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Volume 25, No. 4

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April / May 1999

 

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Information Technology:
What Does It Mean for Scientists and Scholars in the Developing World?


by Subbiah Arunachalam

Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature and author of the trilogy Beloved, Jazz and Paradise, once said that it seemed as if writing about the life and sensibilities of Black people didn't really count; it was not thought important enough to merit attention; it was peripheral.

The Lowly Status of the Developing World

Doing science or working in any area of scholarship in a developing country is somewhat like being a Black in the Alabama of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. One is at a great disadvantage. In an imperfect world, one who works under adverse conditions in a developing country needs to achieve a lot more to win some recognition than those who work under far better conditions in the advanced countries. Scientists in developing countries can rarely get their research published in well-known Western journals. For example, fewer than 2% of the articles in The New England Journal of Medicine come from the developing world. Its British equivalent The Lancet is far more considerate to developing world scientists, with about 8% of papers coming from developing countries. Even when a developing country paper appears in an important journal, it can go unnoticed. Indeed, as shown by the Hungarian scientometricist Tibor Braun and colleagues, the relative citation rate (ratio of observed number of citations to the number expected from the impact factors of journals in which the papers have appeared) is far less than unity for most developing countries. Leading databases, almost all of which are published in the West, index only a few developing country journals. For example, Science Citation Index indexes about a dozen Indian journals and Medline about 25.

Harvard vs. Hyderabad

 Immediately following the Prague conference of biomedical editors in September 1997 New Scientist [1 November 1997, p. 3] commented on the discrepancies in an editorial. They noted that when it came to choosing manuscripts for publication editors of reputed international journals would more likely select the one from Harvard in preference to the one from Hyderabad -- even though both manuscripts may be of comparable quality. To most editors in the West, Harvard seems a sounder bet than Hyderabad. When refereeing manuscripts received from journals, the New Scientist editorial says, overly enthusiastic reviews are given to work from friends, friends of friends and people whose work is already familiar from conferences. More negative reviews go to researchers with unfamiliar names (like Arunachalam, for example!) from far-off lands. No wonder many American journals are perceived to be parochial even by European scientists.

 Technology tends to exacerbate this inequality and help further marginalize scientists on the periphery. The Internet, or for that matter any technology, does not come without its attendant problems. History has repeatedly shown that technology inevitably enhances existing inequalities. A recent study by the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for example, revealed that access to computers, modems and online connectivity increased throughout the United States between 1994 and 1997. However, the gap in access between the rich (mainly white and non-Hispanic immigrants) and the disadvantaged (mainly Black, Hispanic and inner city populations) had widened considerably.

 Let us consider scientific research in India. It is very important for scientists to keep abreast of what is happening around the world as well as keep others informed of what they are doing. Information is key to the growth of knowledge, and dissemination of information is crucial for scientific enterprise. In pre-independent India, when scientists of the caliber of C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, J.C. Bose and S.N. Bose made their first-rate contributions to knowledge, the main vehicle for transmission of knowledge was the scholarly journal. There were far fewer journals then than now, and scientists around the world were almost at the same level as far as accessing information was concerned. True, most journals were published in Europe, and Raman and his Indian colleagues received the journal issues a few months later than their European colleagues - the time it took for the boat to cross the seas.    

 Today there is a tremendous proliferation of journals and many of them, especially those published by commercial firms, are out of reach for libraries even in the West. It is heartening to know that the Special Libraries Association in the United States is collaborating with like-minded societies to publish less expensive quality journals to save scientists from being held to ransom by greedy private publishers. The best academic science library in India, the one at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, receives only 1,562 serials, including the ones received gratis and on exchange. In contrast, in the United States and possibly Europe, many university libraries subscribe to upwards of 40,000 serials. Thanks to the rising value of the U.S. dollar and pound sterling on international currency markets and dramatic increases in subscription prices of journals and databases, libraries in India and other developing countries have been forced to reduce the number of journals and secondary services they receive.

Can I Call Myself a Scientist?

