Joint ICSU Press/UNESCO Expert Conference on

UNESCO, Paris, 19-23 February 1996

Electronic Publishing and Developing Countries: Trends, Potential and Problems

Vanderlei P. Canhos: Universidade Estadual de Campinas, SP, Brazil
Dora A.L. Canhos: Base de Dados Tropical, Campinas, SP, Brazil
Sidnei de Souza:Base de Dados Tropical, Campinas, SP, Brazil, and
Barbara Kirsop: Bioline Publications, Bourne, UK

Table of Contents

I. Scientific Information in Developing Countries
II. Developing Countries and the Internet
III. Changing Patterns
IV. Challenges and Opportunities
V. References

I. Scientific Information in Developing Countries

Although 80% of the world consists of developing countries which encompass 24.1% of world’s scientists and 5.3% of its research expenditure, these countries only show a participation of 2% in the indexed output of scientific information. Considering the interviews with more than 100 scientists and journal editors, Gibbs (1995) concluded that the near invisibility of less developed countries in scientific information may reflect not only the actual quality of third world research but also biases and economics of scientific publishing.

There are many barriers that must be overcome by scientists from developing countries to publish their work in indexed journals. Language is certainly a significant barrier as most recognized international journals are published in English. Another important barrier is the quality of science and its significance to industrialized countries. When comparing research expenditure, certain scientific standards may not be met and this may really mean further exclusion of information from developing countries.

Developing countries have always acknowledged the importance of international scientific developments and libraries have spent a significant amount of their limited budget in subscriptions to major journals. However, the costs of printed journals more than doubled in the last decade and the vast majority of the developing nations have been going through serious economic difficulties. It is easy then to understand the decrease of subscription rates worldwide due to inflation and shrinking library budgets. Since libraries, be they of developed or developing nations, acquire only journals with a high impact, they seldom subscribe to journals from developing countries, even the indexed ones. This economic factor helps to perpetuate the closed system of review and citation. Therefore it is vital that developing countries find new mechanisms to communicate their scientific information and research to one another and to industrialized countries.

A number of developing countries are rewarding their scientists for publishing in indexed journals and funding editorial activities of local scientific journals. National science councils are trying to break the cycle of low standard scientific publishing, by ranking the journals and funding the hard copy edition of the top ones. In Brazil from around 400 scientific titles the National Science Council will fund the 16 top science periodicals in 1996 at a cost of 2.5 million dollars. It is important to stress that with a fraction of this amount of money, these hard copy journal could also be widely made available on-line, as the change that holds most promise for linking scientists and scientific information worldwide are the developments of the Internet.

Electronic communication represents an enormous cultural change that will certainly change the “publication scenario” in the very near future. Pushed by the international need to share scientific data on-line and by the market forces, information is already moving at a quick rate on to the Internet (Stix, 1994).

Electronic communication is truly promoting a collaborative and cooperative work between scientists worldwide, that has never been seen before. Industrialized nations are now becoming aware of the importance of the experience and expertise existing in developing countries. When many of the best journals in these countries are excluded from the international indexing systems, the prompt access to local information on important issues such as newly emerging infectious diseases, environmental problems and tropical biodiversity is prevented.

The world is going through an integration process of its economies, establishing global conventions and treaties. The importance of the diversity (and not the homogenization) of cultures and customs must be stressed and promoted. Electronic publishing certainly opens an entirely new field of collaboration where developing countries may concentrate their activities and funds in organizing and producing their own information and making it accessible to all on the network, as in due time it is imagined that all relevant information from developed countries will also be available through the network. However, policy makers must always keep in mind that the information gap can be widened for the less developed nations that do not move into the information age.

II. Developing Countries and the Internet

The best known computer network is the Internet, a network of networks, which encompasses an estimated 50,000 networks worldwide. The Internet is experiencing exponential growth in the number of networks, number of hosts, and volume of traffic. The number of host computers has increased from 200 to 5 million in 12 years, between the years of 1983 to 1995. The non-USA connections are growing more rapidly, with the projected crossover estimated to occur in 1996; about 160 countries now have some form of connection to the Internet. Every 30 minutes another network is connected and the number of the Internet users is expected to reach 200 million by the year 2000 (Bournellis, 1995). The Regional Map to Internet Connectivity, regularly updated by the Internet Society is an excellent source of information on the types of connectivity available in the different regions of the world.

