post as well to make this clear

Labels aside (public access vs. open access vs. free access), one of the unsung heroes over the past 15+ years in providing free research content to developing areas has been HighWire Press’ program, which many non-profit publishers participate in. Every journal I’ve worked with that has been on HighWire has participated, giving free content to dozens of countries. The precedent HighWire set years ago is so normal now that other platform providers (Silverchair, Atypon) support similar approaches. These approaches don’t take any umbrella brand to adjudicate access as they are IP-based, the overheads are minimal, and they seem to work rather well. In fact, they may work so well that nobody realizes it.

Thank you noting HighWire Press as an important unsung hero.

As a member of the R4L Executive Committee, I can attest to knowledge of and support for HighWire Press’ efforts to provide free access to the global research community. Alice’s post and the comments highlight the many challenges to closing the scientific knowledge gap between the industrialized countries and the developing world, and why multiple efforts coming at the problem from different angles from a broad range of actors in the scholarly communication space are needed.

Thanks for highlighting these important initiatives, and for drawing attention to INASP’s work. Publishers, funders and other capacity building organisations working together have made a really important contribution to the research base in many developing countries.

I think that what the last decade or so of access work has also made absolutely clear is that making the content available is one step (although an essential one!) in tackling the problem of access to research. Training and support to librarians to manage this access (institutionally and via consortia), and to researchers and students to find and use these resources is vital. There’s an important ‘demand’ aspect to access too, namely that access needs to be part of a scholarly and scientific system which means people in Southern universities and research institutes need to make use of these materials – because they’re doing research and want to (and can) get their work published, or because lecturers demand it of their students. The latter often demands some significant improvements to course curricula and new approaches to teaching.

You (and Tom in his comment) also make an important point about the very significant IT constraints that often constrain access. Something we’ve observed over the last few years is that while there have been some substantial investments in broadband infrastructure (undersea cables, and increasingly the terrestrial networks to deliver this connectivity across countries), often it is the last mile – or even the last few hundred metres – where connectivity fails. The problem is often poorly configured campus networks, which highlights a need for more skilled IT engineers on university campuses, as well as investments in hardware. We’re piloting some work with national research and education networks (the HE/research broadband purchasing and infrastructure networks) in 3 African countries, to enable them to provide more training and support to campus level engineers.

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