A Key Piece of the Jigsaw for Improving World Health

By Swan, Alma | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, August 2009 | Go to article overview

A Key Piece of the Jigsaw for Improving World Health


Swan, Alma, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


"Open access is good for science, the research community and mankind." Sir John Sulston, biologist and Nobel Laureate

Impaired access to research information in health-related fields is not solely the preserve of developing countries but it is hugely exacerbated in poorer regions of the world. While these regions bear the brunt of the world's health problems, only 10% of health research effort goes into these areas (referred to as the "10/90 gap"). (1) If we are going to achieve what the World Conference on Science held by UNESCO and the International Council for Science in 1999 termed the true "orienting of scientific progress towards meeting the needs of humankind", then we must improve the research effort on the health problems that afflict the greatest part of the world's population. That cannot happen until research communication is optimized: at the turn of the new millennium more than half of research-based institutions in lower-income countries had no current subscriptions at all to international research journals. (2)

Open access changes this. It permanently delivers free research information to any would-be user. The security of long-term free access is relevant here because other programmes that purport to deliver health research information on an equitable basis to the developing world are not guaranteed for the long-term. (3) Access may be discontinued because new rules have been applied. No health research or practitioner programmes can operate properly under such circumstances.

Open access literature, by definition, is freely available on a permanent basis. Some distinguished examples of open access journals in the health sciences are PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases and BioMed Central's Malaria Journal, which have the top two impact factor scores in the tropical medicine category of Thomson Reuter's Journal Citation Reports service, and Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the United States of America (USA), which has recently recommitted itself to an open access policy.

Open access journals are just one route to open access for health research literature. Open access repositories or archives are perhaps even more important, collecting as they do the outputs from research organizations around the world. Currently over 1400 in number, they have been established at an average of one per day for the past 3 to 4 years. Two of the largest, PubMed Central at the National Institute of Health, USA, (4) and United Kingdom PubMed Central (5) (run by a consortium of medical research charities and the British Library), presently provide free access to 1. …

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A Key Piece of the Jigsaw for Improving World Health
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