With new developments in low cost communications systems and the trend towards modernization and liberalization taking place in many developing countries, there are growing possibilities for reducing the communication and scientific information gaps. While in some parts of the world telematic activities are virtually non-existent, users in many developing countries are taking advantage of the wide range of scientific information available through computerized networks (Jensen, 1995).

A report published in 1995 by the Panos Institute entitled “The Internet and the South: Superhighway or dirt-track?”, identifies many examples of benefits that the Internet could bring to the developing world for those who can get connected. However, the report warns that a new “information poverty” threatens the countries that are not connected.

There are many constraints for developing countries to be able to fully participate in the new information age. Basic local infrastructure such as communication facilities (telephone lines, radio, satellite) and reliable electricity, country regulations such as communication costs, taxes on computer equipment, among many others are just some issues to be addressed (Pelsinsky, 1996). These constraints exist and may be small to some countries and overwhelming to others. It is important that they be addressed, some at a local level, others as an international effort to change and possibly narrow the existing North-South information gap. At the same time it is important to acknowledge the fact that the Internet:

Another important point to stress is the fact that digital and networked information is THE trend today and that the means to handle information through this medium are increasingly available and democratic.

Will some countries be left out of the new information age? Perhaps or even probably yes, but this number will most certainly be smaller than the marginal countries of today.

III. Changing Patterns

Before this “Internet explosion” associated with major software and hardware developments, scientific publishing activities were characterized as top-down initiatives in the hands of traditional international publishers and major universities. Meanwhile, the real revolution in the telecommunication and information fields has occurred from the bottom-up (Rutkowski, 1994). Personal computers and workstations, local area networks, cost-oriented leased lines, routers, network operating systems, the Internet, and other capabilities have empowered individuals and organizations to develop their own infrastructure and control their own information destiny.

Information is becoming more digital and networked and less paper. Scientific networked information today includes not only conventional articles but also personal communications and live records, promoting collaborative work among scientists around the world. Looking only from the perspective of who is connected and has access to today’s information technology tools, this undoubtedly brings great advantages and possibilities such as:

Scientists, publishers and libraries will have to adapt to the innovative ways of producing, collecting and disseminating information in the digital world. Readers will soon find any document without hypertext links extremely primitive (Bungay, 1995).

According to Stix (1994) established publishers could face future market problems if they fail to react quickly, and most are slow in adapting to new technological developments, even though these efforts are benefiting from a growing number of public domain software tools that allow the display of graphics, tables, complex equations and even offer analysis and modeling features. Strategic planning is necessary to establish realistic cost recovery programs and to adapt to the new technology. Important issues such as the guarantee of copyright and intellectual property on the Internet are still unclear and are being discussed on the network.

Following, are some examples of government and independent initiatives that are being developed in the field of digital networked information.

Government Initiatives: Digital Libraries Research

As was the case of the Internet connectivity in the US with the NSFNet project, NSF (the National Science Foundation) once again comes out in front, and in September 1994, announced, as a joint initiative with ARPA (Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) the awards for digital libraries research. Six research projects for developing new technologies for digital libraries - storehouses of information available through the Internet - have been awarded and are centered at the following universities:

Carnegie Mellon University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Michigan
University of Illinois
the University of California, Santa Barbara
Stanford University

They are four-year projects and will cost US$ 24.4 Million. According to the National Science Foundation News, “The projects’ focus is to dramatically advance the means to collect, store and organize information in digital forms, and make it available for searching, retrieval, and processing via communication networks -- all in user-friendly ways.”

A North-South Initiative: The Bioline Experience

Bioline Publications is a joint venture between the UK Editorial and Publications Office and the Base de Dados Tropical in Brazil, which provides the host computer and networking support. Jointly, over the last 2 years, this partnership has established an electronic publishing service providing on-line access to 26 bioscience journals and a large number of reports and newsletters of relevance to biodiversity, biotechnology and bioinformatics. Besides being accessible through the world wide web, the system is fully accessible by electronic mail - of importance to those countries without full Internet capability.

All abstracts and summaries are free to all and the subscription costs for the full text and graphics of papers are kept at the cost recovery level. Journals follow the pricing policy determined by the publishers and are available through annual subscriptions, at a lower cost when compared to the hardcopy version, or by single document purchase, which may be more economic for many. They may be viewed on-line or delivered to an electronic mail address (Kirsop and McKenney, 1995).

