Making Indian science more open and accessible

Making Indian science more open and accessible


Sridhar Gutam is a senior scientist at ICAR-Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru. He is also the convenor of Open access India, an organisation advocating open access, open data and open education in India.

Sridhar Gutam
Sridhar Gutam   (Photo: Vamsee Krishna )


Ever felt frustrated about a paywall stopping you from downloading a paper or disadvantaged because you were expected to pay a hefty amount to publish your work in a journal of repute. To curb this unnecessary expenditure and to make research more accessible, the DBT and DST launched an open access policy that mandates researchers, to submit their research papers in government repositories a maximum of six months after publication. The ICAR and CSIR too have similar expectations from their researchers. However, despite the clear directive, Indian researchers have deposited an abysmally low number of papers in these repositories.

Why has the acceptance been so low? Why are Indian researchers letting this opportunity of making Indian research open and accessible pass by? IndiaBioscience spoke to Sridhar Gutam, convener of Open Access India to find answers to these questions:

Let us begin with the benefits of adopting open access publishing.

Two clear benefits are– it cuts down the overall costs of publishing a paper and more importantly it makes research fully accessible for anyone interested in it.

I would like to emphasise here that there is a difference between available and accessible. Even if someone is able to download a research paper, it is possible that the data is available in a form that may not be truly accessible. Take for example a spreadsheet in a PDF– if you want to work further with it, you have to first type the entire thing on your computer and then begin the work or if you know computer programming, you have to write a script to scrape the data. In open access repositories, data is often available in .csv or other open formats and is much easier to work with.

I can give you another example from a study we did. We found that during 2008–2010, 1833 papers were published from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). All of these papers were available to subscribers of the Consortium for e-Resources in Agriculture (CeRA). However, public access to this e-resource is meagre. As a result the research was available but not accessible.

Why have Indian scientists been slow in embracing the open access repositories, despite a clear directive from government funding agencies?

The first reason I would say is ignorance about the usefulness of such repositories. I have often been asked, “how would I benefit from uploading my work in such a repository”? Once people start using these repositories actively they are bound to generate viewership for papers listed on them. Since access is completely free of cost, with time, more and more people will start gravitating towards it, increasing viewerships further. The number of citations and the possibility of people collaborating increases too as nobody is stopped from accessing a paper.

The other problem is with the way research is assessed in our country. Even today, the application forms that research assessment committees will have you fill have questions like– what is the impact factor of the journal you have published your work in or what is the rating of the journal? They should instead be asking how much of your work is available in open access repositories? How well has it been cited and accessed by people across the globe? It is the impact of research and not the impact factor, that should be assessed. The 2014 Dora Declaration provides guidelines on good practices in research assessment. Though DBT and Wellcome Trust-DBT India Alliance  are signatories on the DORA declaration, in India, we are yet to fully embrace its guidelines.

Scholarly societies too fall into the trap of impact factors and viewerships generated by big publishing houses. For example, few of the societies hosted in ICAR (I don’t want to name them) signed up to be hosted by Springer. Most likely, this tie-up was fuelled by a desire for higher viewership. The question is why didn’t they choose to be available on ICAR e-publication platform instead? That would have assured high viewership too. Publishing in a high Impact factor journal or with a well known publisher is not the only way of ensuring viewership for your work.

It is in such cases that we are trying to make a difference through our advocacy work. Our attempt is to make researchers and scholarly societies aware about open access policies that can lead to wider dissemination and greater impact of the published work.

There’s also the issue of copyrights. After publication, a research paper’s copyright is transferred from the authors to the publishers. Would it be legal to put such papers in open access repositories?

The simple and legally viable solution to this problem is the ‘author’s addendum’. While submitting their research papers authors can choose to include this addendum which allows them to retain rights to submit their work in open access repositories. Most journals now recognise and accept this addendum.

The other option is to archive the pre-prints– the first draft of the manuscript which a researcher submits to a journal. Again, most journals are open to accepting work that has been archived in a pre-print server. Pre-prints can be submitted to open access repositories. To this end, we (Open Access India) have started AgriXiv– a pre-print archive for agriculture research. It is hosted by Centre for Open Science using the Open Science Framework. However, even for AgriXiv the acceptance has been very low.

I also would like to add that nowadays several questionable publishers are marketing themselves as open access publishers. They usually charge a good amount of processing fee and are willing to publish whatever you submit without peer review. In such a scenario, two resources that can aid researchers in making an informed decision about whether a journal is authentic or not are– Think Check Submit and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

What other activities is Open Access India involved in?

Open Access India started as an online advocacy group on Facebook in 2011. We have grown quite a bit since then in scale and reach. Our members include scientists, students and even librarians. Apart from online advocacy we now conduct webinars, workshops and meetings to make researchers aware of the usefulness of open access. We also run a student ambassador programme, wherein we select students, young researchers and librarians from across India, train them about open access and then help them disseminate the knowledge further.

We work in close collaboration with Open Access Nepal, Open Access Bangladesh and Open Access Pakistan. In fact, we are now hoping to start an open access forum for all SAARC countries to help scientists (especially, early career researchers) in the sub-continent share their work openly and legally.

Apart from the sub-continent, how is the acceptance for open access in the rest of the world?

There’s a definite shift happening towards open access publishing. The OA2020 Initiative, which has been accepted by more than 560 institutions worldwide, is working towards a global transition from current publishing models to an open access system. The Open Access India has also signed up for the initiative. Publishers too have begun tweaking their system to fit in the changing environment. Sherpa Romeo – an online resource that analyses publisher copyright policies– says  80% publishers on its list now allow archiving work in some or the other format. Many communities are coming forward to discuss, practice, and share success stories of the Open Access movements happening around the world.