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    Is open access really open for researchers in the Global South?

    In this blog post, COMDIS-HSD Research Communications and Uptake Manager, Nilam Ashra-McGrath, reflects on the challenges of open access in the Global South. 

    The academic publishing industry has a global footprint, but how much of what it produces – research articles, books, conference papers – is actually accessible to those outside of academia, particularly researchers who choose to use their skills in other sectors, and the communities and citizens that research claims to benefit?

    At COMDIS-HSD, I have the unique vantage point of being based within an academic institution in the UK (University of Leeds), yet work exclusively with NGOs in the Global South. From this vantage point, I can see there is an enormous imbalance in how evidence is accessed depending on whether a researcher is based inside or outside an academic institution – a symptom of an imbalance of power between the Global North and South.

    Researchers who are based at academic institutions enjoy privileged access, whilst researchers who choose to work in other sectors (NGOs, media outlets, charities, businesses) face barriers that they would not ordinarily encounter if they had remained in an academic institution. Having experienced first-hand the effect this has had on our consortium of NGOs, I believe there are two changes that universities, academic publishers and access schemes like Research4Life could do to help address this imbalance.

    The first is to give researchers working outside academia the same status and privileges as those working in universities. Evidence is the lifeblood of any researcher and any barriers to accessing evidence cuts off their blood supply. It also has a negative impact on the capacity of researchers in low and middle income countries (LMICs) to do their job effectively. By contrast, easy access to evidence gives them life, and sustains their career well beyond the walls of academia, irrespective of the sector in which they choose to work. Qualified researchers therefore need access to the same information and privileges they had when they were training in the UK; this is fundamental to them being able to earn a living as a researcher.

    The second is to ensure that access rights follow the migratory pattern of researchers into different organisations and sectors throughout the lifetime of their careers. The Royal Society highlighted that 42% of postgrad researchers in the UK are international. Many are from LMICs. When they receive training in the UK (and North America and Europe for that matter), they have an infrastructure around them to help access and share research findings, to design and implement research based on what has come before, and to add to an existing body of knowledge.

    When they return home, it’s not uncommon that, when faced with a dearth of university based jobs, they look to other sectors to use their research skills. This includes, but is not limited to, working for government ministries, NGOs and civil society organisations, international aid agencies, businesses, media outlets, or even as independent researchers. As qualified researchers, their skills are highly valued by other sectors. However, the infrastructure that they were once able to make use of while training in the UK is now absent, meaning that they now have to rely on significantly smaller amounts of literature to conduct research.

    One way to ensure that researchers have continued free and easy access throughout their career, is for universities to allow postdocs to keep their university email address and associated library access as alumni. Some universities already offer this, but it comes with limited access to journals. Granting all postdocs lifetime access to research evidence via their former universities is either a staggeringly simple solution, or a political and resource intensive minefield (I’m guessing the latter). Nevertheless, it’s an idea that needs exploring as at the moment, it’s only the academic setting that allows researchers to do their jobs effectively.

    What we need is a system that gives equal access rights and privileges for all researchers, irrespective of where they career takes them. This would be a positive step in helping researchers in LMICs flourish without relying on Northern institutions and schemes to access research evidence.

    Voices from the NGO community have been on the periphery of the open access debate. With the academic publishing industry experiencing an unprecedented level of disruption, the time is right for the peripheral voices to be heard.

    This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the Department for International Development, or of the University of Leeds.