The situation in Africa is particularly bad. A Nigerian professor once told Seun Ogunseitan, the dynamic journalist turned information provider:

    When you call some of us scientists, we laugh at ourselves. We know we can no longer make contributions to science. I do not know what my colleagues in Kenya or London have found, for example. So I cannot carry out an experiment and believe I am on the path to an original contribution to the sciences. If I have been giving generations of students the same notes for the past ten years, I should not call myself a scientist. [ The discipline of curiosity: Science in the world (Elsevier, 1990) pp. 19-25.]

Ogunseitan continued, "Many people in our universities are not sure what is the state of science. Scientists often have to rely on what they are told, for example, by newspapers, by friends or by Time magazine. How can such people ever become authoritative and confident scientists?"

On top of this, many primary journals and secondary services have now gone electronic. Current awareness services such as Current Contents Connect, abstracting services such as SciFinder (Chemical Abstracts) and multidisciplinary citation indexes such as the Web of Science are available on the Web, at a fee that most university and research laboratory libraries in developing countries cannot afford. An increasing number of primary journals are becoming accessible through password control on the Web. These include such all-time favorites as Nature, Science and the British Medical Journal. The house of Elsevier has made almost all its journals available through the Science Direct service. High Wire Press of Stanford University is hosting a long list of quality journals. Physicists have gone one step further; they circulate preprints through the Los Alamos Physics e-Print Archives long before they appear in print in refereed journals. This service, unlike subscribed journals, is absolutely free to anyone who can access it.

Free it may be, but in reality most developing country scientists are excluded. To access information in cyberspace, one first needs access to the corresponding electronic technology. Often technology diffuses rather slowly, and even today most scientists and scholars in developing countries do not have access to the new information and communication technologies. As a result, the performance of researchers can be (and is) affected, not because they are poor physicists or chemists but because they are not connected to electronic information networks.

Accessing information through CD-ROMs offers capabilities not possible through print, and accessing information through the Web offers capabilities not possible through CD-ROMs. As A.M. Edelson pointed out in a recent editorial in Science, "Digital publishing has much to recommend it over print publishing for practical if not for aesthetic reasons. Uncomfortable tradeoffs are involved, but the gains include ease of access, rapid delivery over great distances and hypertext links from indexing services and bibliographic citations to the full text of cited documents."[ Science, 179 (17 April 1998), p. 359] Hardly any laboratory in the developing world has Web access to these databases. How can their scientists be equal partners in the worldwide enterprise of knowledge production? The truth is that the transition from hard copy to electronic publishing will widen the gap between developed countries and developing countries and will further marginalize the already marginalized scientists and scholars in the South.

The Have-Nots and the Know-Nots

Most developing countries, especially those with large populations, do not have the necessary infrastructure (computer terminals, networks, communication channels, bandwidth, etc.) to contribute as equal partners in the worldwide enterprise of knowledge production and dissemination. According to Bruce Girard, former director of Latin America's community radio Pulsar, 95% of all computers in the world are in the developed nations. Ten developed nations, accounting for only 20% of the world's population, have three quarters of the world's telephone lines.

Teledensity in India is about 1.8 lines per 100 persons. Until 1994 it was less than one per 100 persons. In contrast, however, teledensity in the United States and Canada is more than 60 per 100 inhabitants. To make matters worse, most of India's telephones are concentrated in metropolitan cities. Many scientists do not have telephones on their desks. Those who have often cannot make calls outside their towns, let alone overseas. Many universities do not have e-mail or Internet facilities. Some do have 1.2 or 2.4 kbps (kilobytes per second) connections. With such low bandwidths and poor terrestrial telephone connections, one can at best send and receive e-mail messages but cannot surf or do online searches on the Internet. The simple truth is that the information superhighway is not bringing the fruits of cyberspace to all. Not yet. The Indian universities have been talking about automating and computerizing their libraries for more than a decade, and they had even established a full-fledged organization called the INFLIBNET with funding from the University grants Commission. Now INFLIBNET is talking about providing Internet access to all universities, but if the progress made so far is any indication it will take years before anything worthwhile is achieved.

