Journals stacked on a shelf. Photo: yeaki/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
- Nearly two years since the Indian government proposed its ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ plan, there have been no public updates on its progress.
- ONOS proposes to centrally negotiate a payment to journal publishers so that the papers they publish can be accessed by the people of India for free.
- Subhash Lakhotia, distinguished professor at BHU, said “the major catch is how much the commercial interests of publishers will be acceded to by the government”.
- Science policy researcher Moumita Koley said India’s size and the number of its institutes means identifying a single cost for a nationwide subscription will be difficult.
- Experts also said the government shouldn’t spend so much money on subscriptions but instead strengthen good journals and promote a pro-preprints culture.
Bengaluru: Last month, the US announced that all taxpayer-funded research should be made available to the people by the end of 2025. In India, nearly two years since the government proposed its ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ (ONOS) plan, there have been no public updates on its progress.
The proposal emerged in India’s fifth draft Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020. If it is implemented, people in India will have access to scientific publications at a fixed and centrally negotiated cost that the government will pay publishers directly.
Typically, scientists publish papers in a journal, and the reader – an individual or an institute – pays a fee to the publisher to access a paper. At the institute level, libraries subscribe to journals at a fixed cost, making their contents available to the institutes’ students and researchers.
As journal publishers jacked up their prices over time, librarians formed consortia to increase their bargaining power when negotiating with publishers for subscriptions.
In the last decade, the open access (OA) movement has emerged as an alternative way to access the scientific literature, and has garnered considerable support in the scientific community. The three most popular types of OA are:
- Gold OA – The research output is available immediately to the reader on the website of the journal, and the researcher (or their funder) pays to have the paper published;
- Green OA – Institutional repositories save copies of papers published by their researchers, making them accessible for all free of cost after a specified embargo period set by the journal (typically six months to one year).
- Diamond OA – Journals publish papers at no cost either to institutes or to journals’ readers.
ONOS essentially proposes to extend libraries’ consortia-level negotiations to a national scale: a centrally negotiated payment by the Government of India with journal publishers, whereby all individuals of the country can access those journals at no additional cost.
The idea was born from the deliberations of a committee comprising members of the three major science academies in India: the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences India, plus some other invited experts.
According to the committee’s report, published in April 2020, India spends about Rs 1,500 crore every year for journal subscriptions. The hope with ONOS is that the government may be able to hammer out a better deal, K. VijayRaghavan, former principal scientific adviser to the Government of India and leader of the negotiations, told The Wire Science in 2019.
The idea that the policy could get us a better deal hasn’t gone without contest. According to Subbiah Arunachalam, a retired scientist and a pioneering advocate for OA in India, commercial publishers may be able to get the better out of negotiations with one small, centralised group, in enforcing their business interests, rather than with several entities like institutional libraries.
“There is no need for such a policy,” Arunachalam said, “because it will only take poor taxpayers’ money and give it to rich publishers.”
Many other researchers are also wary of the cost – although they also find the ONOS policy to be attractive.
“The ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ policy looks nice and logical in principle,” Subhash C. Lakhotia, a distinguished professor at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and a member of the committee that proposed the idea, said. “However, the major catch is how much the commercial interests of publishers will be acceded to by the government.”
Lakhotia also doubted the “complete feasibility” of the policy: while a central committee can negotiate with a few ‘mega-publishers’, there will be numerous publishers that won’t fall under this umbrella – not to mention ‘predatory journals’.
Arul George Scaria, an associate professor of law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, echoed these concerns. Scaria was also part of the consultations on ‘Access to Knowledge and Resources,’ a thematic group constituted to draft the STIP 2020 document.
“The idea looks very attractive, but the devil lies in the details,” he said. He cautioned that we should wait until we know which journal publishers are on board and what their conditions of participation are.
“Although the goal is laudable, we must ensure that the price that we pay is not exorbitant for the Indian taxpayer,” he added.
Scaria also said he was concerned about the lack of transparency of the process. “The unfortunate part is that we don’t know much about the negotiations so far. Everything is happening in the dark, and that is not desirable,” he said.
Size and diversity
Moumita Koley, a science policy researcher at the DST Centre for Policy Research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, zeroed in on another potential problem: India’s size.
ONOS-like policies have been successfully implemented in Egypt and Uruguay, both of which are much smaller than India. Koley said the “fragmented” nature of journal subscriptions in India – a country with multiple institutes and consortia – compounds the challenge at the first step: identifying a single cost for a nationwide subscription.
Senior OA advisor at Harvard Library Peter Suber told Nature in September 2020 that “publishers might … refuse such a big deal because of the technical challenges of providing access to a population the size of India.”
Currently, India has around a dozen library consortia funded by 12 agencies, according to a recent report by Usha Mujoo Munshi, the chief librarian of the India International Centre, and Jagdish Arora, an adviser at the National Board of Accreditation, both in New Delhi.
With many publishers now increasingly moving to a model where researchers pay to make their papers available online, Koley added, the subscription policy may not be a good deal if the researchers have to pay the journals again to make their publications accessible to everyone.
“Double payments do happen quite frequently,” Koley said. According to her, authors of research papers often resort to paying to make their work OA as their research grants may permit or require. “So you can’t mingle these two aspects, as they are [designed] to achieve two different goals,” she said.
In any case, with many journals weighing a subscription model on one hand and a gold OA model on the other, a long-term subscription deal would be a bad idea, Koley said.
The expert committee’s proposal had two other recommendations for OA.
The first was to archive preprints – a paper in a preliminary form, before peer-review and publication – and ‘accepted’ versions of papers (the edited version that a journal had agreed to publish). At the time of proposal, a couple government funding agencies had set up repositories where researchers could upload papers of studies paid for by taxpayer funds. And the committee said the government should strengthen these repositories.
Indeed, the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology require papers of research funded by the agency be deposited in their joint repository, called ‘Science Central’. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research also has a repository: researchers don’t have to upload CSIR-funded papers there but are recommended to do so.
Both Lakhotia and Arunachalam emphasised the need to promote such a preprint culture and the culture of repositories. “I think that instead of spending [a lot of] money on publication/OA charges and subscriptions, the government must strengthen good academic journals in India for Green OA and repositories where preprints and author manuscripts can be freely deposited and accessed by all without any cost,” Lakhotia said.
The committee’s second recommendation was to use a ‘recommended’ list of journals to which the government would pay publication and/or OA charges. This idea faced resistance in the STIP 2020 discussions, however. Scaria and Muthu Madhan, a librarian at the O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat, wrote a dissenting note explaining why authors shouldn’t be encouraged to pay publication and/or OA charges.
This recommendation ultimately didn’t appear in the draft STIP 2020.
Rahul Siddharthan, a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and who chaired the ‘Access to Knowledge and Resources’ thematic group, said that the negotiations were on but wasn’t aware of their details. VijayRaghavan said he would publish a note of his own “soon”.
For now, in the public domain, the plan hasn’t evolved from its form in the draft STIP published in December 2020.
Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.