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Discussions about the future of scholarly publishing are underway throughout the developed world and there are a number of concerns surrounding the provision of information to and from the less developed countries (LDCs). There is considerable agreement relating to information flow to and from the LDCs whilst the issues over copyright ownership and free provision of information in the developed world are still areas of hot debate.

In his article John Eyers presents the current arguments for free access. The basis for many of these arguments is that online publication is ‘almost cost-free’, but this is a naïve assumption and only takes into account the ‘print-and-distribution’ costs which form a small fraction of a journal's expenditure. Other costs include preparing articles for online publication, coding for inclusion in PubMed, ISI and other databases, and – pertinent to the title of his article – the funding of initiatives such as the WHO Hinari project to provide access to journals into the LDCs. In addition, publishers invest heavily in developing their products both for the present (for example, the American Physiological Society invested $250 000 in scanning all the issues of their journals to ensure a complete online archive for their subscribers, Frank 2001) and for the future (investing in archival technologies, such as the Harvard project, Cover 2002).

It should also be remembered that publishing pays back to academia in the form of honoraria, editorial expenses, refereeing expenses and royalties from publication – in 2001 Blackwell paid back more than £15 million. Many learned societies and organizations rely on the funds from publications to maintain their membership services – including training workshops and scholarships. The calls for free access have largely come from the US, where many societies have sufficient membership revenues to allow them to give their journals away free or extremely cheaply: but this is not the case with all US societies, and it is certainly not the case with most European or Australasian societies whose publication revenues are vital to their existence.

It is unfortunate that the large declared profits of one or two commercial publishers have been used as an indication of how lucrative science publishing is: the same profit margin is not true of the majority of publishers – particularly those smaller ones including the learned societies. The advocators of free access should consider where the cost of ‘free’ publication will be borne, and what influence this will have on the sustainability of journals.

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    If publication is free then there can be no repayments to editors or editorial offices, and so they must be funded by institutions – and dependence on an institution's own funding may not be sustainable. Recently the ArXiv physics pre-print server launched by Paul Ginsberg moved from Los Alamos to Cornell because there appeared to be a growing lack of support (Butler 2001).
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    Funding can be made available from governments, and the US government is most active in this area – for example, PubMed, which is funded by the National Institute for Health and owned by the US Government – but does this lead to a geographical and subject bias? They do not fund a similar service in other subject areas.
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    Funding can come from an independent organization, such as the Budapest initiative, which is to be fully financed by the Soros Foundation (Chan et al. 2002).
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    Finally, controlled circulation publications are funded by industry advertising and sponsorship, and therefore biased by the needs of industry.

In each of these models the publication is vulnerable should the funding cease because of politics or economics. With a subscription journal the funding relies on the journal providing what the subscribers want – in quality, price and subject coverage – and subscribers have more control over the future of the publication.

There is also a difference in technical ability and the willingness of authors from different communities – whilst physicists may be happy to supply their files in XML-coded formats, the same is certainly not true in most of the medical area, where authors still supply in a variety of formats, and considerable work is required to convert them into a machine-readable form so that titles, authors, references, etc., can be identified and searched online.

The ‘take back copyright movement’ has been successful in making publishers think about which rights should remain with the authors, and in making them clarify the reasons for requesting that copyright be assigned to them. The assignment of copyright to the publisher (often a society) serves two purposes. It ensures that any copyright issues are managed by a central base (for example ethical or legal issues can be dealt with by the publisher rather than the authors); and it enables rights administration to be centrally managed to ensure full citation and, where possible, commercial sales that can bring in revenue from industry. Few publishers would deny the authors their right to re-use their material for non-commercial purposes (forexample during teaching).

Finally, it is worth questioning why certain publications (free or paid) survive, and why authors want to publish in specific journals. In the developed world a journal's impact factor is very important to career development and research funding. Many of the free online journals do not have an impact factor (which is given by the ISI, and not by Medline or PubMed) – for example of the 55 journals within BioMedCentral, only seven are currently indexed by ISI. Although this may be less of an issue within the LDCs, it can determine which journals attract high quality material and will therefore survive and flourish – and so remain a suitable vehicle for all quality articles regardless of the country of origin.

Publishers, editors and learned societies are increasingly aware of the information gap between the developed and developing world, and this has led to a number of initiatives aimed at providing information at no cost (or very low cost). Most responsible publishers acknowledge their responsibility in this area, and if they are not part of the large initiatives, they are increasingly looking at means to get their journals into more LDCs. At Blackwell, this responsibility is taken very seriously, and there are several initiatives in place such as:

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    In agreement with the WHO Hinari project (http://www.healthinternetwork.org/) most of the Blackwell journals are available free online to institutions in the developing world.
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    The Malaria project run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/international/africa/) provides the journal Tropical Medicine and International Health free online to selected institutions in Africa.
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    Russian academics can access most of the Blackwell list online through a reduced-price agreement sponsored by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research.
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    Chinese readers will be able to buy locally priced copies of many of Blackwell journals via an initiative signed with the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation (CINIPEC).
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    Blackwell journals are also being provided to libraries in the developing countries at greatly reduced prices or free as part of the PERI initiative run by the agency INASP (http://www.inasp.info).

Not only is there a will to provide information to the LDCs, there is also action.

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