There are far too many people in the developing world who have not been touched by the information and communication revolutions. These are the have-nots and know-nots who risk being always behind. True, those who have access to new technologies undoubtedly are much better off now than before. But the point is that notwithstanding efforts toward reducing the imbalance by organizations such as the British Council (which promoted BICA99, held in late February 1999 in South Africa), a vast majority of scientists in developing countries do not have access to these technologies.

Take, for example, the Los Alamos Physics e-Print Archives mentioned above. Physicists at a few institutions in India  -- Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Institute of Mathematical Sciences and a few others -- are using this facility. But many physicists in leading universities such as the University of Delhi, University of Madras and the Banaras Hindu University do not have access to Internet or e-mail. Professor Panchapakesan of the University of Delhi told me that until he got a research grant from the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, no one in the department of physics had direct access to the Los Alamos archive! In contrast, virtually every physicist in North America and the UK, I guess, will have high bandwidth access to the Internet. The relative disadvantage of developing country scientists becomes obvious.

A growing number of journals, especially in the fields of science, technology and medicine, now receive and review manuscripts by e-mail, and some journals are available only in electronic form. Editors of such international journals will naturally be reluctant to use referees from developing countries, even if they are extraordinarily competent in their fields, simply because it may be extremely difficult to reach them electronically. Nor for that matter will developing country scientists be able to publish their work in these electronic journals.

United Nation's Concern

 The UN is greatly concerned about the imbalance of access to electronic communication facilities. The UN's Administrative Committee on Coordination issued a statement on Universal Access to Basic Communication and Information Services in April 1997 [Executive Summary of the World Telecommunication Development Report 1998: Universal Access. March 1998 (International Telecommunication Union, Geneva)] in which it stated

    "We are profoundly concerned at the deepening maldistribution of access, resources and opportunities in the information and communication field. The information technology gap and related inequities between industrialized and developing nations are widening. A new type of poverty, "information poverty," looms. Most developing countries, especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are not sharing in the communication revolution, since they lack

    • affordable access to core information resources, cutting edge technology and sophisticated telecommunication systems and infrastructures;
    • the capacity to build, operate, manage and service the technologies involved;
    • policies that promote equitable public participation in the information society as both producers and consumers of information and knowledge; and
    • a workforce trained to develop, maintain and provide the value-added products and services required by the information economy.

    We therefore commit the organizations of the United Nations to assist developing countries in redressing the present alarming trends. The knowledge gap is widening."

 While the communication revolution is perceived as a liberating influence, what is most likely to happen is that in many developing countries (including India, I am afraid) scientists and scholars will be among the last to be reached by it. In India, for example, the stock market community has a network of its own with dedicated telephone lines, but, as mentioned above, a vast majority of scientists do not even have telephones on their desks. The relative disadvantage they suffer (in the matter of access to information and knowledge) will only increase. The number of institutions and individual scholars having access to e-mail and Internet in developing countries and the rate at which this access has grown over time will support this contention. The speedy transition to electronic publishing will make it much easier for scientists and scholars in the developed countries to interact with colleagues and members of their invisible colleges. This is already reflected in the enormous increase in recent years in the percentage of papers resulting from cross-country collaboration involving authors from advanced countries (such as the G7, OECD and European Union countries).

 My major worry is that the low level of information and communication technologies in the developing countries will lead to the progressive exclusion of a majority of their scientists and scholars from the collective international discourse that is essential for active participation in all fields of research. Even now when much publishing takes place in print, participation by India and other developing countries in high impact journals, such as Science, Cell, Journal of the American Chemical Society, is abysmally low. The already existing gulf in the levels of science and technology performed in the developed and the poorer countries will be widened further and that could lead to increased levels of brain drain and dependence on foreign aid of a different kind (knowledge imperialism).

