By Rajesh Dey
On August 25, the US announced an open access policy to ensure free, immediate and equitable access to federally-funded research. Americans will now have free access to scholarly works, and by 2025, all federal agencies have to implement open access policies to ensure taxpayer-funded research is freely accessible to all citizens. India could follow this path, which may change the country’s higher education landscape and can be a vital tool for achieving SDG goals.
The US’s announcement is significant as it will end ‘serial crisis’ of 50 years. The Open Access (OA) movement started around 1990 in response to ‘serial crisis’, the term used to explain chronic increase of subscription costs, of serial scholarly content publication, at a much faster rate than the Consumer Price Index or inflation rate; reasonably so, academic libraries’ funds could not keep up with the increase. Scholarly content is a unique commodity and cannot be replaced with a less costly title or journal subscription.
Thus, the price inelasticity of this monopolist market has been taken advantage of by selected commercial corporates (publishers) who do not produce or fund the research but use it as a raw material for commerce. Serial crisis also gave rise to shadow libraries like Library Genesis, Z-Library and Sci-Hub.
Countries have addressed series crisis in two ways: one is known as ‘Big Deal’ and another as ‘Open Access (OA)’. The Big Deal is subscribing to numerous scholarly publications centrally for a country or a network of institutions; OA is no-cost access to research works published as journal articles or book. OA extends beyond simply making research output freely accessible and includes the right for others to reuse that research. Since most research is funded by the government with taxpayers’ money—meaning the citizens indirectly fund it—the citizens therefore have the right to access the research output. OA can improve the verifiability and credibility of research output and taxpayers can also see the impact of the research they have funded.
During Covid-19, policymakers worldwide saw how making medical research open can make a significant difference in saving lives. “The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually. There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research,” said the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Alondra Nelson. “It can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.”
Early development of the OA movement happened in European countries; the Budapest Initiative in 2002 and the Bethesda Statement in 2003 are major milestones. All major German research institutions signed the Berlin Declaration in 2003 to make OA mandatory. In 2018, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council, key funding organisations decided to follow OA. Two main research funding agencies of the Australian government followed the same path. A few countries, like Uruguay, followed the ‘Big Deal’ model. Recently, India promised a ‘one nation, one subscription’ (ONOS) policy to get subscriptions for all citizens of major research work published globally, a step up from the existing subscription policy through the central library consortium e-ShodhSindhu. ONOS can be a prolific policy but whether it can address the issue of serial crisis is still a question.
The OA dialogue started in India in 2004. The Indian government has taken initiatives to make research output, educational resources and data open. Institutes starting from BIT-Rourkela, CSIR and ICAR adopted OA. The Ministry of Science & Technology’s two top divisions, the DBT and the DST, espoused the OA policy in 2014. Recently, the ‘Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy: 2020’ advocated for open science and making research available through a central repository. OA transpires in two ways, either archiving the work in an open online repository or to publish the work in an OA journal or book. India has 128 OA repositories and reservoirs including the Shodhganga, the world’s largest reservoir of Indian theses. OA repositories have some limitations, as these don’t follow standards of research publication including the absence of digital identifiers (ISBN, ISSN, DOI) for global indexing.
Many initiatives were taken in India to join global OA initiatives and a draft National Open Access Policy was prepared in 2017, but it is yet to be implemented. In the context of rapid expansion of higher education in India, the National Open Access Policy can be quite a significant step. OA increases public engagement with research and promotes inequality by providing equitable access to all citizens, irrespective of their social and economic status, besides providing students from rural or semi-rural areas a fighting chance in the competitive world. OA has an equalising effect, which is much-needed for a developing country with young aspirant demographics like India.
The author is an independent researcher and publishing professional. Views are personal.
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By Rajesh Dey