Online Access Opens Divisions

A proposal from the Brazilian federal government to hire a consortium of international commercial publishers to increase the visibility of scientific research papers in 100 selected journals, has drawn an angry response from local science editors, and from the managers of Brazil’s own world-leading open-access publisher.

Critics say the ill-considered move would undermine what is already a viable open-access publishing industry in Brazil, and turns the clock backwards at exactly the moment when European and US policymakers are taking steps in the opposite direction to end the restrictions created by for-profit publishing of state-funded scientific research.

It also highlights the differing positions of federal and regional science policymakers over why the international impact of Brazilian science remains stubbornly low, despite major investments. The determination to raise standards comes after some embarrassing quality assurance issues have come to light. You can read an article about this by clicking here.

On October 29th, the federal government’s CAPES agency for financing research announced its plans to subsidize publishers  from a group including Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Emerald and Taylor & Francis, in order to gain access to their online channels for uploading articles from 100 local publications.

CAPES is reported to be planning to invest up to US$10 million (BR$24 million)  to ensure the insertion of Brazilian academic papers in the open access categories of these commercial publishers. CAPES would make the selection of which publications are made available to the multinationals.    You can read a PDF of the marketing pitch presented by Wiley by clicking here.

Publication of the plans drew and angry response from the Association of Brazilian Science Editors (ABEC) and from SciELO, the online publishing network sponsored by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and by CNPq, a federal agency sometimes at loggerheads with CAPES. You can read their response by clicking here. Local editors are especially riled because the funding pot available  to them is much smaller. The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) – made a public call last November 7 (CNPq n.25 / 2014) of R$6 million (US$2.4 million) to support the domestic editing and publication of science journals.

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Following a convention of scientific editors held mid November in Campos de Jordão, the two organisations formally asked CAPES to scrap its tender process, and divert the resources on offer to Brazilian, rather than multinational publishers. They also want the money CAPES is making available to fees (Article Processing Charges – APC) at the multinational publishers, to be put into a fund to support the domestic publishing industry. You can read a representative sample of local blog comment here.

The slickly-crafted proposals for creating a “CAPES Cluster Hub” of publications curated by multinationals appear, on the face of it, to deal a body-blow to SciELO’s prestige and to partially disintermediate the initiative funded by FAPESP.

If true, then critics of CAPES have a  strong case. While the federal government’s “pay to play” strategy might gain some short-term uplift in international citations of local authors that will tick boxes in Brasilia, it doesn’t address the underlying issue which is the absence of a self-sustaining local publishing industry of a quality that’s commensurate with a nation now investing 1% of GDP in research.

It was precisely to address this deficiency that SciELO was established 15 years ago with public funding. In those days, state-funded and open-access publishing, using online tools, looked an anomaly unlikely ever to threaten the hegemony of multinational commercial publishers.

But today, online open access is beloved of public policymakers, and Brazil has been praised by Nature, no less, as being right out in front, with an online publication culture that is “the most open in the world.” Brazil publishes around 2.7% of the world’s scientific papers and around 97% of all Brazilian journals are Open Access. You can read an article about the praise Brazil has garnered for its SciELO-led strategy by clicking here. In the US, the Obama administration backs open access for all federally funded research. So does the European Commission.

While both SciELO and ABEC supported the CAPES goal of increasing the international impact of Brazilian science papers, they claim SciELO already has sufficient throw-weight to do the job – being achieved on an estimated annual budget of just US$3 million.

Already the 15 year-old SciELO – The Scientific Electronic Library Online – is a showcase in open access science publishing with a focus on emerging markets and Latin America. Its citation index has formal links with the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge. The SciELO Citation Index includes approximately 650 titles and more than 4 million cited references from Open Access journals from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Venezuela. You can visit SciELO by clicking here.

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In 2013, SciELO Brazil was getting 1.5 million downloads per day. SciELO’s collection of mainly Latin American journals now puts out more than 40,000 free-to-read articles each year. Via the SciELO portal, publications that might otherwise remain obscure, have enhanced their international visibility. For instance, the Brazilian Review of Cardiovascular Surgery received 50,000 hits in an average month – of which a significant number came via the portal.

SciELO itself has not stood still. On 2nd December, programme director Abel Laerte Packer used its annual meeting to announce a new set of changes to its citation index to increase international impact of Brazilian science. Unwelcome though it may have been, it looks like the CAPES announcement has spurred SciELO into making some much-needed advances.

Packer told Brazilian reporters the new measures would open SciELO to new publications and ensure the rising impact of those already included. They included English titles to all publications, even originally written in Spanish or Portuguese. And from January 2016, articles in SciELO will need to have to meet minimum requirements set by associate editors active with international publications.

Rogerio Meneghini, SciELO’s scientific director, said the general upgrading was designed to increase the sustainability of Brazilian science publications. From January 2015, only articles from “scientifically relevant” publications will be included, he said. Also, such reviews would be expected to include proper editorials.

Packer added that increasing the impact of Brazilian science wasn’t just about getting local research cited internationally – but also bringing international research to Brazil. In addition, the system of article submissions to SCiELO will be streamlined, and in 2015 new articles will be publicised using PR and releases.

You can read a (Portuguese language) article by clicking here. You can read a detailed SciELO policy report in Portuguese by clicking here.

Changes to SciELO’s Citation Index from January 2016 will include weighting for articles published in English, for international collaborators, and for international citation, and for mentions in social media, as measured by  Altmetric.com.

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So the race to increase the impact of published Brazilian science handily weighs up the rival “buy or build” approaches to creating a knowledge society.

Undoubtedly the “quick fix” proposed by CAPES would generate a welcome blip in international citation references — that would also assuage the egos of many Brazilian scientists who hunger to see their names printed under more prestigious mastheads. But this looks like a naïve, colonial response that will come at the cost of creating a new marketplace for multinational publishers.

Viewed from the other perspective  Brazil’s dogged insistence on going its own way to forge a state-sponsored publishing industry, has sheltered local scientists from the full rigour of international editorial scrutiny and more probing peer review. If they want to gain the world’s full attention, they must now vault through higher and narrower hoops.

Now comes the test: can a home-grown open access publishing industry deliver what multinational publishers can’t – or vice versa?

You can read a detailed article in Portuguese by Brazilian journalist Diego Freire,  by clicking here.

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