The Institute of Development Studies (IDS), based in the UK, is a leading global charity for international development research, teaching and communications. Alistair Scott is an Information Systems Manager with its Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) programme.
Alistair explains what they do:
We work with partners in developing countries to build a bridge from research to policy and practice. We do this by delivering open access information products and services such as Joto Afrika – an East African briefing series on Climate Change Adaptation which was developed jointly between ourselves and the Kenyan organisation ALIN (Arid Lands Information Network).
Researchers from across the world (including our own IDS) have repeatedly shown that the appropriate use of research saves lives, reduces poverty and improves the quality of life for people living in developing countries. Development policy and practice should always be based on evidence and understanding of what has worked in similar contexts. But for this to happen, research needs to be made as accessible as possible — both to the decision-makers themselves and to the people and organisations that seek to influence them.
When fighting began in Libya last year, the IDS’s Human Development Resource Centre helped guide decisions about what kind of UK medical supplies and personnel to send to Misrata — making sure these decisions were informed by appropriate information and analysis. And on World Aids Day, 1st December 2011, HDRC collated and presented research which helped persuade the UK Government to supply 13.5 million more female condoms to women in developing countries.
But what about research within developing countries themselves?
Research makes an invaluable contribution to tackling poverty. In South Africa basic foods like brown bread, maize meal, rice, vegetables and fruit have been zero-rated for tax for some time. But paraffin, which poor people use for cooking, lighting and heating, used to be subject to VAT. Research by the South Africa Women’s Budget Initiative showed that removing tax from paraffin would cause only a minor loss of government revenue (less than 1% of all VAT revenue) and that, because poor households use paraffin much more than rich ones, removing the duty on paraffin was an excellent way to specifically target help for the poor. A few years after the research was published the tax on paraffin was indeed lifted.
So what’s the situation for people in developing countries who need access to scholarly research?
It isn’t nearly as accessible as it could be. India’s 300 University-level institutions and 13,000 affiliated colleges all struggle to pay journal subscription fees.
Is open access the answer? It’s part of the answer, but in its present form not a complete solution:
When southern researchers try to publish their work in Open Access journals they can be deterred by the high author fees. OA journals based on the “author-pays” or “institution-pays” business models can be prohibitively expensive for researchers and their host institutions.
Yet where credible, public-funded and genuinely Open Access outlets do exist, the results can be transformational. The story of Sumant Vyas, Senior Scientist at NRC Camel, Bikaner, is a typical one. As a newly qualified PhD graduate with a long list of unpublished essays, he struggled to be accepted for postdoctoral research fellowships because he couldn’t afford the author fees for credible OA journals. But when he started using OpenMed, an EU-funded Open Access portal, his fortunes changed. He was accepted for a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). The selection committee were able to read his articles through Google Scholar linked to OpenMed. Vyas believes that OpenMed “played an important role” in his appointment.
The demand for Open Access is increasingly coming from researchers and research users in developing countries themselves. But there is a common perception in many developing countries that OA discussions are mostly dominated by those in northern, developed countries. So one of our aims is to help to get southern voices heard in what should be a truly global debate about Open Access.