On December 22, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Earth Sciences approved India’s first open access policy. The policy had been in the works since July 2014, when a committee of members affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) had drawn up the first draft. Following two rounds of receiving stakeholders’ comments, the policy came into immediate effect.

It mandates that all scientific research funded in part or in full by the government of India should be available in the public domain. To achieve this, it takes the green open access route. After scientists have published their paper in a journal of their choice, a copy of the paper is duly made available within one year on a national repository maintained by the DBT/DST. Then it gets better. The policy institutes a pay-it-forward mechanism to perpetuate the practice: scientists have to submit proof of having uploaded previous publicly funded research in future applications for grants.

These rules apply to all papers funded by grants from 2012-2013 onwards.

The policy itself is an important tool in the modern information economy because it is the simplest mechanism with which to extend the codified right to information. Open access also safeguards the value of scientific data and knowledge and frees it from a publishing business that, in order to safeguard its interests, trades them in for the demand for them. While this has been the traditional mode of scientific publishing – by getting the consumers downstream to pay the publishing costs – the open access movement moved the costs upstream. Now, the authors pay to get their work published.

Although publication in the DBT/DST national repository will be free of charge, this is a problem the country’s scientists would do well to consider as they adopt open access publishing. Effectively, what is the point of substituting one kind of inequality (richer vs. poorer readers) with another (richer vs. poorer authors)? The asymmetry arises when you consider two things:

  1. Scientists can offer have publishing costs covered through their grants or through funds from their universities, which can often afford such costs
  2. By moving costs upstream, the contents of the paper become already paid for and make them more accessible

This ‘access’ is the need of the hour. It – and the richer learning environment it brings with it – defines the ability of the scientific literature to leverage the agility of tools available to its audience to become more useful faster. Like the nuclear fusion on a star prevents it from imploding thanks to its own gravity, the acknowledgment of access’s centrality to social and economic development keeps the publishing enterprise imploding due to its own costs. After, it’s only a matter of efficiency: the easier you make it for information to get around, the faster you’re going to use it.

Nevertheless, the inequality substitution paradigm does become relevant when considering open access’s long-term interests: to make information available for all, including to those who can’t afford to publish their papers in open access journals. Over time, as the methods through which new scientific information reveals itself become standardized in much of the world, the principal challenges will be to make it ubiquitous at minimum extra costs. One solution being considered on this front is to transfer the burden to the journals themselves, alleviating the plights of the authors as well as readers, even while ensuring that journals are tasked with securing funds to cover for printing and publishing.

… in other words, acknowledging that if anybody needs to make the money, it’s them, and then helping them make the money for themselves.

But all said and done, a bright start for India. Hopefully adoption will be quick, although some institutions listed on the national repository’s webpage are already ahead. In fact, there are two repositories, one each for the DBT and the DST, while institutional repositories are listed separately. The domain itself, sciencecentral.in, leads to a handy text and metadata harvester parsing through all the information in the papers. Needless to say, the opportunities, both for instruction and criticism, are endless at this point, and provide another tool – like the RTI Act – with which to hold the government and its research priorities accountable to the people’s scientific temper.