Centre for Internet & Society

Anubha Sinha examines the feasibility of the proposed 'One Nation, One Subscription' approach in the draft national Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2020) on access to scientific literature. This article was first published in The Wire Science on October 23, 2020.

The story of open access (OA) publishing in India has been a chequered one. While we have had some progress with institutional initiatives, the landscape remains fractured without a national OA mandate. And now some reports suggest that the Indian government is considering striking a ‘one nation, one subscription’ deal with scholarly publishers for access to paywalled research for all of India’s citizens. Only last year, India had decided against joining Plan S. K. VijayRaghavan has been at the helm of these decisions, as the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India.

OA refers to the level of access different people have to a published paper, like a scientific paper. Typically, a researcher submits their manuscript to a journal to consider for publication. If the paper passes peer-review, the journal publishes the paper in its pages, and online. In the ‘conventional’ research publishing model, a reader who wishes to read the paper pays a fee to the journal to do so. In the (gold) OA model, the journal makes its money by having the researcher – or their funder – pay to have their paper published.

While it is heartening to see the momentum towards settling on a suitable OA approach, the ‘one nation, one subscription’ scheme is a curious proposition for India. A consortium of Indian science academies had recommended it last year. The scheme entails the Government of India to negotiate for and purchase a single, unified subscription from a consortium of publishers of scientific books and journals, after which the books and papers will be available to all government-funded institutions as well as all tax-payers.

Around the world, this scheme has been implemented in Uruguay and Egypt, while some European countries have adopted versions of it. Experts around the world have suggested that the model could be a feasible interim solution for developing countries. Note that both Egypt and Uruguay obtained financial assistance from the World Bank to secure their deals.

In Uruguay, since 2009, citizens have enjoyed free access to (otherwise) paywalled scientific and technological journals and platforms via the online platform Portal Timbó. However, some content remains available only to scientific, academic, and educational institutions and researchers. The 2019 budget for Portal Timbó was $2.3 million (Rs 16.94 crore).

Egypt launched its Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB) initiative in 2015. EKB provides a population of 92 million people access to journals, e-books and archives from multiple publishers across the sciences, humanities and cultural disciplines, and has certainly benefited society. However, the question remains whether incurring an annual expense of $64 million, in 2017 (Rs 416.47 crore), in subscription costs is justified. In both Egypt and Uruguay, it is not clear if all material is readable immediately upon publication or whether there is a delay.

So what could a ‘one nation, one subscription’ deal look like for India?

Currently, India spends Rs 1,500 crore a year to read research via journal subscriptions (about $205 million). So while a shift to nationwide subscription could yield a low per capita cost of access, our limited ICT infrastructure and digital divide remain barriers to unlocking the full potential of the deal. It is equally crucial to ensure that the deal covers key journals and databases – which may have to be negotiated with publishers with different types of collections across multiple disciplines.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, a nationwide subscription deal will not solve for an uneven OA publishing culture among Indian researchers. A rough calculation suggests India’s annual publishing spend is Rs 985 crore ($134.5 million), including article-processing charges (APCs) for both OA and hybrid-OA journals (which have a mix of OA and ‘conventional’ publishing policies). While a common national subscription could potentially lower the cost of reading research, we don’t know if authors will still have to pay APCs to publish their papers in publications covered by the deal.

Irrespective of how the deal plays out, the Indian research community is currently divided over the issue of paying to publish. Some researchers and disciplines argue that APCs should not be the basis for ruling out publication in a journal – the choice should rather be balanced against the journal’s disciplinary relevance and its ‘prestige’ factor (captured in a controversial metric known as the journal impact factor). In India, publishing charges are typically fronted by government grants and private funders, and it costs Rs 70,000 on average to publish in OA journals.

On the other hand, OA supporters and several institutional initiatives advocate ‘green’ OA – which requires posting the preprint version of papers in an open online repository, often immediately after publication. It remains to be seen whether India will unanimously decide to adopt green OA.

We also need to deliberate further as to what a nationwide subscription would mean for the country’s and the world’s OA movement. While a ‘one national, one subscription’ plan would appear to temporarily alleviate the financial problem of access, how far can it really go towards solving for legal and technical barriers of access? For example, the reader may still not have legal permissions to reuse the article, or reuse may be prevented technically by anti-copy measures. Or should we brush these concerns aside since the deal is somewhat of an incremental reform for India?

The OA movement was conceived to address global inequality in accessing scientific research. Would India’s position and contribution to the movement – as a large consumer and producer of scientific research – get sidelined? It appears that the nationwide subscription deal could feature in India’s upcoming ‘Science, Technology and Innovation Policy’ as well. Then, to address the gaps, it is necessary to add other policy solutions to complement the deal’s impact. The goal for a national science policy should be to create a sustainable, longer term environment that improves the quality of access and production of scientific research, and does so in alignment with the values of OA.

Access this article on The Wire Science here.

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