Putting research knowledge at the center of development: a Q&A with Sue Corbett of INASP, Part I
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Last week, the Wiley Exchanges blog posted two interviews with INASP’s Executive Director Sue Corbett. We share those interviews in this post and the next.

(The Wiley Exchanges version of part 1 is here).

It’s easy to take access to research, and all that comes with it, for granted in the developed world, but as this interview with Sue Corbett, Executive Director of INASP, reminds us, there’s still much work to do in improving access and services for researchers in developing countries.  INASP plays a critical role in this, so that countries can solve their own development challenges.

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Q. Can you tell us about your background and how and why you got involved with INASP?
A. My first career was in scientific publishing and I spent almost 30 years at Blackwell Publishing and then at Wiley.  I enjoyed it immensely and it’s great now to have an opportunity to greet some of my ex-colleagues and some of Wiley’s society partners and their members who follow this blog.

In late 2011, I was in the Himalayas in India when I got a call from a Wiley colleague who is also a trustee of INASP, asking if I would be willing to take on an interim CEO assignment at the organization.  I was just about to leave for a two-week silent meditation retreat but something in me was prepared to say “yes” despite knowing very little about it.  After six months, I was caught by the significance of INASP’s mission. I was excited by the opportunity to engage with partners in many countries who are passionate, energetic and really committed to developing research, higher education and the good of their respective nations.  It is a huge privilege to have this fascinating second career.

Q. What is INASP and how is it helping improve access to information in the developing world?
A. INASP is a charity that was born in 1992 from the vision that research should be at the heart of development.  The early goal was to enable developing countries to access the world’s scientific literature – something that could start to happen once journals went online.  Many publishers have been very supportive from the start. Their consistent support of discounted pricing has meant that libraries in many countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America now have access to a wide range of literature.

But a productive, scientific culture is about much more than having books and journals in the library. We also support researchers in communicating their work; ICT staff to ensure literature can be downloaded; and journal editors and local publishers who need to publish online to international standards.

Recently, we began a major program of work with government policymakers in Africa to understand and use research evidence in decision making. This “evidence-informed policymaking” work helps to close the loop and ensure that research really will be at the heart of social and economic development.

Rickshaw photo

I am sure this all sounds like a Good Thing. But I want to go further and suggest why it is important and urgent for the world as a whole. I can illustrate this with a story from my recent visit to Bangladesh. At left is a photograph from the rickshaw we were sitting in, stuck in a traffic jam in Dhaka that consisted of nothing but rickshaws. For me, it was an in-your-face realization of what faces a city of 15 million people, set to grow to more than 30 million in the next 10 years. The decisions made about water, food and energy for Dhaka will ripple out, not just to the region, but also, in a world of finite resource and global markets, to all of us.  It is in the interests of everybody that relevant research should inform those decisions.

Q. What role do publishers currently play in your work and do you expect this to change in future?
A. We are very grateful for publishers’ continuing support for discounted pricing. We recently proposed a set of guidelines for responsible engagement for those publishers that are now moving toward direct, commercial relationships in some countries. We urge everyone to read and consider those guidelines and to continue supporting affordable access in all those countries that cannot yet find the funding for direct purchases.

Our Publishers for Development forum enables publishers to engage with those issues and with the bigger picture of our work. Our annual meeting in August was a great opportunity to discuss the vital role that publishers play in maximizing access to research to support academics in developing countries. You can read more about this in our recent newsletter, and watch the presentations.

Below are some of our guidelines for publishers about responsible engagement in developing countries

  • Make an effort to understand the country context, which institutions are members of the consortium, and what their needs are. Try to look beyond the capital city – connectivity for each is often very different. You can do this through direct discussion with the consortium, but also by participating in Publishers for Development events.
  • Where a country wishes to negotiate as a consortium or purchasing club, respect this– don’t try to find alternative routes and don’t withdraw access before or during negotiations. It could damage reputations and relationships.
  • Don’t make sudden changes – if you wish to develop a direct relationship, communicate with the consortium or national coordinating body early to explain your plans, and give them time to prepare. A three to five year plan for engagement is likely to make for a more effective transition.
  • Think medium to long term on pricing and be realistic about your sales expectations. Budgets won’t have increased just because countries are able and willing to deal directly with publishers. Where increases are needed, make these affordable, incremental and predictable.
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About Sue Corbett

Sue Corbett is the Executive Director at INASP.
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