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October 7, 2014 12:21 am

William Dar advocates easier access to published research By William Dar

©AFP

Grassroots needs: a Turkana woman in Koriabok, north of Lodwar, in the drought-stricken Turkana region of Kenya this March

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson spoke of “an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings”. He spoke at a time when only a tiny elite had access to education. Yet today, despite the spread of universities, digital libraries and internet access in the developing world, research is not easily available. Among the culprits is academic publishing. Researchers are often judged by their “impact factor” – the number of articles they publish in reputable journals with a very strict peer review process. However, subscribing to these journals is expensive, restricting them to a limited audience. Research output remains inaccessible to many in the developing world. Over more than 40 years, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been helping poor smallholder farmers in the drylands through cutting-edge and scaleable agricultural research. Preserving high-quality research publishing is important. But I also believe research should be judged through its uptake and use on the ground. Look at the contribution of agricultural research to global food security. Today, nearly 1bn people suffer from hunger. Many of these are smallholder farming families in developing countries. Solutions exist, nurtured by many agricultural research institutions and universities from the north, but also, increasingly, from those in Africa, India and elsewhere in the south. Examples include better yielding, heat- and drought-tolerant crops, like new chickpea varieties in Ethiopia that enable small farmers both to increase their income and enrich their soil. But far too often, these innovations remain confidential, adopted by few. One key is to ensure that agricultural knowledge flows freely and is easily available to people in the developing world, including farmers, researchers and students. This should normally be integrated into the mission of any public research institution. In fact, in recent years, donors such as the UK Department for International Development have made all their funded research openly accessible. Open access means anyone with an internet connection can have free, unrestricted sight of peer-reviewed scholarly research. With the internet more available and affordable, this not only helps make university research more accessible but also helps to build the research capacity of poorly endowed universities in sub-Saharan Africa or south Asia. It also helps people to tailor global research into useful local applications more quickly. In 2009, ICRISAT launched open access for all its publications and this has proved hugely successful.


Locally funded research must be dictated by local needs and priorities

Some traditional academic publishers have promoted free access to some of their publications for researchers in the developing world. Some have adopted the “author pays” model, where researchers pay to have their work published, rather than subscribers paying to read it. But not all researchers can afford to pay for publication. It is easier for a European or US researcher to pay a typical $2,500 publishing fee than for one in Dhaka or Nairobi to do so.

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Also, in spite of the falling cost, not everyone in the developing world has internet access, even at universities. The key is to build research excellence from the grassroots and not rely on a top-down north-to-south approach. The bulk of open-access knowledge today comes from universities in the developed world where many publications may not be relevant to the challenges researchers deal with in developing countries. For instance, the latest findings in conservation agriculture designed for large cereal crop farms in Europe or North America may not fit the labour and resource constraints of a small farm in Burkina Faso or Tanzania. Academic experts and students in the emerging world need to participate fully in the new knowledge economy. In fact, to truly benefit from globalisation, developing countries should invest in their own research capacity. In addition to providing researchers and students with open access to high-quality and relevant publications, strengthening “local” open-access journals is key, so that knowledge can flow better from south to south, where farming constraints are similar. Locally funded research must be dictated by local needs and priorities, and not only the research agenda of global journals. We must make this happen if we want a more food-secure future for our children. ------------------------------------------William Dar is director-general of ICRISAT, based in Patancheru, India William Dar

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