Open Access plays a vital role in developing-country research communication

In an article first published in a special Open Access-themed edition of  ISMTE’s EON Magazine, INASP’s Andy Nobes considers Open Access and its role in developing-country research communication.

Open Access (OA) has always resonated strongly with INASP’s vision of improving access, production, and use of research in developing countries. We meet many researchers, journal editors, and librarians who are passionate about OA as a means of revolutionising access and research communication (both locally and internationally), aiding global collaboration, and helping them to reach their development goals. Knowledge and implementation of OA principles amongst researchers is growing but remains patchy across different regions, and there are many misconceptions about what it means in practice. Meanwhile, OA journal publishing in the global South is progressing, but there are still barriers to overcome.

Confusion over definitions of Open Access

In our work with researchers in lower-middle income countries in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, we have identified some confusion over the meaning and purpose of OA. This is reflected in a recent policy report from the Institute of Development Studies that notes there is an “uneven geography of OA awareness and adoption.” [1] The perceived lack of access to pay-walled research literature from the global North is still a major issue for researchers, and this dominates discussions and narratives about OA. Many researchers are unaware of what research is available to them through access initiatives like Research4Life (HINARI, AGORA, OARE, and ARDI), and the work that INASP has done to support library consortia to negotiate affordable access to subscription journal collections from major publishers. In addition, availability of research information does not always mean that researchers can easily get it—there are still issues of infrastructure, discoverability, and accessibility, as many found when analysing research access in the context of the Ebola crisis. [2]

Discussions on the AuthorAID discussion list (an INASP group where researchers from all parts of the world can discuss writing and research communication issues) have revealed that researchers are also not always aware of the different publishing models and the options available to them when deciding where to publish their research. There is confusion over the role of article processing charges (APCs) charged by OA journals; some mistakenly believe that these charges apply to subscription journals as well. OA is often viewed cynically, and APCs are sometimes regarded as just another commercial exploitation of scholarship by the global North; it’s not well known that many publishers offer APC waivers for developing country authors.

OA publishing has seen an explosive growth in China, where it is now supported very publicly at an institutional and government level [3] and in Brazil, where government funders have provided infrastructure and software support for OA publishing.[4] In lower-income countries, the OA movement is more likely to be driven by high-profile individual advocates, grass roots movements,[5] and institutional libraries. During Open Access Week 2015, INASP provided small grants for libraries to run OA advocacy events in Cuba, Kenya, India, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. [6] These activities had significant impact on the countries and regions at which they were aimed. In Tanzania, for example, the grants helped build awareness of OA medical research resources amongst rural healthcare practitioners. In Zimbabwe, the Open Access Week workshops laid important groundwork towards plans for a national OA mandate.


Audience participation at Midlands State University OA event in Zimbabwe last year.

Southern researchers tend to be cautious about sharing data, and can be wary about being exploited, sometimes with good reason, as in the case of some collaborations with researchers in the North. [7] Many require support in developing their skills and capacity in data management and may not be aware of tools and technologies available.

Young researchers are often the pioneers of OA thinking in their countries, but they must work within a conservative academic community that has largely attempted to replicate Northern publishing models and promotion systems, perhaps with one eye on the global university ranking systems. [8] Governments and institutions in the South are increasingly importing the “publish or perish” model [9] as a way to increase scientific output, and focusing mostly on quantity of publications. It is in this context that “predatory” journals have emerged.

The response to “predatory publishing”

The appearance and rapid growth of “predatory” journals, which many associate with OA, is a serious problem for Southern research. Many unsuspecting researchers have lost valuable research to questionable, non–peer-reviewed journals that are unlikely to be read and used.

As Digital Science’s Phill Jones recently argued, [10] the “success” of predatory publishing is part of a much larger problem that could be termed “information inequality.” Researchers in the South may be detached from our information-rich dialogues and academic circles in the North, and many are simply not aware of the latest developments in OA and scholarly publishing.

Researchers need more support and advice, not just from their local supervisors, mentors, and librarians, but also from publishers and the international academic community. INASP has teamed up with organizations such as BioMed Central, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) to launch the “Think. Check. Submit.” campaign, a checklist resource to help researchers identify trustworthy journals. INASP also runs AuthorAID online courses in research writing, which cover issues around OA. In our recent Research Writing MOOC, [11] which involved over 1,000 early-career researchers, some of the hot topics in the discussions forums were predatory publishing, OA, and APCs; and it was clear that we need to do more to educate upcoming researchers on both the benefits and the hazards in the world of OA.

Mentoring is a crucial element for early-career researchers. These young researchers have great ideas on how to make a difference in their country and want to contribute to the global pool of knowledge, but often lack senior mentors who can help them unlock their potential. AuthorAID’s online mentoring system allows researchers to connect with more experienced researchers around the world who can help them publish and communicate their research. Many researchers are looking for help not just with their writing, but with data and statistics, and dealing with the publishing process. We are also increasingly seeing face-to-face mentoring and journals clubs develop at universities in our partner countries, and this is something that we want to support and encourage.

