Going beyond paywalls: Open up world of science with new policy

January 12, 2021 5:00 AM

Supporting research dissemination, in addition to supporting research itself, can be a significant step towards facilitating science in India; it can even be a model for other countries to emulate

The criteria adopted to select journals for bulk subscription will also be crucial. It will be essential to develop our own methods for assessing journal quality and relevance, akin in principle to the UGC-CARE protocol.The criteria adopted to select journals for bulk subscription will also be crucial. It will be essential to develop our own methods for assessing journal quality and relevance, akin in principle to the UGC-CARE protocol.

By Soham D Bhaduri

It is surprising to note that, in today’s age, a fair share of scientific knowledge should remain behind paywalls. The ideal of free knowledge sharing is at least a couple of centuries old, however, the academic publishing world has been rather slow to embrace it. While scientific knowledge can be freely shared, it is formidably costly to produce. The costs of producing research in journals, including the rigorous scrutiny that such information is subjected to, often militate against such a free-sharing model, making it financially unsustainable for publishers. There are two unfortunate implications of this: first, prohibitive subscription charges often create inequities in access to research, particularly in the context of low- and middle-income countries; and second, a business model evolved to cover such costs often ends up turning scientific knowledge into a “prestige good” that is priced based on the perceived value of the journal or publisher.

The recently released draft Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020 professes an ‘open science framework’ with two notable features: free access to outputs from publicly-funded research, including access to publicly-funded libraries and learning spaces; and a “one nation, one subscription” policy to enable access to journal articles across India against centrally-negotiated payments made to journal publishers. On the surface, the potential benefits of these are obvious: watering down of barriers to accessing cutting edge scientific knowledge (which is crucial to facilitate further research), and greater transparency and accountability in public-funded research.

Underneath the obvious, however, the policy marks an important paradigm shift, of the state committing itself not only to funding research but also its dissemination. Research has significant merit good characteristics, at least as far as its positive externalities are concerned. An important part of realising these externalities, and thus the full spectrum of benefits that research could yield, is to disseminate research widely. But while research has traditionally received a fair degree of public exchequer support, the publishing and dissemination process has not. It is near infeasible for the taxpayer to fund all of academic publishing. However, supporting research dissemination, in addition to supporting research itself, can be a significant step towards facilitating science in India and other LMICs, and if successfully implemented, can even be a model for other countries to emulate. It is also possible to envision certain desirable spin-offs, such as concessional publication charges for authors in leading international journals, in return for bulk journal subscriptions obtained by the government.

The merits of the policy, again, will be a function of how well it is implemented. For example, pricing of bulk subscriptions will be a crucial factor, mainly for those journals with a predominantly Indian readership. Journals and publishers vary considerably with respect to their business models, and setting rates that appropriately factor in publishing peculiarities will be important. Here, it is possible to draw an analogy between purchasing journal subscriptions and purchasing health care under a government health insurance scheme. Pricing will send important signals to publishers, and too low rates could have a significant impact on the quality of published science, especially if publishers have more to lose by not participating in a bulk subscription programme. The government should not behave like a near-sighted monopsonistic purchaser, as is often the case when it purchases healthcare from the private sector. To facilitate good science, upholding quality will be indispensable, and any bulk subscription programme needs to have mechanisms to ensure and monitor it right from the outset.

The criteria adopted to select journals for bulk subscription will also be crucial. It will be essential to develop our own methods for assessing journal quality and relevance, akin in principle to the UGC-CARE protocol. Solely relying on criteria like journal impact factors and indexation will unduly weigh the selection in favour of some Western ‘glamour’ journals and against some genuinely good Indian counterparts. Here, it may come into conflict with another stated objective of the new STIP—that of promoting Indian journals. On the other hand, while the bulk subscription policy is mainly intended to increase access by doing away with prohibitive individual subscriptions, it can also be a useful tool to promote good quality but under-represented Indian journals through their preferential selection. The fact that they have high relevance for an Indian readership makes for a stronger case in their favour. While the eventual salvation of Indian academic publishing lies in publishing high-quality research, there could be some indirect benefits of this measure, such as providing leading Indian researchers with an added incentive to publish more often in some Indian journals over Western journals.

One should not forget, that in the quest to further science and research in the country, an open science policy can at best be a useful adjunct—ultimately, it is how much we invest in the sciences that are of central importance. Efforts to support the dissemination of research without investing heavily in the research ecosystem itself will be nugatory, and we have traditionally performed sub-optimally at the latter. The draft STIP proposes several measures to expand the financial landscape of research and innovation, which is promising, but the same should not receive mere lip service and be overridden by newfound priorities of open science. That would defeat science itself.

The author is Chief editor of The Indian Practitioner, a peer-reviewed medical journal, and a public-health physician
Views are personal

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