In its second year of operation, the free part of the Bioline system (titles and all abstracts) began with an access of about 3,000 per month and ended the year with an average of about 16,000 accesses per month. Bioline Publications’ server was accessed by more than 20,000 sites around the world. This huge interest is expected to translate into cost recovery with time.

In keeping with the aim of distributing of essential policy and scientific information to regions with limited resources to purchase a wide range of journals, Bioline Publications are launching a series of on-line only journals. Considering the importance of environmental global problems and the establishment of a range of international conventions, commissions and treaties, selected titles to initiate this new phase are BioSafety and BioPolicy. These on-line only journals are international, peer-reviewed publications, managed by editorial boards of experts from around the world. The journals will maintain appropriate links to other publications and databases of importance, thus producing dynamic environment for discussions and a forum for exchange of ideas and scientific data, that takes maximum advantage of present communications technology and adds value to the traditional scientific paper.

It is expected that the BioPolicy and BioSafety editorial activities will facilitate scientific understanding and an informed debate on the implementation of appropriate policies and regulations to maintain the integrity of the biosphere. They will also serve as an experience of a North-South approach for making information available through on-line only journals.

Two further on-line only journals, Biofilms and Sustainable Land Management, are due to begin publication early 1996. It will be of considerable interest to monitor the general acceptability of these high quality, low cost publications.

IV. Challenges and Opportunities

The central question to be addressed by each developing country is which are the steps to be followed in order to facilitate, not only the access to on-line information, but also to promote digital publishing. The communication infrastructure and digital literacy have to be recognized as fundamental enabling tools. Besides economic problems special attention will have to be paid to political factors as science and technology depend on a fabric of societal factors that will determine the move to the information age.

New opportunities will be available for countries that adjust to the new order. The previous highly structured top-down global information initiatives planned by international organizations, governments and big institutions are being challenged by the successful developments of bottom-up efforts as a result of distributed network management and applications. It is a risk to predict the future of something as dynamic as electronic publishing activities available through the Internet. There are difficulties still to be overcome, such as funding new initiatives until such time as the scientific community adapts to the new information environment and production costs can be recovered. However, there is every reason to believe that the “bottom-up” efforts will play an increasingly important role in the dissemination of scientific information.

Considering the decreasing investment costs for digital publishing associated with new available delivery systems through computerized networks, developing countries will have new possibilities to address unattended needs (due to the high costs of traditional publishing). Even important constraints such as basic communication infrastructure can be overcome in a relatively short period of time by “skipping” generations of network technology using an increasingly diverse array of available technologies such as wireless networks (Zysman, 1995).

Among new opportunities we have the development of public domain or shareware repositories of software and digital documents. Developing countries should recognize their role in the global community and give top priority to producing local information in strategic areas such as:

New strategies and mechanisms for information development and dissemination are required to complement the top-down approaches to more responsive bottom-up initiatives involving scientists, policy makers and citizens in developing and industrialized countries. To develop such mechanisms on a broader basis will not be trivial and will require substantial changes in the mindset of policy makers. Steps to encourage the paradigm shift necessary to achieve this goal will require key interventions including international efforts to overcome the:

As a closing statement, a message from Negroponte in his book “Being Digital” is that with the available technological options, a new world and a new way of life is upon us.

V. References

Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Bournellis, C. 1995. Internet’95: The Internet’s phenomenal growth is mirrored in startling statistics. Internet World (November): 47-52.

Bungay, H.R. 1995. Why electronic hypertext journals are inevitable. Binary 7: 89-90.

Daggat, R. 1995. Satellites for a Developing World. Scientific American (September): 71

Gibbs, W.W. 1995. Lost Science in the Third World . Scientific American (August): 76-83

Jensen, M. 1995. African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development. Document prepared for the Addis Ababa symposium, April 1995. Available from

Kirsop, B. and Mckenney, D. 1995. New Services from Bioline Publications. Binary 7: 95-97.

PANOS Institute. December 1995.

Pelsinsky, N. January 1996. Connectivity and Developing Countries. available from

Rutkowski, A. M. 1994. The Present and the Future of the Internet: Five Faces. Keynote Address Networld+Interop 94, Tokyo

Stix, G. 1994. The speed of Write. Scientific American (December): 72-77

Zysman, G.A. 1995. Wireless networks. Scientific American (September): 52- 55

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