Draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Proposes Major Changes to India’s Open Access Culture

[This post has been co-authored with Praharsh Gour]

On 2/01/2021, the Ministry of Science and Technology rolled out the draft version of the proposed Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. The process to have a new policy, subsequent to the 2013 one, was in the works since May 2020 (see here for our coverage of the same). And after a claimed 4 track process of consultations and “nearly 300 rounds of consultations with more than 40,000 stakeholders well distributed in terms of region, age, gender, education, economic status, etc” the present draft version of the policy is brought out for public consultation. The substantive portion of the policy is spread out in eleven chapters and for the purpose of this post we shall discuss the first chapter titled “Open Science”. It is to be noted – the Ministry of Science and Technology is concerned only with STEM type sciences, while research in social sciences seems to fall under the ambit of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, under the Ministry of Education. Therefore on the face of it, research in social sciences are not covered by this policy and it would thus be very pertinent to see whether the Ministry of Education will be joining this endeavour or not. As per the Press Release, the draft is open for comments till Jan 25, 2020 on email: india-stip[at]gov[dot]in 

Is Access now granted (read Open)? 

The draft policy places a lot of importance on Open Science and the need for publicly funded research to be inclusive and accessible. In pertinent part it states: 

“Open Science fosters more equitable participation in science through diverse steps like increasing access to research outputs, more transparency and accountability in research, inclusiveness, better resource utilisation through minimal restrictions on reuse of research outputs and infrastructure, and ensuring constant exchange of knowledge between producers and users of knowledge. It is important to make publicly-funded research output and resources available to all to foster learning and innovation. STIP aspires to build an ecosystem where research data, infrastructure, resources and knowledge are accessible to all.” (emphasis provided)

Open Access Portal: The policy proposes to establish an open access, interoperable portal called the Indian Science and Technology Archive of Research (INDSTA). The portal shall be dedicated “to provide access, specifically, to the outputs of all publicly-funded research (including manuscripts, research data, supplementary information, research protocols, review articles, conference proceedings, monographs, book chapters, etc.).” Notably, INDSTA is to also support text and data mining, querying and visualisations. 

Open Data: Importantly, the draft policy also proposes to make available all the data used in and generated from publicly funded research to the scientific community and public at large. The Policy suggests that all the data shall be available in Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR) terms. These guiding principles provide both machines and humans better ability to engage with the vast amounts of data that is being generated in scientific eco-systems. (More on FAIR principles can be read here.) 

It also states that wherever applicable, on the basis of grounds of privacy, national security and IPRs, data will be made available to the public, subject to anonymisation or redaction. Or if the same is not possible then, it will still be made available to “bonafide and authorized researchers”. While it is understandable that not all data can (or should) be made available, this does require clarity on what qualifies a researcher as a ‘bonafide’ researcher, what type of data is eligible for being kept away from the reach of the general public, etc. 

Post-Print Repositories: The policy calls for an important Open Access mandate on manuscripts coming from public funds. It states,

“Full text of final accepted author versions of manuscripts (postprints and optionally preprints) along with supplementary materials, which are the result of public funding or performed in publicly funded institutions, or were performed using infrastructure built with the support of public funds will be deposited, immediately upon acceptance, to an institutional repository or central repository”.

The draft doesn’t elaborate on this but this type of a requirement would also have the double benefit of pushing all public funded manuscripts away from publishing in ‘closed’ journals, which traditionally don’t allow post-prints (i.e., post peer review) to be shared in accessible manners. This institutional push away from ‘closed’ journal publishing is a huge step in itself – as such mandates may be the only way of getting around the high pressure academic publishing environment that often pushes (ie., forces) academics to publish in closed journals, based on impact factor and reputation, etc. And regarding the central repository – unlike Mendeley, SSRN etc, there is no question of a giant publisher acquiring this central repository since it would be a government repository. 

