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HINARI journal access for the developing world

by Eva Amsen

If it hadn’t been for the excessive amounts of money my former universities invested in institution-wide access to scientific research papers, my MSc and PhD theses would each just be some pictures of Western blots and lots of question marks. In the absence of, as of yet, widespread open access publications, university libraries are the gateway to scholarly journals for many students and academics.

But subscriptions to scientific publications are expensive. Earlier this year, Harvard University announced that they couldn’t afford subscriptions, and encouraged their staff to publish in open access journals whenever possible. If access to the literature is too expensive even for Harvard, how can institutions in developing countries ever afford these subscription prices?

They can’t, and they don’t have to.

First of all, many publishers charge different institutions a different amount, based on such criteria as size or previous arrangements. The massive multi-institution University of California threatened to boycott Nature Publishing Group in 2010, when the publisher ended a previous discount they had been giving the university. They ultimately reached an agreement, but it illustrates how individually tailored these library subscriptions often are.

But even the subscription charges for smaller universities can be too high for institutions in countries with less money to spend on academia. These universities would not be able to have a wide selection of academic journals to offer their faculty and students.

To solve this issue, the World Health Organisation and a few major publishers launched HINARI in 2002. HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative) offers researchers in certain countries access to biomedical literature. There are similar initiatives for other disciplines, such as AGORA for research in agriculture.

At the moment, more than a hundred countries get access to over 8500 journals through HINARI. Many well-known publishers have joined the initiative, and many of the journals you regularly use yourselves will also be accessible to researchers in developing countries, thanks to this access scheme.

Map of countries with HINARI access. (Copyright WHO. Click for big version on their site.)

That sounds lovely, but it’s not all happy sharing kindness, though. Which countries qualify for access to scientific journals through HINARI, and which journals they can access, is determined in a number of different ways. Rules can be murky, publishers can opt out or be selective about which countries they serve, and the system can suddenly leave entire countries out of reach of their regular scientific reading material.

Last year, researchers in Bangladesh and Kenya received news that several publishers had to decided to no longer allow HINARI access to institutions in these countries. The abrupt decision to halt access for Bangladesh appears to have been based on commercial motives, where publishers believed they might have been able to entice one or a few of the more affluent institutions to purchase a regular subscription if they had no HINARI access. Of course that shuts down access in the rest of the country, as well as access to the rest of the literature, but it’s not an uncommon motive for HINARI publishing partners.

Even without publishers making such individual decisions about who they allow HINARI access, the WHO has also set some basic criteria to determine which countries are eligible. They try to be as fair as possible, and have two tiers. Group A, the poorest countries, get free access; Group B get a significant discount. To determine whether a country belongs in Group A or B, HINARI looks at a range of independent measurements related to a country’s overall wealth, such as the United Nations’ list of least developed countries and the gross national income per capita as recorded by the World Bank.

As soon as a country does slightly better as a whole, it might fall outside of HINARI’s criteria for free or discounted access. This means that some countries have been in and out of HINARI a few times, even though the country’s overall wealth would not have immediately affected university library budgets. In practice, it means spotty access to research papers for many scientists.

Finally, I learned from one of the talks at Science Online London 2011 (the talk on Open Research Reports), that many researchers in developing countries don’t even know that they *have* HINARI access. Actually, in the entire talk, which was about providing access to the literature for developing countries, HINARI never came up, and when I asked about it in the Q&A, one of the speakers quoted some stats about the number of people who could use it but didn’t. If true, that seems like a PR problem more than anything. It surprised me at first, but then I realized that many people in general have not heard of the initiative. Every few months I see someone coming across it for the very first time. In fact, it was a similar conversation on Twitter that triggered this post.

While it has some flaws, and publishers can circumvent it at their convenience, HINARI is currently the best method to allow low-income countries access to non-open-access biomedical literature. Although it looks like more and more of the literature is becoming free to read for everyone, it’s going to take a while until all of it is, and until that time it seems worthwhile to ensure that researchers who have this kind of access – spotty as it may be – are aware of it. A first step would be to spread the word more widely among those of us fortunate enough to not need HINARI. It’s a shame that it seems to be such a well-kept secret.

***Disclaimer: I work for a publisher that is part of the HINARI scheme (not one of the ones mentioned in this post), but this blog has nothing to do with that: I would have written the exact same post when I was still a researcher/freelancer. ****


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