Bridging the digital divide: a review of current progress

Derek Law

The Authors

Derek Law, University Librarian at the Centre for Digital Library Research, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK


Received 16 June 2003 Accepted 27 July 2003


Observes that electronic information is a part of the established order of things, but almost from the beginning its arrival has created a whole series of wars, accusations and debates on how what is effectively a new system of scholarly communication is to be organised, managed and funded. Looks at the future of scholarly publishing, the “Internet solution”, and the reactions to the new technology of commercial publishers and many other stakeholders in academia.

Article Type: Research paper
Keyword(s): Information management; Publishers; Publishing; Dissemination of information; Internet.

Library Management
Volume 25 Number 1/2 2004 pp. 17-21
Copyright © Emerald Group Publishing Limited ISSN 0143-5124


Electronic information promised and promises still a revolution in the availability of and ease of access to information. Although it seems to most practitioners that we are in mid revolution, electronic information has already become part of the natural established order of things for researchers and in major libraries in developed countries. That arrival as part of the establishment can be dated fairly precisely. In April 1990, King’s College Hospital Medical School celebrated its 150th anniversary with a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey, held in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi. As part of the service, various items were carried to the high altar and blessed; they included early medical instruments, life-saving and life-enhancing drugs – and a compact disc of the MEDLINE database. Interestingly, this was carried, at his request, by a professor of immunology and not by a librarian. The following day this service was reported in the Court pages of The Times, since The Queen had attended the service. We can thus safely assume that, blessed by the church, attended by royalty and carried by a professor, electronic information had from that point arrived safely as a part of the established order of things. But almost from the beginning the arrival of electronic information has created a whole series of wars, accusations and debates on how what is effectively a new system of scholarly communication is to be organised and managed and funded.

The debate on the future of scholarly publishing

Throughout the 1990s there was a growing dissatisfaction with traditional academic publishing. The steady above inflation growth in prices and the new challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet threw into high relief a growing sense of imbalance in the way the benefits were shared between authors, readers and publishers. The so-called “Faustian bargain” (Harnad, 2003) was perceived to have been made void. The vicious circle of increasing submissions, higher prices and falling subscriptions seemed to be leading to an inevitable reduction in access. The “Internet solution” appeared to offer unlimited space, lower costs since there was in effect neither printing nor distribution, promising free or low price access for the user, and yet users found it ever more difficult to get access to the literature. This was even more true in developing countries and countries in transition, where the downstream technology costs added a punishing new hurdle to the financial cost of the information itself.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the arguments, publishers unsurprisingly responded in a variety of unpopular ways offering a bewildering and fast changing series of pricing models and attempting to restrict access in ways which the technology now allowed. They have a strong base from which to do so. Commercial publishers have proven and efficient structures; they have millions of pages of content; they are well funded; they have good understanding of the use of new technologies to provide new services. In terms of the market they were also dragged with various degrees of willingness into consortia and licensing deals. Academics in turn responded with a whole series of initiatives from preprint archives, to setting up alternative (relatively) low-cost journals. This debate shows no sign of abating and a growing number of stakeholders from individual researchers to the institutions which pay their salaries have been steadily politicised as a result.

In all of this debate, the weak, the small and the poor were largely onlookers. As part of the debate however came a growing recognition of two issues. First, that it is important to distinguish between scholarly communication and scholarly publishing, and second, that “information rich, information poor” is not a simple geographic divide. For example, a recent SADC Report (SADC, 2002) shows wide disparity between the 14 countries of the region. Another report on Kenya (Mutula, 2002) shows how such basic factors as the electricity supply and the state of the economy can dictate the pace of development of a national network infrastructure. The same is true in eastern Europe where, for example, the proportion of the post-14 population who are Internet users varies from 2 percent in the Ukraine to 37 percent in Slovenia (OSI, 2001). Even within developed countries the ability to access electronic information varies hugely between the major research institutions and the small colleges and even senior schools with marginal need for access to such information. The pervasiveness of English is also a factor which is unhelpful to scientific communication in many parts of the world.

