Money for nothing

One of the less well-known things about F1000 is that we partner with HINARI, the Programme for Access to Health Research, to provide access to F1000 to institutions and researchers in developing countries. Institutions can apply for free or discounted access (depending on their gross national income—GNI), and regularly active Faculty Members are invited to sponsor an institution of their choice.

F1000 is only a tiny part of what HINARI does of course: their main focus is getting primary literature into developing nations, and many publishers of primary literature are signed up. Sounds good, but it was a tad disturbing to read in the BMJ that five publishers have withdrawn free access to 2,500 journals in Bangladesh.

The list of publishers withdrawing access includes

Elsevier (which, the BMJ editorial notes, includes Lancet titles): 1610 journals
Springer: 588 journals
Lippincott Williams and Wilkins: 299 journals
American Association for the Advancement of Science: two journals
American Society for Animal Science: three journals.

On the other hand, Wiley & Sons (still) allow free access to the Cochrane Library, and of course SpringerOpen and BioMed Central (both of which are Springer stables) will remain freely available. Nonetheless, this move seems to be somewhat callous, not to mention cynical.

HINARI uses GNI as a basis for granting access, although there are obscure “factors relevant to our public-private-partnership” that affect the banding of these countries. Latest figures from the World Bank suggest that Bangladesh enjoys a per capita GNI of US$580, with a purchasing power parity of US$1,550 (2009; PDF). Whichever way you cut it, that’s less than the US$1,600 per capita HINARI uses as a basis for free access.

But a programme manager at HINARI said that such a decision was not unusual practice, once publishers started make “active sales”. I can’t help thinking of certain other unethical business practices—supplying formula where there isn’t access to (free) clean water, giving samples of formula and then charging when mother’s milk has dried up, that sort of thing. Scientific papers aren’t as cute (generally) as newborn babies, but there is definitely something fishy going on here.

According to the BMJ, the programme manager said “Access is still available through those institutions which purchase the journals.” It’s not clear to me if she’s advising that those institutions freely distribute journals they’ve paid for throughout Bangladesh (which must be against the terms of their licence, surely?), or what.

What do you think? Is this a reasonable business decision under these circumstances? What is the way forward for Bangladeshi researchers now?

(edited to add: the DOI for the BMJ piece isn’t resolving: the full URL is http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d196.full.)

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11 comments

  1. Richard Patrock says:

    It is a perfectly ethical business practice. It just isn’t very generous or humanitarian or even good PR.

  2. Ed Rybicki says:

    It is a disgustingly cynical move on behalf of those companies, and at a stroke undoes all of the good that open access was doing for researchers in Bangladesh – as it is elsewhere in the developing world.

    Consider: without free Open Access, MOST researchers in the Third World struggle to get hold of the relevant literature. This immediately puts them under a major handicap compared to developed country colleagues, and just perpetuates the vicious positive feedback cycle which pushes their science into the backwaters.

    Open access both promotes access to literature, and access to publication, that may otherwise be unavailable to poorer country researchers: I note that the journals which charge even us slightly-developed country workers full price for publishing, allow places like Bangladesh to publish for free.

    For now.

    Ah, well: Ted Heath had it right, those many years ago there really is an unacceptable face to capitalism.

  3. Annette Appelby says:

    All the more reason we should all publish our results in Open Access journals!

  4. Richard, businesses are accountable to their shareholders, so yes it’s ‘good’ business practice, but I’d also hope that we can recognize that businesses are also accountable to wider society, making such a move highly unethical (I should add that given the information I have, this appears unethical. There might be other considerations of which I’m not aware) . It’s up to us in a position of privilege to say “this is unacceptable.”

    (And to bring it back to purely business terms, if a business suffers because its customers refuse to trade with it due to perceived unethical practices, it becomes very good business practice to behave ethically!)

  5. Richard Patrock says:

    I strongly agree with Annette, who placed this discussion quite sensibly into actionable terms. Yes, this practice is unacceptable (as Richard Grant has stated explicitly) and therefore anyone who agrees with this, should take their business elsewhere in order to show the businesses that hidden costs of unacceptable practices can ripen.

  6. Richard Patrock says:

    and often! and in as many forums as possible!

  7. sam says:

    Open access is the way forward!

  8. Bob Hurst says:

    I would say to Richard Patrock that there is a large difference between “legal” and “ethical.”

  9. Richard Patrock says:

    I agree there is often a large difference between legal and ethical practices. Perhaps, I misread the ethical problems in the transaction or I simply view the situation in a different ethical light than other people. In a nutshell, the company provides a service. They offer this service free for some period of time in a market, or in this case, a close to non-market. Perhaps, they are running a promotional or a side-show to gain the sympathy of customers in another market. At some point, they start charging for a service that once was free. If the company had promised that the service would last indefinitely or otherwise made fraudulent claims, then there is an ethical issue. Is this a type of bait and switch? I didn’t read this, since the switch is simply back to the baseline at no cost to the potential customer. Is there a cost to the libraries or to the researchers except a broken expectation that they can get information for free? Are they charging excessive fees now? They might provide the service for a reasonable fee in the Bangladesh market, though you could argue that the information provided in the service only has a temporal, non-spatially dependent intrinsic, non-relative value. Are we Again, I’ll say that the practice may not show humanitarian ends but ibe can’t expect businesses to give away their product, either.

  10. I think I am tending to see it as a bait and switch, to be honest. I can’t say that they signed up to the programme with the intention of charging later on–a loss-leader approach if you like–but if they did that’s certainly against the spirit of such things. To garner goodwill by contributing to such an aid programme and then start charging as soon as it looks as if there is money to be made (and let’s be honest, Bangladesh doesn’t have a booming economy) is deeply, deeply cynical.