Researchers and doctors in poorer nations will get free or low-priced electronic access to nearly 1000 biomedical journals. The six largest commercial journal publishers agreed today to open their internet vaults to universities, laboratories, and health agencies in nearly 100 nations under an initiative led by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Scientists and health workers in the developing world have long struggled to obtain timely, affordable access to information on new findings and therapies. Many journals are too expensive or arrive months after publication. The 3-year pilot project, set to begin early next year, "is perhaps the biggest step ever taken towards reducing the health information gap between rich and poor countries," WHO director Gro Harlem Brundtland said at a London press conference announcing the deal.
The six publishers--which publish 80% of the world's top 1240 biomedical journals--have agreed to let WHO set up an Internet portal through which approved institutions can retrieve papers. Initially, says Barbara Aronson, a librarian at WHO's Geneva headquarters, the portal will be free to more than 600 institutions in 63 of the world's poorest nations, mostly in Africa, with per capita annual incomes of less than $755. Later, WHO hopes to arrange deeply discounted subscriptions for institutions in about 40 nations, including some in Eastern Europe, with per capita annual incomes of less than $3000.
The list of available journals does not--so far--include those produced by smaller publishers, including such prominent publications as The New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and Nature. "We decided to go for the largest publishers first [rather than] the most prestigious journals," Aronson says. The big-name publications already have their own low- or no-cost distribution programs, but Aronson said that their participation in WHO's project would be welcome.