INASP: publishers must engage responsibly with developing-world libraries

INASP works with publishers to enable affordable access to online resources to developing countries and with national library consortia to help them meet the information needs of researchers.

Research can help countries to become better equipped to solve their development challenges. Access to the latest information is essential for any strong research and knowledge system. Good support from publishers is vital for this. INASP’s Jon Harle provides some guidelines about how publishers should engage with developing-world libraries.

INASP is a registered UK charity that works to support global research communication through innovation, networking and capacity strengthening, focusing on the needs of developing and emerging countries. We work with publishers to enable affordable and sustainable access to online resources to developing countries and with national library consortia or equivalent to help them meet the information needs of researchers. 

In 2014 INASP published some principles for publishers about how to do business responsibly in developing countries. These principles include:

    • Making the effort to understand the country context
      – understanding local needs and going beyond the capital city
    • Respecting a country’s wish to negotiate as a consortium or purchasing club – looking for alternative routes or withdrawing access during negotiations can damage relationships and reputations
    • Not making sudden changes – explaining plans early and giving consortia time to prepare
    • Thinking medium to long term on pricing – budgets won’t have increased just because countries are willing and able to deal directly
    • Being realistic about sales expectations – so where increases are needed, making these affordable, incremental and predictable

Since publishing these principles, we’ve heard of some good business approaches – publishers that are clear that consortia or their local equivalents make the most obvious partners for them, are willing to invest the time to develop those relationships and price appropriately, and recognise the importance of taking a five-year view. There are some good examples of attempts to understand the country context too. A number of publishers with which INASP works have visited consortia, while others have provided practical support, such as running short training events or sponsoring promotional activities.

But we’ve also heard of several instances where major publishers, seeking to sell directly to a country, have bypassed the consortium to establish business with government or directly with university heads. This creates considerable and unnecessary problems for consortia and bypasses the systems and structures that countries are trying to build – structures which are designed for long-term, sustainable access.

The pace of change

Access to research – at affordable rates, and at rates that will still be affordable into the future – is a major challenge.

INASP works with library consortia or other national bodies to ensure that researchers and students have the journals and books they need. This is as important now as ever as major efforts are underway to strengthen research and higher education systems across Africa, Asia and Latin America. We hear on a weekly basis how challenging this continues to be. The pace of change from philanthropic schemes to direct sales, and increases to subscription rates in the process, too often outpaces a country’s ability to respond.

INASP and our partners welcome the progressive shift to direct relationships between countries and publishers. In the long term, it is this which will better serve countries’ needs and enable them to develop the information collections that they most need. But we’re also clear that it needs to happen at the right pace. Countries need the time to develop their systems and processes, and to build the relationships they need with decision makers to ensure the right levels of future funding.

Building strong consortia, which can increase purchasing budgets and extend access to new institutions, takes time. Our partners are working hard to grow their consortia, to develop stronger relationships with university and research leaders, and to demonstrate the importance that access to information plays in building robust research systems. But too often the effort and energy that is needed to develop strong and sustainable structures is dissipated as consortia grapple with unaffordable pricing and the imperative not to let their users down.

Jon Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research Access and Availability at INASP. You can read more about INASP here; find the Principles here and follow the hashtag #inaspPrinciples