Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Free access to journals is key to development goals

In a major coup for access to information in developing countries, publishers have renewed their commitment to a WHO programme that provides free access to more than 3300 scientific and medical journals.

The decision by a group of about 90 publishers in July was intended to help developing countries move closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The publishers initially agreed in 2001 to provide free access for two years, then extended the deal for a further three until this year. Now the scheme will run until at least 2015, the target date for the MDGs.

The move addresses a pressing need in developing countries for better access to up-to-date scientific evidence so that governments can make informed decisions on health policy that, in turn, can lead to an improvement in people’s lives.

Under the WHO programme, known as the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative, or HINARI, institutions in 69 countries with a gross national product (GNP) per capita of less than US$ 1000, as determined by the World Bank in 2001, are eligible to receive free full-text access to more than 3300 biomedical and clinical journals.

Institutions in a further 44 countries with a GNP per capita of US$ 1000–3000 can also access the scheme, but pay only US$ 1000 per year. This revenue is used for training in eligible countries.

“Getting connected to HINARI is easy. All users need is a computer linked to the Internet and a username and password, which their library can supply,” said Barbara Aronson, Programme Manager for HINARI. “Everyone at eligible institutions can use the system, including students.”

While other free-access journal schemes exist, HINARI is unique in its breadth of coverage. Included are English-language titles such as Nature, Science and the Lancet as well as journals published in French, Portuguese, Spanish and other languages.

Although primarily aimed at researchers at universities and public health institutes, HINARI is available in government offices as well as hospitals and nursing schools.

WHO set up HINARI after researchers from developing countries attending a WHO workshop in Annecy, France, in 2000 said that they did not have adequate access to many key journals because the subscriptions were too expensive.

“The number one priority for them was ‘get us access to the priced journals’,” Aronson said, referring to the international journals with high subscription charges, particularly for institutions in developing countries.

“So we went to a few publishers and said ‘could we have free access to your journals for 10 institutions per year’ to test out whether this works”.

The BMJ lent the project a staff member, Maurice Long, who knew many of the key science, technology and medical publishers well. Long organized the first meeting with six of the biggest journal publishers in New York City in 2000, and has been liaising with the publishers ever since.

“We just said ‘look, this is the situation of the poor countries of the world’. And the publishers said ‘OK, that group should get the journals for free’. They were immediately receptive to the idea”. Currently, Aronson estimates that the market price for the entire package would be US$ 2.4 million per institution.

With the help of Yale University in the United States of America, WHO set up the authentication server that routes download requests to the publisher’s own servers, which hold the articles. The system went live in January 2002 and usage has grown since.

“By our best estimate there were one million articles downloaded in 2003. In 2005, it was 3.5 million. By the end of this year we could get as high as five million,” Aronson said.

Connectivity is the hitch that stops more people from taking advantage of the scheme. Users in developing countries often don’t have computers, fast Internet connections and the dependable electricity supplies that are needed to download articles.

Even if users can access HINARI, technical problems are common. Aronson blames these on the rocketing demand for bandwidth and related technology issues. The system is complex too, with about 90 publishers and 2100 registered institutions worldwide all trying to connect to one another. This can cause blackouts.

WHO and its publishing partners are improving the reliability of the service. Aronson said that HINARI is “working to replace our much overloaded authentication server with a better one”. Recently, there was some incompatibility between HINARI and one of the big publisher’s web sites. “We got the publisher’s entire technology team to stop what they were doing and work with us to solve the problem.”

William Burns, Geneva