News - March 13, 2008

‘Open access is vital for development research’

Researchers, funding agencies and publishers in the wealthy nations should actively work to eliminate the barriers that still prevent many colleagues in developing countries from accessing relevant research results. ‘The main obstacles are no longer technological but have to do with licensing and access control,’ says Wageningen malaria researcher Dr Bart Knols.

‘Developing countries are now more connected than ever before, and the digital infrastructure that now exists has the potential to transform access to knowledge,’ state Knols and Matthew Cockerill about the open access publisher BioMed Central in the current edition of Issues in Science and Technology. The initiatives to provide free or low-cost online access to relevant life-sciences research journals, such as HINARI, AGORA and OARE, only offer a partial solution, says Knols. ‘They look like open access, but there are still a lot of restrictions and login requirements. You can access the journals if you’re in your institute, but not from an internet café. And countries like Gabon and South Africa are generally excluded because they their national income is above the standard. These initiatives are second best. We need real open access to make a difference.’
A striking example is the Malaria Journal, an open-access journal launched in 2002, which has become a global leader in its field, with the highest impact factor in the tropical medicine category. ‘The success indicates there was significant demand for information about the disease even though there was limited money to pay for it,’ claim Knols and Cockerill. It provides a platform for collaboration between researchers in the developed and developing countries. ‘The challenge now is to extend this success to other areas.’
‘Funders of research aimed at development should require grant recipients to make their results universally accessible,’ says Knols. ‘But we also need other ways to measure the success of a research journal: not just the impact among fellow researchers in number of citations, but the real impact it has on public health. Research should not aim at filling libraries. I bet funding agencies would be very interested in research with a high societal impact factor.’
MalariaWorld, an e-publication that Knols launched together with his partner Ingeborg van Schayk, is another example of how global knowledge transfer can be improved, he claims. The free-of-charge e-bulletin provides those interested in malaria research with a weekly electronic overview of the latest publications, news, events, jobs and training opportunities, and has a circulation of about 2700. The results of a subscribers’ survey indicate that readers save an average of 4.6 hours every week on searching for this kind of information. ‘It means scientists can spend more time on research. We try to find innovative ways of sponsoring to make sure this service is available for free to all who need it.’