And so it was recognized that the much larger debate over the future of scientific communication was to some extent irrelevant to the issue of making scientific research publications available to all. A number of initiatives then developed to ensure that scientific research has a global outreach. Only a few of these are described below, three attempting to make present publications more available and two attempting to change the model of communication.

The availability of publications

The three largest initiatives have varied roots in a public charity, the World Health Organisation and a publishers’ grouping. Although they appear to overlap and even compete with each other they each have slightly different agendas and the task is so huge that there can be little fear of duplication.

Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL)

EIFL is sponsored for its first three years by the Open Society Institute (OSI). EIFL has a slightly different approach from the other initiatives. It aims to create national negotiating consortia in developing countries which will become an independent self-financing global consortium, able to negotiate with publishers themselves. It aims to grow to cover about 75 countries in three years and will aim to provide low-cost access to research materials identified by the consortia for North-South transfer as well as encouraging lateral transfer of material between developing countries and countries in transition. It already has links to 2,000 libraries or public institutions in 39 countries and has initially provided access to several thousand journals via the EBSCO service for business and social science journals. Although the provision of content “top-down” is an initial activity to demonstrate what can be done, the longer term aim is sustainability which uses demand aggregation of many small requirements to create a powerful bargaining agent. It is also different from both Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) and Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERI) (see below) in that the objective is that the content should be user not programme defined and that the relevant local ministry should be engaged in meeting the cost and in understanding the importance of so doing.

Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI)

HINARI is intended to provide free or very low cost access to scientific journals in biomedical and related social sciences to public institutions in developing countries. It is at least in part a response to Kofi Annan’s UN Millennium Summit in 2000 and is led by the World Health Organisation. The focus is very much on the way in which health information is a key component in developing effective public health services for developing countries and in informing policy makers on the best approaches to health issues. An initial deal was struck for three years with six major publishers covering some 1,500 journals and this has now increased to some 22 publishers covering 2,000 journals. The technical requirements have been set relatively low at 56Kb Internet links.

The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) PERI Programme

INASP ( was set up by the International Council for Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1992 and in 2000 it set up the PERI. It has four components, all of which aim at creating a sustainable environment for the dissemination of research literature.

The first component concerns the acquisition of fulltext journals, databases and document delivery. It has aimed to make the literature available by negotiating country wide access licences with discounts in the 90-98 percent range. At 1 January 2003 it provided access to some 8,000 fulltext journals and databases.

The second component is an attempt to develop regional and national online services for the dissemination of local research. African Journals Online ( is already available and similar initiatives are being developed in other areas of the world.

The third component addresses ICT skills for information literacy. The model used is that of appropriate and relevant training materials which uses travelling workshops to train the trainers.

Fourth, there is a strand to develop publishing competences. This varies from the creation of handbooks and manuals to in-country or regional workshops to improve publishing operations and a mentoring programme.

Changing the model

The battles which have begun have already led to the creation of new models of scientific communication. Even these new “free” resources will require positive management and marketing if they are to be made available to developing countries in the manner intended. Two major initiatives are attempting to address this in quite different ways.

Directory of Open Access Journals

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is an initiative based at Lund University ( It grew out of discussion at the First Nordic Conference on Scholarly Communication in 2002 ( The aim of the directory is to increase the visibility of and simplify access to all open access scientific and scholarly journals whose content is governed by either peer review or some form of editorial quality control system. Already the directory contains information about 350 such journals which are free to readers and/or their institutions. The service will continue to grow as new journals are identified. Work is progressing on a collection development policy, technical specification of the database, the discovery and recording of resources and dissemination of information about the project. This last is probably most crucial in determining whether the project can move from an interesting byway to a central feature of the information life of researchers.

The DOAJ seems bound to increase the visibility of open access scholarly journals. As a conscious and beneficial by-product this will promote their increased usage and by extension their impact. There is, however, an implicit challenge for libraries and librarians in this. Libraries have grappled with mixed success with the issue of how to catalogue and access the electronically licensed material they purchase. It requires a leap of imagination of which librarians have not always been capable, to start cataloguing/linking to material they do not possess and which is free, and to promote journals provided by a further intermediary layer.

