Tracey Koehlmoos: Loss of access to global health journals in Bangladesh and beyond

Tracey KoehlmoosEarlier this week, my organization was blindsided by the news that 2500 journals were being withdrawn from access using HINARI. For anyone unfamiliar with HINARI, it is an acronym for Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initative. This was established by the World Health Organization to grant access to free or low cost biomedical and health literature with a commitment through 2015. (For those who work in agriculture there is a similar programme called (AGORA) and for those in the environmental sciences there is OARE.)

Not just any journals, the ones being withdrawn are some of the most influential journals in global public health including Social Sciences and Medicine and the Lancet suite of publications. The publishers withdrawing from HINARI include Elsevier, Springer, and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. The BMJ has published an article on the subject that contains a rather long quotation from me.

However, in complaining so publicly, I run the risk of appearing unappreciative of the efforts that went into creating and maintaining HINARI, which I use every day in my work. The publishing houses were generous to offer their journals open access and I recognize that they are a business and that like us, might be experiencing tough economic times.

I remain grateful for the access that WHO and the publishing houses have provided us through HINARI. ICDDR,B serves one of the poorest populations in the world, and our extensive record of publications and life-saving innovations demonstrates that the access to knowledge has not been wasted on us. The change in direction came as a surprise to us and already has impacted our ability to work. Despite progress these last several years, Bangladesh remains a low income economy, and this ban does not just affect scientists at ICDDR,B and our students in the James P Grant School of Public Health but also other internationally productive institutions like Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), BRAC, and Dhaka University.

However, through the list-serve and forum provided by HIFA2015 (Health Information For All by 2015) directed by Neil Pakenham-Walk, who is the coordinator of the HIFA2015 campaign, I learned that Bangladesh is not alone in experiencing this change. Colleagues in Nigeria and Kenya responded that they had received similar notification about the discontinuation of access. The full range of nations impacted by the change is unclear as nothing was posted on the HINARI website.
Our common concern is about the impact on quality of research and decision making as well as the impact on institution building and capacity building in developing countries. This will make it more difficult to work for scientists and health providers fighting the battle on poverty and disease from the front lines from their home countries and could contribute to brain drain.

I do not see an immediate solution to this problem. However, I know that we are resilient and will press on even in the shadow of concerns about lack of access slowing our productivity – or, most importantly, discouraging young researchers.

Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.