India suffers doubly due to lack of open access

Developing nations, especially India, increasingly face a challenge in prioritising their goals. One that has become increasingly relevant in this context, in the age of open knowledge, is the relevance of subscription journals in the dissemination of knowledge in a developing society.

The young programmer and activist Aaron Swartz from Harvard made efforts to make knowledge more accessible and committed suicide after years of fighting federal charges.

Most developed nations have realised that research funded by taxpayers' money should be made freely available to taxpayers, but awareness on these issues is quite pathetic in India - both at the policy level and among members of the academic community.

The context

Before one looks at the problem, a contextual understanding is needed.

Today a lot of research is done globally, some of it in India, and its importance in transforming nations and society is increasingly winning due recognition across nations.

Original application-oriented research, applicable specifically to the developing world, is a small part of overall global research. Some of it is done locally in India too, in spite of the two obvious constraints developing nations face: (1) lack of funds and (2) lack of capability and-or capacity.

This article argues that research, done in India with Indian taxpayers' money, should be freely available to all Indians. Unfortunately, under present practice the opposite happens.

The lack of diffusion of knowledge becomes evident in the absence of any planned efforts to make the research done in a local context available on open platforms.

When one looks at the academic community in India, it is clear that research is only deemed important if it is published in journals. Even if the journals are of questionable quality, faculty members are encouraged to publish in subscription journals.

Open access journals are considered untouchable. Faculty members mostly do not make a version of the publication freely accessible - be it on their own institution's website or in other formats online. More than 99% of Indian higher education institutes do not have any open access research content on their websites.

Simultaneously, a lot of academic scams are reported from India since measuring research contribution is a difficult task. Faculty members often fall prey to taking short-cuts around their institution's research policy in this age of mushrooming journals.

India, in its journey to be an open knowledge society, faces diverse academic challenges.

Experienced faculty members feel that making their course outlines available in the public domain would lead to others copying from them whereas younger faculty members see subscription journal publishing as the only way to build their CV. The common ill-founded perception is that top journals would not accept their paper if they made a version of it freely available.

All of the above are counter-productive to knowledge diffusion in a poor country like India.

The government of India has often talked about open course materials, but in most government-funded higher educational institutions one seldom sees even a course outline in the public domain, let alone research output.

Free knowledge for all

The question therefore is: for public-funded universities and institutions, why should any Indian user have to cough up large sums of money to access their research output?

It is an openly acknowledged truth that - barring a very few universities and institutes - most Indian colleges, universities and research organisations or even practitioners cannot afford the money required to pay for subscribing to most well known journal databases or afford individual articles therein.

It would not be wrong to say that out of 30,000 plus higher education institutions, not even 1% has a library comparable to institutions in developed nations. And academic research output, especially in social science areas, need not be used only for academic purposes.

Practitioners - farmers, practising doctors, would-be entrepreneurs, professional managers and many others - may benefit from access to research, but unfortunately almost none of them would be ready or able to shell out US$20 or more for a few pages after viewing only the abstract in a country where around 70% of people live below US$2 a day.

Open dissemination of useful academic knowledge remains therefore a neglected area in India.

Although, over the last few years, we have seen OECD nations, including China, increasingly encourage open access publishing by the academic community, in India - with its obsession with university rankings in which most of its institutions fare poorly, we are in reverse gear.

The director of one of India's best institutes has suggested that such obsessions are ill-founded, but it is difficult to move from perception of a problem to practice.

It is, therefore, not rare to see a researcher getting additional monetary rewards for publishing in top-category subscription journals with no attempt whatsoever - be it from researcher, institution or policy-makers - to make a copy of that research available online, free of cost.

The irony is that the additional reward money comes once again from taxpayers.

Unfortunately, age-old policies and practices are promoted by the media and policy-makers alike, as the nation desperately wants to show to the world that Indian researchers publish in subscription journals.

The point here is that there is nothing wrong with writing for journals, particularly for top journals, but researchers should also make a copy freely available online to any of the billion-plus Indians who may need that paper.

In the case of India, particularly in its publicly funded academic research institutes, we have not been able to produce many top category subscription journal papers, nor have we been able to make whatever research output we generate freely available online.

With regard to the quality of management research, The Economist stated in a recent article that faculty members worldwide "have too little incentive to produce usable research. Oceans of papers with little genuine insight are published in obscure periodicals that no manager would ever dream of reading".

This perfectly fits with what is happening in India. It is high time we had a look at the real impact of management and social science research rather than at journal impact factors. Real impact is greater when papers are openly accessible.

For this reason, developing and resource-poor nations like India, which need open access the most, lose out the most in the present knowledge economy.

It is time for the government and academic community to recognise the problem and ensure that research that is carried out locally is not merely published for academics to read, but made available for use to any other researcher or practitioner in India, free of cost.

Knowledge creation is important, but equally important is diffusion of that knowledge. In India, resources have been spent on knowledge creation without integrated thinking being applied to its diffusion. In the age of the internet and open access, this needs to change.

* Professor Ranjit Goswami is dean (academics) and (officiating) director of the Institute of Management Technology, Nagpur - a leading private business school in India. IMT also has campuses in Ghaziabad, Dubai and Hyderabad. He is on twitter @RanjiGoswami. The above article was first published in Open Knowledge Foundation.