Deal allows developing countries free access to journals

Six of the world’s leading medical publishers have joined forces in a unique venture in which they have put profits aside to enable more than 100 of the poorest countries in the world to access vital scientific information free of charge through the internet.

The BMJ’s editor, Dr Richard Smith, described the arrangement, which is scheduled to start in January 2002, as “momentous” and one that will “completely transform the environment” in which health professionals, researchers, and policymakers in the developing world work.

Overseeing the signing of the “statement of intent” by senior executives of the publishers, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said: “As a direct result of this arrangement, many thousands of doctors, researchers, and health policymakers, among others, will be able to use the best available scientific evidence to an unprecedented degree to help them improve the health of their populations. It is perhaps the biggest step ever taken towards reducing the health information gap between rich and poor countries.”

At the moment key medical journals, which can cost more than $3000 (?2100) for a year’s paper subscription, are simply beyond the reach of most institutions in developing countries. But when the tiered pricing scheme is introduced the least developed countries in the world will gain access to over 1000 of the top 1240 international biomedical journals free of charge. Slightly better off countries will be offered online access at a price that reflects national economies but still at a discount of 60-70%.

It is hoped that the initiative will give a clear signal to other industries, such as computer manufacturers and internet providers, to set up similar “ability to pay” schemes, said Barbara Aaronson, collection development librarian at the WHO. Smaller publishing groups, such as professional bodies that publish the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA, are also expected to join the scheme.

Reliable internet access is still fraught with difficulties for many users in the developing world. Jon Conibear from Blackwell publishers described how students attending lectures of a visiting urologist in Addis Ababa vanished for two hours at 2pm the time that a satellite came within range to allow them internet access for two hours each day.

The WHO, which has spearheaded the project together with the BMJ and the Soros Foundations Network, also aims to provide training in communications technology as part of its Health InterNetwork project to improve public health.


BMJ 2001;323:65 (14 July)

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