WHO and the world’s six largest medical journal publishers have announced an initiative which will enable many developing countries to gain access to vital scientific information that otherwise they could not afford. This major breakthrough was announced in London in July 2001, with the signing of a Statement of Intent by the publishers’ senior executives. It allows over 1,000 of the world’s leading medical and scientific journals to become available through the Internet to medical schools and research institutions in developing countries free of charge or at greatly reduced rates. Access to the journals will be exactly the same as for other subscribers.
Until now, biomedical journal subscriptions, both electronic and print, have been priced uniformly for medical schools, research centres and similar institutions, irrespective of geographical location. Annual subscription prices are on average several hundred dollars per title, with many key titles costing over $1,500 per year. This has made it all but impossible for the large majority of health and research institutions in the poorest countries to access critical scientific information.
At the signing ceremony in London, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO, said that the initiative “is perhaps the biggest step ever taken towards reducing the health information gap between rich and poor countries.” WHO spearheaded the project, together with the British Medical Journal and the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation network. The outcome is a tiered-pricing model that will affect institutions in the 100 poorest countries. Countries with a Gross National Product per capita of less than US$ 1,000 are candidates for free access from four publishers (the majority of the offered journals) and minimal prices from two publishers. Those with Gross National Product per capita between US$ 1,000 and US$ 3,000 will be offered greatly discounted prices.
Scheduled to start in January 2002, the initiative is expected to last for at least three years while being monitored for progress. It will benefit bona fide academic and research institutions, which depend on timely access to biomedical journals. Between now and the end of 2001, these institutions will be identified individually, and the process put in place so that they can receive and use access authentication. This will be a learning experience for the publishers and the participating institutions. Decisions about how to proceed after the initiative will grow from the precedents it sets, and will be informed by the working relationships which have developed among the partners.
While celebration was the order of the day at the initiative’s launch, Richard Smith, Editor of the British Medical Journal, acknowledged that there is more to do. “Other publishers must be persuaded to join the venture.* Those in the poor world need help with being connected to the Internet and trained to use it. WHO and George Soros are helping here. We need to improve the flow from poor to rich, and within the poor world. Publishers can help here too by exporting not only content but also their skills.”
* Update: an expanding project
Since July the scope of the project has increased rapidly, with more publishers adding their names and more countries taking advantage of the project. There is no cut-off date for joining the project. All that is needed is access to a fast computer and printer, and broad band connectivity -comparatively small costs compared to the value in health and economic terms that access to the journals will bring.
The new arrangement is an important step in establishing the Health InterNetwork, a project introduced by United Nations’ Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, at the UN Millennium Summit last year. Led by WHO, the Health Inter-Network aims to strengthen public health services by providing health workers, researchers and policy-makers access to high-quality, relevant and timely health information through an Internet portal. It also aims to improve communication and networking. The project will provide training as well as information and communication technology applications for public health.
For further information contact: Barbara Aronson at the World Health Organization, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org