SciELO – a model for cooperative electronic publishing in developing countries

A further encouraging development is the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) ( model pioneered in Latin America, which makes available 164 fulltext scientific journals. SciELO starts from the premise that access to relevant and up-to-date scientific and technical information is essential in economic and social development, especially to support the planning, formulation and implementation of public policies and also to support professional development and practice. The results of scientific research are generally validated and disseminated by publication in scientific journals. This is a near universally accepted process. However, scientific journals from developing countries face distribution and dissemination barriers – and sometimes linguistic barriers – which limit availability and usage of locally produced scientific information.

SciELO is a model for cooperative electronic publishing of scientific journals on the Internet which was conceived to meet the scientific communication needs of developing countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. It provides a route to assure universal visibility and accessibility to their scientific literature, helping to overcome the phenomena known as “lost science”. In addition, the SciELO model includes integrated procedures to measure the usage and impact of scientific journals.

The model has three elements. The first element is the SciELO methodology, which enables the electronic publication of complete issues of scientific journals, the organisation of searchable bibliographic and fulltext databases, the preservation of the related electronic archives and the production of statistical indicators of the usage of this scientific literature and its impact. The methodology also includes journal evaluation criteria based on international standards for scientific communication. SciELO full texts are then enriched with dynamic hypertext links to national and international databases such as LILACS and MEDLINE.

The second element is the application of the SciELO methodology to operate Web sites of collections of electronic journals. The SciELO model encompasses the creation and operation of national sites as well as thematic sites. The initial application was the Brazil site ( Subsequently, Chile ( and Cuba ( have also begun operation. Several other countries are evaluating and/or being trained on the SciELO methodology. SciELO Public Health (, a regional thematic library covering public health scientific journals from Latin America and Spain, was launched in December 1999. A portal to integrate and provide access to the network of SciELO sites operates at:

The third element is the development of real partnerships among national and international scientific communication players – authors, editors, scientific and technological institutions, funding agencies, universities, libraries, scientific and technological information centres etc., aiming at the dissemination, improvement and sustainability of the SciELO model. The operation of the SciELO network is strongly based on national infrastructures, which help to guarantee its future sustainability.

Radical solutions for all?

Many are examining more radical and even subversive forms of scholarly communication (Guédon, 2001). Indeed it has been questioned whether we need journals in the post-Gutenberg age. In the most extreme model of the deconstructed journal authors self-archive manuscripts, inform the relevant peer-review body, whether scientific society, national academy, for-profit entity, NGO, foundation, etc. After peer review, they inform the relevant portals of the status of the manuscript.

But science itself may be changing as a result of the Internet, grid computing and e-science. It becomes possible to publish/communicate on the Internet daily, to share experimental data, metadata, assumptions and analyses. Almost instantly other scientists can check results, re-analyse, annotate and comment. What was essentially a private process can become a giant international collaboratory. Managing this poses huge potential problems, but these are all manageable by and for the academy.


So are we any closer to a solution to bridging the digital divide for developing countries? Not only can they not afford the full cost of the published literature, but in many cases the lack of both a technical and publishing infrastructure has prevented high levels of uptake of new opportunities. Of course one can argue that this may provide some advantages. The lack of baggage from the old system of scholarly communication allows innovative thinking to take place. The increased ambition for South-South cooperation in making relevant local information more accessible than ever is, for example, a very welcome shift in emphasis from the North-South exporting of information. Some major initiatives are in train to improve the situation with regard to scholarly publishing while the titans fight out the future of scholarly communication. Important stakeholders have recognized civic obligations to make information more accessible but there is perhaps also scope for an international treaty on “free trade” in scientific and technological information, which recognizes that in some measure these are global public goods.

After the events in Tiananmen Square, Ronald Reagan perceptively remarked that the growth of electronic information would bring down dictatorships more surely than guns. He did not appear to notice the corollary that electronic information would provide a bulwark in defending democratic structures and institutions. Scholarly information is as much a part of that bulwark as any other.


Further reading