 In an earlier era, Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, a genius who had not gone through a conventional training program, was nurtured in the intellectually stimulating ambience of Cambridge University thanks to the foresight of G.H. Hardy. While such individual efforts may still help overcome obstacles on occasion, what is needed to overcome the current crisis is a far more organized and systematic program of action. Early introduction of satellite-based high-bandwidth Internet access to tertiary educational institutions and research laboratories at low cost and differential pricing for information (journal subscriptions and access to databases) to allow institutions throughout the developing world to obtain the most recent journals and most up-to-date databases are high on my agenda.

Can Happen but Doesn't

 On both fronts, I am not happy with what is happening. For example, India can easily afford to invest in high-bandwidth Internet provision to the 100 or so cities and towns where most of the nation's research laboratories and universities are located. But this has not happened, although we go through the motions and give the impression of being serious. In the past two years there have been several initiatives.

  • Prof. V.S. Arunachalam, formerly scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defense at New Delhi and currently with Carnegie-Mellon University, has made a proposal on networking the academic and research institutions of India at a cost of a few million dollars. He has visited India several times and discussed this proposal with men who matter, such as then-finance minister P. Chidambaram; Chandrababu Naidu, the technology savvy chief minister of Andhra Pradesh; and ministers and senior bureaucrats in Delhi. He was considering getting the funds either as aid or as a soft loan from an international agency.
  • The Scientific Advisory Committee to the previous cabinet, headed by Prof. C.N.R. Rao, FRS, appointed a subcommittee with Prof. Roddam Narasimha, FRS, as the convenor to prepare a report on the subject. The report was submitted to the then-Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, but no action was taken.
  • Now another committee with external affairs minister Jaswant Singh as chair and Prof. M.G.K. Menon, FRS, as one of the deputy chairs, is examining the informatization of India. The committee has already submitted two reports, one on software and another on hardware. The report on software received prompt attention from the cabinet. But the second report that on hardware submitted four months ago does not yet seem to have received the attention of the prime minister and the cabinet. As pointed out by Prof. Menon at a recent meeting convened by the government of Kerala, we cannot afford such lethargy in matters pertaining to information technology.
  • On March 16, 1999, Prof. N. Balakrishnan, head of the Supercomputer Education and Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science, planned a discussion meeting on information technology in India at the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian equivalent of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Prof. V.S. Arunachalam and Prof. Raj Reddy of Carnegie-Mellon University were expected to join the deliberations. Some academics I know are talking about providing 2 gbps (gigabits per second) bandwidth!
  • Some state governments, such as those in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have entered into an agreement with WorldTel, a company managed by Sam Pitroda, who is largely responsible for making telephone services widely available to Indians, to make available public access Internet and e-mail facilities in their states.

 With so many initiatives, one would expect the whole of India to be networked soon, but what is actually happening is disheartening. Different agencies in the telecom sector, which have to implement and deliver, are quarrelling with one another. Indeed, this is a characteristic of developing countries: it often takes far too much time for things to happen or to translate something from the realm of the possible to reality.

 As for differential pricing, both publishers of primary journals and database producers are reluctant to embrace such measures. In one rare exception, the Institute for Scientific Information, Philadelphia, offers Science Citation Index at a 50% discount to most developing country subscribers. Even then it is perceived as too costly!

 Given these circumstances, I would not be surprised if very soon the gulf between the scientifically advanced nations and the others widens even further, reducing further the role of the developing countries in the enterprise of knowledge production, dissemination and utilization. Do I sound pessimistic? So did Toni Morrison.


Subbiah Arunachalam is a distinguished fellow in information science at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India. He is on the editorial boards of half a dozen journals, including Scientometrics, Journal of Information Science, and Current Science. He can be reached at
arun@ indy.iitm.ernet.in or  subbiah_a@ hotmail.com. This article is a slightly modified version of papers presented at Science Communication for the Next Millennium: Ninth International  Conference of the International Federation of Science Editors, Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, 7-11 June 1998 and subsequently published in the Educom Review.
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