Equalizer or Separator of Developing Countries?
Equalizer or Separator of Developing Countries?" The Technology Source, August 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
Scientists in developing countries have a problem: those who work under adverse conditions in developing countries need to achieve more to win recognition than those who work under better conditions in developed countries, and often scientists in these developing countries watch their work go unnoticed, no matter its quality. A New Scientist editorial (1 November 1997) revealed that for manuscript publication, editors of reputed international journals select articles from Harvard over those from Hyderabad, even though both manuscripts may be of comparable qualitythey see Harvard as a safer bet than Hyderabad.
Technology exacerbates this inequality and further marginalizes scientists on the periphery. It is important for researchers to know what is happening around the world and to publicize their own work. Information is key to the growth of knowledge, and dissemination of information is crucial for scientific enterprise. Today there are thousands of journals and many of them are too expensive for libraries in poorer countries. Take, for example, scientific research in India. The best academic science library in India, the Indian Institute of Science, receives less than 2,100 serials. In the United States and Europe, many libraries subscribe to upwards of 50 thousand journals.
Today, many primary journals and secondary services are also available electronicallyfor an enormous fee. According to an editorial in Science (17 April 1998), "Digital publishing has much to recommend it over print publishing for practical if not for aesthetic reasons. Uncomfortable tradeoffs are involved, to be sure, but the gains include ease of access, rapid delivery over great distances, and hypertext links from indexing services and bibliographic citations to the full text of cited documents" (p. 359). However, few laboratories in developing countries have the necessary equipment to access information in cyberspace. How can scientists working in these laboratories be equal partners in the worldwide enterprise of knowledge production? They simple answer is that they cannot. As a result, these scientists suffernot because they are poor scientists, but because they lack technology.
Most developing countries do not have the infrastructure to take part as equal partners in the worldwide enterprise of knowledge production and dissemination. According to Bruce Girard, former director of Latin America's community radio Pulsar, 95% of all computers are found in developed nations; ten developed nations, accounting for only 20% of the world's population, have three-quarters of the world's telephone lines. Teledensity in India today is about 1.5 lines per 100 persons. Before 1994, it was less than one line per 100 persons. Many scientists do not have telephones on their desks; those who have telephones cannot make calls outside their cities. Many universities do not have e-mail or Internet facilities. Those that do have 1.2 or 2.4 KBPS connections. With such low bandwidths and poor terrestrial telephone connections, scientists can at best use e-mail, but cannot surf or search the Internet. The information superhighway is not bringing the fruits of cyberspace to all; there are too many people in the developing world who have not been touched by the communication revolution and who risk being forever behind.
A number of journals are now receiving and reviewing manuscripts by e-mail. Some journals are available only in electronic form. Editors of such journals will be reluctant to use referees from developing countries, even if they are exceptionally competent in their fields, simply because it is difficult to reach them electronically. Nor, for that matter, will many developing countries' scientists be able to publish their work in these electronic journals.
The United Nations is concerned about this imbalance in access to communication technologies. The UN's Administrative Committee on Coordination issued a "Statement on Universal Access to Basic Communication and Information Services" in April 1997 in which it comments:
We are profoundly concerned at the deepening mal-distribution of access, resources and opportunities in the information and communication field. The information technology gap and related inequities between industrialized and developing nations are widening: a new type of povertyinformation povertylooms. Most developing countries, especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are not sharing in the communication revolution, since they lack:
- affordable access to core information resources, cutting-edge technology and to sophisticated telecommunication systems and infrastructure;
- the capacity to build, operate, manage, and service the technologies involved;
- policies that promote equitable public participation in the information society as both producers and consumers of information and knowledge; and
- a work force trained to develop, maintain and provide the value-added products and services required by the information economy.
We therefore commit the organizations of the United Nations system to assist developing countries in redressing the present alarming trends (World Telecommunication Report (1998), page 3).
While the communication revolution is perceived as a uniting influence, in many developing countries (including India, I am afraid) scientists will be among the last to participate in the revolution. The disadvantages they suffer in the matter of access to information will only increase.
The low level of communication technologies and Internet access in developing countries may lead to the progressive exclusion of scientists in these countries from the collective international discourse that is essential for new knowledge production. Even now, when publishing still takes place in print, participation of India and other developing countries is low in such high-impact journals as Science, Cell, and Journal of the American Chemical Society. And the existing gulf between developed and developing countries will only continue to widen, which may lead to increased dependence on foreign aid of a different kind, and knowledge imperialism.
In an earlier era, an Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was a genius but who had not gone through a conventional training program, was nurtured in the intellectually stimulating ambience of Cambridge University, thanks to the vision of Professor G.H. Hardy. While such individual initiatives may still overcome real and apparent handicaps, we need a far more organized and systematic program of action, namely:
- early introduction of satellite-based high-bandwidth Internet access to tertiary educational institutions and research laboratories at a low cost; and
- differential pricing for information (journal subscriptions and access to databases) to developing countries.
On both fronts, what is happening is insufficient. For example, India can afford to provide Internet access to the cities, where most of the nation's research laboratories and universities are located. But this has not happened. On the contrary, different agencies in the telecom sector are quarrelling with one another. This is characteristic of developing countries: it takes too much time to make possibility a reality. As for differential pricing, both publishers and database producers are reluctant. In one rare exception, the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia offers its Science Citation Index at 50% discount to most developing country subscribers. Even then it is perceived as too costly! I would not be surprised if the gulf between the scientifically advanced nations and the others widens, further reducing the role of developing countries in the enterprise of knowledge production and dissemination. We must take action now to make the communication revolution an equalizer and enhancer rather than a tool for dividing and conquering the outstanding scientific research that does and should continue to occur in developing countries.
[Editor's note: This paper is a modified version of a paper originally presented at the conference of the International Federation of Science Editors, held at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, 7-11 June 1998.]
Edelson, A. M. (1998, April). On the future of scholarly journals. Science, 279, 359
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International Telecommunication Union. (1998, March). World telecommunication development report 1998: Universal access.
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