The role of regional OA journals

The rise of predatory journals has also created further challenges to journals based in developing countries, which have subsequently been viewed with more suspicion in both the North and South. INASP believes these local journals play an important role in communicating Southern research. Through the Journals Online Project, we have helped develop a number of online OA platforms, beginning in 1998 with the African Journals Online (AJOL) platform, which is now managed in South Africa. More recently, we have set up Latin American Journals Online (LAMJOL) which hosts journals in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In Asia, Bangladesh Journals Online (BanglaJOL), Nepal Journals Online (NepJOL), and Sri Lankan Journals Online (SLJOL) have continued to grow and around 95% of articles are full-text OA.

INASP has worked to build local capacity in OA publishing by training journal editors in best practices in journal quality, copyediting, peer review, copyright statements, combating plagiarism, [12] and ethics. We are now developing an online journal quality course that we will be piloting in 2016; the aim is to make this available to a wider audience of journal editors in lower-middle income countries.


Bangladesh journal editors working on their online content at an INASP Journal Quality Workshop in Dhaka.

As well as providing a “stepping stone” for early-career researchers, local journals can often be the best place to communicate locally relevant research to the community, practitioners, and policymakers (particularly if English is not the main academic language). A common problem in many countries is research going unpublished. This is particularly evident in the South, where researchers may lack the confidence and research-writing skills to get published; local journals can provide a more accessible route for communicating this research.

OA models in developing countries

OA publishing in the South has evolved quite differently from the global North—free online access has been the default since journals started moving online, simply because it’s the best way to disseminate content, and in the absence of a payment platform. Some established local journals have found that the switch to electronic content has driven down costs, having previously relied on distribution of print copies. This contrasts with the evolution of OA in the global North, where longstanding journals have made a much more tentative move to OA because the business model relies on subscriptions.

OA publishing continues to evolve at different speeds in different developing regions. Latin America has always been a leader, with 70-80% of journals now OA [13] and a well-established online platform in SciELO, which was launched in 1997. The Latin American academic community has a strong OA philosophy, supporting regional Spanish-language journals that provide an important outlet for research that follows local and national research agendas rather than those of the global North.

The African approach to OA is more of a mixture: AJOL has 513 journals, of which 202 are OA. The AJOL website provides a credit card payment system that many of the journals use to charge users (from outside of developing countries) for downloading content. This may have influenced some of the journals to decide against full OA. Some African editors and researchers are more cautious of OA for a variety of reasons: existing journals may be reliant on print subscriptions, and there are concerns about a perceived loss of intellectual property, or the sustainability/stability of internet access and content.

In South Asia, there are some conservative philosophies about journal publishing, but a greater willingness to reap the benefits of a wider audience with OA. Almost all journals on NepJOL, BanglaJOL, and SLJOL, set up in 2007, 2008, and 2009, respectively, have been OA from the beginning.

But is this really OA as we understand it in the North?

Whether these emerging communities of OA publishing fit with our Northern definitions of OA, or the Budapest Declaration definition, is open to interpretation.

There is a limited understanding of copyright and licensing issues in many developing countries. OA is often associated with no copyright and in fact there is a strong feeling, often among young people, that access to digital resources is a human right. In the absence of education on intellectual property, this can result in an increase in piracy and illegal download sites.

In Southern OA publishing, we have found that developing and stating copyright policy is quite a low priority, despite a strong OA or “free access to all” ethic. In Latin America, journal editors are strongly pro-OA, but few are aware of Creative Commons. In Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, around 40% of journals we work with have provided an online copyright statement, and only 40 journals out of over 300 currently use a Creative Commons licence (24 of which are CC BY). It’s worth noting that this situation is similar for OA journals in China [3] and Latin America (except Brazil). [13] OA journals. This is very much a work in progress for Southern OA journals, but there is a clear OA philosophy among editors. We recently surveyed our South Asian journal editors, and presented the statement “Research should be free to share, reuse and adapt with no restrictions (as long as the creator and publisher is credited)”; 44% strongly agreed and 23% agreed. We expect clear copyright policy and Creative Commons usage to improve significantly as we strongly recommend that the journals we work with apply for DOAJ indexing.

Is Southern OA publishing sustainable?

In contrast to most Gold OA journals in the North, which are mostly paid for by APCs, very few developing-country journals charge an APC (and if they do, they are significantly less than Northern journals). Most journals are run by volunteers — for example, in our recent Bangladesh Publishing survey we found that over 50% of Bangladeshi journals run without any financial assistance at all. [15] Where journals are funded, the majority of funding and support is provided by the universities/medical colleges, societies, or research facilities that are associated with the journal. It is this buy-in from societies and institutions (who often gain some prestige and additional visibility) that differentiates them from predatory publications and provides some long-term stability. It could be argued that this non-profit, institutionally supported model is more like a “platinum” or “diamond” OA model, [16] where neither the author nor the reader pays.


