doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.162 Published online 29 November 2013

Is India ready for the open access revolution?

Despite initial criticism, scientists, information experts and publishers agree that the future of scientific publishing lies in the open access model. How is India waking up to the phenomenon that's changing the face of science publishing globally?

Subhra Priyadarshini

The open data revolution is here to stay — be it in scientific publishing, learning or the music and arts. The buzz seems to be: go open, create common repositories and make data accessible to as many people as possible. At the heart of this revolution is the internet, a tool India has embraced with gusto.

The country is now taking baby steps to make the best of this global revolution. Experts at a series of meets in New Delhi on the future of scientific publishing and how India can gear up to meet the challenges felt that it is only a matter of time before open access becomes central to dissemination of peer-reviewed science.

New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), for instance, is one of the first in the country to work towards an 'open access policy' at the institutional level. The policy will have a separate budget to allow authors to pay the open access fee to journals to ensure their work gets published in the best journals. One of the issues facing Indian scientists trying to publish in quality journals with the 'author pays' model is the non-availability of funds."Nothing is this world is free," says JNU librarian Ramesh Gaur.

"Everything has a cost. Who will bear the cost of publishing on behalf of authors and who will subsidise these costs are the key questions," he says. JNU's open access policy will try to overcome this problem by making sure that authors do not have to dig into their research grants to get published, he says.

Indian universities are realising the need for good scientific writing skills for their researchers. A scietific writing workshop in progress at JNU.

JNU Vice-Chancellor Sudhir Sopori, who has published his research work in high impact open access journals, says India has to wake up to these new challenges. The university is looking at increasing the number of papers by its faculty members and research scholars through scientific writing workshops. Sopori says he is mulling over a summer school of sorts where researchers can hone their skills of writing and submitting papers to high impact international journals.

The open access formula has met bouquets and brickbats ever since it was adopted by leading publishing houses following the masive open data movement globally.

Funds an issue for Indian researchers

Sudha Bhattacharya, dean of JNU's school of environment sciences, who has been publishing in high impact open access journals, says scientists like her are "very much affected by open access — both in positive and negative ways".

"We still do not have a critical mass of researchers in any given area. In the era before open access, the one way to learn about what's happening in your research area was by going to conferences. With open access, information on almost anything is much more accessible and it's possible to know what's happening in research across the globe," she says.

However, the difficulty lies in where to publish once the scientist is ready with the paper, Bhattacharya says. Impact factor of a journal is one criterion she falls back upon despite the debate on its veracity as a foolproof indicator of scientific excellence.

"However, in the absence of a better indicator, we have to live with impact factor as the decider," she points out adding this is where Indian researchers are at a loss. "We don't have great funding models, where do we get funds to publish our research? Quite a big chunk of our research grant, as of now, goes into publishing papers. We really need to subsidise this somehow."

Open access, a game changer

Scientific publishers are looking at open access publishing as a game changer. James Butcher, associate director of open publishing at Nature Publishing Group (NPG) says the fastest growing regions in this regard are Europe, Asia and North America. "NPG started open access publishing in 2005. The web traffic to our open access articles has gone up from 5.5 million in 2012 to 7.2 million between January and August 2013," he says. As the year closes, the 2013 web traffic is expected to get almost double that of 2012, he says.

NPG Associate Editor for open publishing James Butcher says Asia has joined the open access movement big time.

Butcher, who "lives and breathes open access", says another new trend is to publish raw data without analysis. NPG's Scientific Data is an example of a peer-reviewed open access publication that publishes data without describing any new result and is focused on data reuse. The aim, he says, is to promote community data repositories.

Raw data is becoming more important than its analysis, even in the education sector, says H Anil Kumar, librarian and head of the National Information Centre on Management (NICMAN) at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

"Open access is an inevitable model. However, funding it is an issue in India," he says calling for partnerships between various stakeholders involved. Kumar also emphasises that western business models for publishing need to be tweaked to suit Indian realities.

Despite being the "boon" that it is, the open access movement has given rise to some distortions as far as the impact factors of journals are concerned, according to Subrata Sinha, director of the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC). "Also, the risk of open access in a developing country such as ours is that the not-so-well-funded scientist will become lesser and lesser visible," he says.

He has a word of caution. "Globally, there would be recognition for some well funded scientists and institutions but science dissemination for small labs might suffer."

Another issue for the success of open access in India, according to R. Madhubala, Director of JNU's Advanced Instrumentation Research Facility, is finding a pool of good reviewers who can peer-review scientific literature. Madhubala, who is on the editorial board of the multi-disciplinary open access journal Scientific Reports, says there's need to create a good pool of reviewers in the country to strengthen the peer review chain.