By Ruturaj Gowaikar, Vinayak Jain and Shambhavi Naik
The most widely used business model that research-publication houses employ is the ‘pay to publish and pay to read’ model. The high subscription costs of scientific publications under such a model is a huge barrier for researchers all over the world. For example, a researcher spends 16,000 rupees to access a prestigious journal such as Nature . This barrier is worse for Indians when per-capita income is considered. Research funding is relatively low and primarily funded through government grants. Access to scientific journals is restricted to the staff and students of Central universities, National institutes, and state universities but colleges associated with these universities do not have access to research journals, nor do private individuals. The One nation, One subscription idea proposed in the 5th National Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) envisages free access to scientific publications to every Indian via a centrally negotiated discounted subscription.
Though well intentioned, the One Nation, One Subscription Model may not be the most efficient use of taxpayer funds, as not all Indians would desire to access research publications. Further, this approach can lead to resource-duplication, since some institutions may have already paid for subscriptions. While the STIP envisions equal access to all Indians, we propose an implementation model to ensure equitable access based on the needs of the end user.
The need for scientific articles is highest amongst researchers (professors, postdocs, PhDs) followed by students enrolled in graduate level courses, medical professionals, MSMEs, startups etc. Undergraduates and other civilians likely do not read scientific articles on a regular basis. However, research publications should be available to all those who wish to read them. We propose a Hub and Spoke -consortia model. Under this model a larger institution acts as an anchor/hub by connecting smaller institutes (the spokes) and proving them with resources that they individually do not possess. The ‘hubs’ in our proposed model will be Libraries of Central government research and teaching institutes. These will provide access to their subscriptions to State universities, private colleges, medical facilities, and private citizens, the ‘spokes’ in this model. Moreover, if the spokes have subscriptions of certain journals, they can be made accessible to other spokes as well.
In India, universities and research institutes subscribe to a variety of journals of their interests, primarily using government funds. Currently the central government spends 15 billion rupees (US$200 million) on subscriptions to paywalled scholarly literature each year . It is not clear if subscriptions to journals in fields other than STEM have been included in the above estimate. These institutional libraries are accessible digitally to the faculty and students directly working in the institute but not to others. Thus, in spite of such amounts being spent only a select few individuals in well-funded central government institutes and certain departments under the State university system have access to them. This leaves the demand of a vast number of students and academics unattended. This is the group of Indians which has the most imperative need for equitable access to research publications.
Central government institutes can use their established working relation with multi-national publishing houses to negotiate better subscription rates. Though a pan-India network is possible through sharing of digital subscriptions, we suggest that in the initial stages of implementation these Hub and Spoke -consortia be local. Colleges associated with a particular university or institutes within a given geography form these local Hub and Spoke -consortia. Currently India has 23 IITs, 20 IIMs,1 IISc, 7 IISERs, and 54 central universities. These places have the best libraries in terms of number of journals subscribed to. If smaller institutes have subscriptions of niche journals, such digital subscriptions can be merged. The rates for subscriptions can be negotiated using the plank of increased user base with central institutes taking the lead in negotiations. Complete transparency in terms of number of downloads being reported to publication houses can ensure cost negotiations based on usage in previous years. The local nature of consortia will cater well to area specific demand for publications.
The bulk of monetary resources would continue to be from central government funds, supplemented by subscriptions fees from private institutions and individuals. In the initial days, till realistic demand of the spokes is gauged, there could be quotas for each member institute on downloads. Similar arrangement can be in place for individual, private subscriptions that choose to become part of this initiative. Additional costs might be required to upgrade and expand digital infrastructure. This system dovetails with the STIP 2020 vision of open science and expanding digital libraries.
In phase 2, we propose that large private institutes can act as Hub-Libraries for surrounding institutes. A nationwide network can be created to enable equitable access to all.
Similar attempts have been made albeit on smaller scale in Ohio in the form of “The Ohio Library and Information Network (OhioLINK)”. OhioLINK is a Consortia of libraries of 16 public institutes and 48 private colleges catering to 800,000 students, faculty, researchers in the US state of Ohio  . Projekt DEAL in Germany, spearheaded by Rector’s conference is an example of such a consortium, although the aim of the German consortia is to negotiate for immediate open access to articles by German authors . Similar efforts from the University of California (UC) system have resulted in a deal between UC and Elsevier. This allows a UC student from any of the UC colleges to access papers. Moreover, papers published in Elsevier based on research done at UC will be freely available to anyone globally .
The solutions we have proposed addresses the problem of inequity of access by asking the government through the proxy of Central institutes to negotiate for a subsidized subscription. But the real problem is the ‘pay to publish and pay to read’ models followed by almost all reputable publication houses. An ideal solution for equitable access to research publications would be a rethink of this model.