Open Access Week Symposium organised by the Federation of African Medical Students Association (FAMSA) in Nigeria.

The sustainability of regional OA journals depends not just on funding, but whether they can overcome other structural barriers that threaten their existence. The most pronounced of these is the problem of indexing. Research councils and boards award researchers points for promotion based on being published in “indexed” journals, or journals with a high Impact Factor. Very few Southern journals are indexed in Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed, and although many editors have worked hard to improve their journals’ quality and policies, the main stumbling block is that they struggle to consistently attract enough quality submissions per year because local researchers are being driven to publish in indexed journals — somewhat of a vicious cycle.

This has led some journals to seek alternative indexing and metrics to prove their worth, and so open themselves up to exploitation from yet another “predatory” player on the market — fake indices and metrics that charge journals for the privilege of their dubious “Impact Factor.” [17] We continue to offer support and advice to Southern journals on dealing with this problem. AJOL will also shortly be piloting a rigorous three-star classification system to highlight the many good-quality African journals, and provide emerging journals with a clear goal to emulate.

The future of OA in the Global South

The goal of OA has always been to improve the flow of research knowledge both from the global North to the global South and vice versa from South to North. There are still many barriers to making this happen in a sustainable way, not least the issue of general information inequality. The OA movement is growing, but at different paces in different regions of the global South. Southern researchers and editors need continued support from all actors in the publishing world to fully realise the benefits of OA for their research and development goals and to put them on an equal footing with the North.

Author’s Note: INASP recently carried out OA surveys for authors and journal editors in our partner countries. We will report back the full results of these surveys at the ISMTE Asia conference in Singapore on 4-5 April 2016.


1 Gray E, Chattapadhyay S, Wiens K, et al. Is open access only for rich countries? Policy recommendations from a series of global open access dialogues undertaken in late 2012 and early 2013. Posted 2013. OpenAccess_only_for_rich_countries.pdf. Accessed February 4, 2016.

2 Powell A. Scholarly kitchen guest post: INASP’s Anne Powell — availability does not equal access. Scholarly Kitchen. Posted 2015. http://scholarlykitchen. Accessed January 28, 2016.

3 Zhang DX. Development of open access in China: strategies, practices, challenges. Insights. 2014;27: 45-50. CrossRef.

4 Van Noorden R. Brazil fêtes open-access site. Nature. 2013;502. CrossRef

5 A great example of this is the Open Nepal Initiative started by organisations such as the NGO Federation of Nepal and Young Innovations

6 INASP. Open access week competition winners 2015. Posted 2015. training-resources/grants-and-competitions/ open-access-week-competition/open-access-week-competition-winners-2015/. Accessed January 15, 2016.

7 For an interesting viewpoint from a group of Thai researchers see Tangcharoensathien V, Boonperm J, Jongudomsuk P. Sharing health data: developing country perspectives. Bull World Health Organ. 2010;88:468-469. CrossRef

8 In a chapter in UNESCO’s 2010 World Social Science Report, Saleem Badat calls this “The value of uncritical mimicry of and ‘catching up’ with the so-called world-class university.”

9 See the recent letter in The BMJ: Abubakar KM. “Publish or perish” is good for African research. BMJ. 2016;352:i121. CrossRef

10 Jones P. Predatory publishing isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of information inequality. Digital Science Perspectives. Posted 2015. https://www. Accessed January 2, 2016.

11 Nobes A. AuthorAID’s first research writing MOOC attracts over 1000 developing country researchers. AuthorAID website. Posted 2016. Accessed January 2016.

12 INASP have also provided journal editors with access to the iThenticate plagiarism detection software (see

13 Adams C. Open access in Latin America: embraced as key to visibility of research. SPARC. Posted 2013. Accessed February 2016.

14 Ouya D, Smart P. Open access survey of Africa-published journals. Paper presented at the CODESRIA-ASC Conference Series 2006. http://

15 INASP. INASP survey of Bangladesh publishers provides learning points on practices, trends and challenges. details/165/. Accessed January 20, 2016.

16 Fuchs C, Sandoval M. The diamond model of open access publishing: why policy makers, scholars, universities, libraries, labour unions and the publishing world need to take non-commercial, non-profit open access seriously. triple C. 2013. http://www.triple-c. at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/502. Accessed January 28, 2015.

17 I cautiously link to Jeffrey Beall’s list of “Misleading Metrics” for more information on this.

Andy Nobes
Andy Nobes is a Programme Coordinator at INASP.

2 Responses to “Open Access plays a vital role in developing-country research communication

  • Lal Bahadur Chouhan
    8 years ago

    I am very grateful for your effort for developing countries. Thank you so much.

  • nageswararao ch
    8 years ago

    It is very informative about open access in south and north and very good effort to developing countries. thank you very much sir