In response to our piece on the Publishers for Development Conference and the Research4Life program, Jonathan Harle from INASP reached out to us to engage in a critical discussion around the challenges of addressing questions of power in scholarly communications. OCSDNet is committed to constructive dialogues and we greatly appreciate INASP’s initiative to open up this conversation between our projects. We hope this exchange brings us closer to an equitable and fair scholarly communications system in service of global sustainable development and local well-being.


Research, Knowledge, and Development: Changing Systems Takes Time

By: Jonathan Harle, INASP


  • When it comes to identifying and addressing the challenges of their own countries and regions, Southern researchers, policy-makers and communities should play the lead role.  A Southern-led research agenda – not just one responding to agendas set in the North – matters because this is about knowledge that can improve lives. It is, of course, a question of power.
  • At INASP, we have a vision of the world where the ideas and talents of Southern researchers – and those who ultimately need that knowledge, from policymakers to practitioners to communities – are as much a part of the global knowledge system as their Northern peers.
  • Achieving this vision and addressing existing inequities means combining principles with pragmatic problem-solving. It means recognizing who plays an important role in the system as it is currently configured, and working with them to help move the system to a new state.


Strengthening Southern capacity

Over the last 25 years, INASP’s driving purpose has been to strengthen the ability of Southern researchers, university professionals, users of research, and their institutions to put research at the heart of development – and to increase their power within national and international systems.

As an organization, we began by addressing the fundamental problem of access to scientific information, but it became clear that access was only the beginning of the problem. Our scope widened to address the abilities of Southern researchers to communicate their work and to make Southern research visible. In recent years, we have increasingly focused our attention on the use of that knowledge in various ways, by supporting government officials, parliamentarians, and other decision-makers to effectively use evidence to make better policy decisions.

One of the particular challenges we encounter is how to move towards a vision of global equity and support partners to transform the system, while also supporting them to work within it as it is at present.

System transformation takes time

Realizing the potential of open approaches to publish and access information, and to generate scientific knowledge through collaborative efforts — jointly exploring new ideas, co-designing and co-producing research, and engaging users in this process – offer ways to shift these systems in important directions.

But, system transformation is a long process. In the meantime, Southern researchers need access to the latest science in order to produce high-quality and relevant work. And they need to have their work published through channels that the academic communities recognize in order to ensure that their work is read and acknowledged.  They can’t afford to be locked out, in the dark, while we work with them to change the system.

One of the ways that INASP has sought to level the playing field, and enable greater participation in knowledge systems, has been to make research journals from across the globe more accessible. We work with Southern scholarly publishing groups – in the form of journal editors, and regional and national journal publishing platforms – to ensure that there are Southern-owned and Southern-led channels for communicating research.  We also engage with Northern scientific and scholarly publishers and have worked with them to lower subscription prices, or, in some cases, to remove them all together, in order for Southern researchers to have access to the work of their international peers.

However, if access is to be sustainable, strong Southern library consortia are essential. They bring a deep knowledge of their countries’ needs so that the right information is made available. This has been a priority for INASP over many years. Today, many Southern library consortia have stronger national mechanisms to secure and manage the research resources that their countries need by pooling budgets, setting up institutional systems, and developing the skills to negotiate directly with publishers.

Building connections between libraries and publishers

Ten years ago, we recognized the need for the Northern publishing community to acknowledge their impact on development and to bring them into more direct conversation with Southern researchers and librarians. From this, Publishers for Development was born. It is a modest initiative, realized through an annual conference, regular blogs, and newsletters, and underpinned by ongoing conversations between INASP, our Southern partners, and publishers.

Over the years we have sought to help publishers understand Southern research environments and institutions better – so that they appreciate the limited budgets that meet many demands, the huge variance between capital city ‘flagship universities’ and rural institutions and a growing higher education system that is still yet to translate into a growing reader base. We have codified these conversations into a series of Principles for Responsible Engagement, which serves as a core point of reference throughout (and, we hope, beyond) our discussions.

These are rarely easy conversations. They are conversations between commercial businesses and public universities with limited funding, between experienced salespeople and Southern colleagues unfamiliar with negotiating prices and licenses. They are difficult because universities have little to spend, and publishers need to make money. And they are difficult because the much recent debate has framed these two communities as oppositional.

Pragmatically working towards system transformation

These conversations take time, and change can be slow to emerge.

We don’t want to speak for our Southern partners. We want to provide the spaces for partners to speak for themselves, and to offer the advice and support they need to develop the skills and confidence to do the talking. A whole range of skills need to be developed and institutions strengthened in the South to enable more equitable participation in international debates and systems. And Northern institutions need to modify their own practices and behaviors and accept a different role.

Being pragmatic has involved supporting library consortia to develop effective communication and play their role effectively and efficiently so that publishers can be persuaded not to increase prices to cover additional administrative costs.

Being pragmatic has also involved challenging publishers on their business approaches and pricing models, while also working with them to make content accessible to Southern users. It’s also involved supporting Southern-led publishing, so that it becomes not just an alternative, but a recognized and credible alternative that means researchers anxious about visibility, readership, impact – and their own career progression – can chose these titles, knowing that they will be respected by peers in both the North and South and because they recognize these journals as the best channels for their research (see our new Journal Publishing Practices and Standards initiative).

Change is happening. Several of our Southern consortia partners are now solely responsible for negotiating and handling transactions with publishers without INASP mediating the relationship or providing a ‘service’ – though we remain on hand to advise and support. Several of our publisher partners have adjusted their approach – minimizing price increases, agreeing to support national licensing arrangements rather than pursuing institutional deals, recognizing the difficulties researcher have in understanding the various OA options (such as navigating the complex process of applying for APC waivers).

Fundamental to INASP’s approach is a focus on long-term work, that can enable sustainable change. We approach this through capacity development based on an understanding of what works in local contexts. We develop partnerships built on an inclusive, participatory approach to build trust and ensure ownership. And we seek to influence those with the power to make change happen – both locally and internationally.

None of this is easy. It involves difficult and sometimes uncomfortable compromises, but, we see that it brings success and satisfaction, and ultimately stronger, Southern led research systems.