One Nation, One Subscription

The most notable feature of the policy is the call for one centrally negotiated subscription which will enable access to “all individuals in India”. While this would have huge repercussions, the draft policy currently doesn’t elaborate on much. The whole provision is reproduced below: 

The Government of India will negotiate with journal publishers for a “one nation, one subscription” policy whereby, in return for one centrally negotiated payment, all individuals in India will have access to journal articles. This will replace individual institutional journal subscriptions.”

It is laudable that such a radical proposal is being considered in a way that makes clear that the research communities’ concerns regarding access and excessive subscription fees have been heard. While this, if successfully implemented, would be a game changer for researchers in the country, a lot depends on how large the theory-practice gap is when this provision is sought to be converted from paper to practice. As noted in an earlier post – there is a strong need to question why so many people need to depend on shadow libraries in the first place – and this policy proposal goes right to the heart of that question – but in its current limited form, leaves many other questions open. 

Firstly – would journal publishers be open to such a proposal? While it would certainly make their job easier to just negotiate with one bulk governmental consumer, would it make business sense (read: profit maximisation) for them to provide access to ‘all individuals in India’ at one price? On the other hand however, is the fact that access to top scientific journals is an inelastic demand – i.e., at the end of the day, institutes need access to this if they want their researchers to be internationally relevant. And at this unprecedented scale of India-wide subscription level – will this end up with the Government just paying whatever ridiculous price the journals put forth? (relevant – see here and here). Another question is who will decide which journals are worth subscribing to, now? This is especially relevant since it also says this will replace individual institutional journals. (This would be presumably be more problematic in social sciences, where various other considerations could come into the picture but perhaps a less troubled, even if still a tedious issue within STEM sciences). Given market dynamics – if an individual / private institute wants/needs to subscribe to a journal outside of the government selected ones – is there a chance that these (non-subscribed) journals will now become even higher priced, since the only ones who go after them, will presumably have a higher demand for them? 

Regardless, much of the direction of this policy marks significant progress by the Indian government towards a culture of greater / open access. It also shows an understanding that public funded research is meant for the public (see here and here), as well as a desire to reach into the vast catalyzation potential that such access would provide. It now remains to see whether the next step of converting this to the implementation stage is one which is feasible or not. 

The Consultation Process

The consultation/ public participation in the background of the policy merits appreciation independent of the policy document. The policy discloses that close to 300 rounds of negotiation has occurred for its formation, since May 2020 till date. The participative model behind the policy is based on four interdependent tracks. 

  • Track I is concerned with creating a repository of public voices to guide the drafting process.
  • Track II is consulting 21 expert-driven thematic collectives for feeding evidence based recommendations in the drafting process.
  • Track III comprises of engaging with ministries through nominated nodal officers 
  • Track IV (a bit ambiguous)  engagement of apex-level multi stakeholder at national and global levels.

The independent organization Science Policy Forum (SPF) led the Track I initiatives and devised six instruments for fulfilling the commitments therein (more about these instruments can be found here).

(Pic from the SPF website linked above)

That being said – regardless of how good a process SPF has steered – questions raised in an earlier post about SPF as a host of the process, remain. 

Additional notes

The Open Science portion of the document also touches upon other important aspects, even if only briefly. It looks at infrastructural needs of the community by calling for libraries at public funded universities to be accessible to the public without undue hassle. It further endeavors to make ‘learning spaces’ universally accessible, “especially for people with special needs” and also seeks to enable the right of attribution, preservation and translations (especially in regional languages) of the publicly funded educational resources. The policy further highlights the need to improve awareness and accessibility of the Indian journals internationally, as well as the issue of predatory journals in India. To that extent, the limited text in the draft policy does seem to reflect a well rounded understanding of the problems of access in India. However, the devil is often in the details, and only when those details are available, will we know if the solutions also reflect an understanding of these problems. As mentioned above, the draft policy is laudable for its initiative to rattle the cage, however it is yet to be seen if the proposed ‘maverick-esque’ solutions have the needed teeth to take the proposed bite. 


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1 thought on “Draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Proposes Major Changes to India’s Open Access Culture”

  1. Open Access is a movement and this draft STIP makes right noises about it. One `Nation one Subscription’ is a slogan with good intention.

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