Ministry sets ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ deal deadline

India will adopt a “One Nation, One Subscription” policy for scientific research papers and academic journals from April 2023 to ensure access for researchers countrywide, India’s Ministry of Education said in a letter this month to university vice-chancellors and heads of other institutions.

“One Nation, One Subscription” (ONOS) is a scheme of the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. The letter from the ministry’s Department of Higher Education said the government will negotiate with journal publishers for “all people in India” to have access to journal articles under a single centrally negotiated payment to be made by the government.

This will replace individual institutional journal subscriptions.

The ministry’s Higher Education Secretary K Sanjay Murthy said an ONOS cost negotiation committee will start negotiations with publishers “shortly” and urged vice-chancellors of centrally funded universities and directors of centrally funded technical institutes to put renewals of e-resources from 70 publishers on hold until negotiations are underway.

This would ensure renewals of e-resources are synchronised with ONOS activities and negotiations, Murthy said, adding more specific updates on negotiations with these 70 publishers would be provided on or before 15 December.

The government initially proposed the ONOS plan in late 2020, announcing it as part of the draft fifth National Science Technology and Innovation Policy , but without providing a deadline for its implementation. At the time India’s national academies of sciences said in a report that the sector spends around INR15 billion (US$184 million) a year on journal subscriptions.

The danger of prolonged negotiations

However, central negotiation of payments to journal publishers is not easy given the large number of publishers in India, according to academics, and putting subscriptions “on hold” could be a risky strategy. If negotiations are prolonged or break down it could have the opposite effect of depriving researchers of access, academics said.

“It is important that ONOS should hire the services of professional negotiators, and negotiate not only the rates of subscription but also terms and conditions of subscription and legal issues involved,” said a report released in September for the National Conclave 2021 focusing on ONOC and organised last year by the India International Centre in New Delhi.

Countries like Egypt have already negotiated such agreements internationally. Some academics note that with one of the world’s largest higher education systems and substantial research output, India would be the largest country to negotiate such deals with international publishers and as such is thought by some ministry officials to have “considerable leverage”.

Benefits of a successful deal

All educational and research institutions, including universities, colleges and research organisations, as well as “each and every person in the nation” are expected to benefit from the move, the ministry said, pointing in addition to the benefit of library access in remote areas if technical solutions can be found.

Unhindered access to scientific knowledge would narrow gaps in access among Indian institutions and would mean that smaller institutions or those with fewer resources would not be at a disadvantage in securing access to a wide range of journals. Better access to resources would also increase researcher productivity and quality, academics said.

Payal B Joshi, researcher and head of Shefali Research Laboratories, a private research establishment in Mumbai, said, “It is a bold and positive move by the education ministry of India that reflects its support for open access publications.

“The major beneficiaries of this model will be government-funded universities, institutions and independent researchers. One major challenge that is foreseen is negotiating discounts on high subscription rates by journals of repute,” she told University World News.

“If the government is successful in negotiating [down] exorbitant journal rates and improving its library repositories, it will be easier for researchers to access and publish in top-tier journals in the coming years.

“The litmus test of sustaining this model will be when journals revise their subscription rates. Whether the Indian government will keep funding these in times of rapid inflation and economic overhaul remains to be seen,” she said.

Publishers are also ‘under the axe’

Dunu Roy, founder of Delhi-based Hazards Centre, a research group focused on combating difficult and dangerous situations, said: “[Whether] the publishers will agree to it or not is an open question because publishers are also under [pressure]. For many publishers, one of the largest customers are government institutions so they will be very careful in this case.”

Roy told University World News that if subscriptions are put on hold until a deal is reached with the government, illegal access to publications will continue in some form or another.

“They [publishers] can’t stop the illegal sector. They [illegal publishers] are going to print, reprint and put it on the net. The whole principle, as we have seen unfolding over the years, is that [with every] level of restriction, there is a corresponding degree of attempting to bypass, undercut, and overrun those restrictions.”

Some fear the government could impose restrictions on journal access to put pressure on publishers to agree with the government’s terms and conditions.

“The moment you put restrictions and there is a demand for a particular commodity, the market will find ways of supplying the demand. So in fact the whole ideological underpinning – that you will open up the market and at the same time be able to regulate the market – is a very false dichotomy which cannot be solved politically,” Roy added.

For example, a group of major international journal publishers filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the Delhi High Court last year against Sci-Hub, a website offering access to ‘pirated’ versions of research papers The site is popular in India where researchers say only a few elite institutions can afford journal subscriptions.

Elsevier said in a statement, “Elsevier welcomes the Government of India’s objective to expand access to research across India and we look forward to understanding how we can support this over the coming weeks and months.”

However, it did not comment specifically on the ONOS scheme.