Research4Life will soon mark its twentieth anniversary, a remarkable achievement given the large number of contributing partners, the absence of any formal legal structure and the ambition to reduce the knowledge gap for researchers in over 10,000 registered institutions across 125 countries.
Every five years the Executive Council of Research4Life commissions a review of the programme, gathering feedback from a wide range of partners and users to assess whether it is meeting its strategic objectives, and identifying areas for further improvement. In 2019 the first phase of this review project was initiated, with the Partner (or “Infrastructure”) review being contracted to Research Consulting. Alongside this first review, we felt it necessary to take stock of the many changes and developments taking place both in the “research for development” sector and in the mainstream of scholarly communication, to place our own programme review in its appropriate external context.
Of particular significance in the past five years has been the launch of the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, setting out 17 key goals and 169 specific targets to achieve a more equitable world, reducing poverty and improving health and livelihoods. Implicit in these goals (commonly known as the SDGs) is that access to the outputs of research is a catalyst for development, not a development goal in its own right. This underlying principle sits at the heart of Research4Life as well; researchers in its eligible countries need access to scholarly outputs both to inform their own endeavours and practices, and as a capacity building pathway to bring their own research to the global community.
Research4Life also exists in the fast-moving and technologically advanced world of academic and professional publishing, an ecosystem which has embraced digital and mobile knowledge creation, curation and discovery. Keeping up with technical advances remains a challenge for Research4Life, which depends on the goodwill of its partners and a very modest expenditure budget to provide an effective and intuitive user experience. The growth of the Open Access movement (whose literature is also available through Research4Life) and the proliferation of new and innovative ways to support the research scientist’s information management needs, are all external factors which Research4Life must take into account in its future development roadmap.
This Research4Life Landscape and Situation Analysis, therefore, provides extremely pertinent and valuable insights into the shifting dynamics and external influences at play, from Global Megatrends down to Trends in Scholarly Communication, which will serve as an invaluable scene-setting contextualisation for the whole Research4Life Reviews project. Given the extremely interesting and useful reflections provided here, the Research4Life Executive Council is happy to share its insights and conclusions with other stakeholders in the wider research communication ecosystem and indeed the broader world.
Research4Life Reviews Board Administrator
Chair, Research4Life Executive Council
Research Consulting was commissioned by Research4Life to undertake this landscape and situation analysis of trends in the research and scholarly communication landscape in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs), considering how these may impact Research4Life’s strategic direction over the next five years.
The landscape analysis considers three levels of analysis, as shown in Figure 1. Firstly, it seeks to identify global megatrends relevant to research and international development (section 2). It then progressively narrows the focus to key trends in research (section 3) and trends in scholarly communication (section 4). At each level of analysis, the study identifies political, economic, social and technological trends (PEST), using a simplified version of the PESTLE conceptual framework. Visual summaries of the political, economic, social and technological trends for each level of analysis are available on pages 12, 24 and 40.
This Executive Summary highlights a subset of these trends that have a more direct and significant impact on the sectors and stakeholders served by Research4Life. The summary uses the PEST framework but it does not differentiate between levels of analysis, since most of the trends discussed here concern research and scholarly communication.
Access to science and the SDGs: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) see scientific research as a catalyst for development. This idea ties in with an increasing focus by research funders on driving positive social, economic and environmental impact through research. A growing amount of research is aligned to the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and this is especially the case in LMICs, where research in agriculture and health is heavily funded by international sources. Given the political focus on scientific knowledge, barriers to knowledge access (be they infrastructural, language-related or financial) are incompatible with the vision set out in the SDGs.
Equitable research: in recent years efforts have been made to address perceived inequality in research collaborations, and development assistance has focused on strengthening LMIC research capacity through research training, research management training and funding for research infrastructure. Similarly, increasing attention is being paid to structural inequalities affecting scholarly communication, such as perceived biases in peer review processes and publishing business models that are incompatible with the financial reality of researches and research organisations in LMICs.
OA policy push and Plan S: research funders have pushed for the advancement of free and open access (OA) to scholarly research. OA policies for journal articles and, increasingly, for books and monographs have been adopted by a growing number of research funders and research organisations in high-income countries based on the argument for access to scientific knowledge as an economic driver and/or the view that taxpayers and charitable donors have a right to access what they pay for. Recently, the announcement of Plan S has seen several European and international funders committing their support to immediate OA, while UNESCO has launched a global consultation on Open Science. Institutions and researchers based in LMICs are meanwhile advocating for forms of OA that are sensitive to the local context, especially those based on subsidised OA journals and platforms. By 2025, it is estimated that more than 70% of article views will be to OA articles.
Growth in R&D investment: LMIC governments are investing more in research and development, but there is a lack of private sector investment. The funding gap is still large: while OECD countries invest over 2% of their GDP, Research4Life countries invest well under 0.5%. International research funding is a large part of LMICs’ R&D expenditure, and there has been an increasing focus on research capacity strengthening activities. However, there are concerns that international funders are injecting their own priorities into LMICs’ research agenda.
Shift to author-pay model: open access is promoting a gradual shift from a reader-pays to an author-pays business model in scholarly publishing. However, this specific form of OA has been driven by high-income countries while LMICs are proposing alternative OA models. A popular OA publishing model in many LMICs is the so-called subsidised OA, where open access journals and platforms do not use publication charges. This model allays concerns over the barriers to publication erected by an author-pays model and shifts the financial cost of publishing to research organisations, research funders or government entities.
Changing publishing marketplace: the rise of open access, the ‘leakage’ of scholarly content from publisher platforms to other sources (both licit and illicit) and the rapid increase in the global number of scientific publications over the past decade (largely driven by China and LMICs) are changing the publishing marketplace. Library consortia in high-income countries are negotiating read-and-publish deals with publishers, while the market is witnessing both consolidation of major publishing houses and the emergence of platforms as alternative publishing outlets.
University growth: Rapid population growth and demand for higher education is fuelling unprecendented growth in the number of universities in LMICs. However, these organisations are largely education institutions hence there has not been a commensurate increase in university research activity overall. Nevertheless, the emergence of large networks of universities is a positive development and, combined with stronger government incentives for technology and innovation, will likely benefit research production across the developing world over the coming years.
Importance of other actors: alongside universities, governmental and non-governmental research organisations are significant research actors across the developing world. These organisations produce significant research although they are generally less compelled to publish papers than research centres related to higher education. Non-governmental organisations have in the past been excluded from OA debates and unable to take advantage of initiatives such as Research4Life.
Researcher numbers are growing… slowly: The combination of population growth, rapid urbanisation, and the spread of basic education has increased the talent pool for research, but the number of researchers in LMICs is not growing as fast as is needed. Compared to their counterparts in high-income countries, LMIC researchers benefit from less research funding not only in absolute terms but also when adjusted for the lower living costs within their own country. Moreover, these researchers are often offered inadequate training. This makes the choice of a research career unattractive, stifling growth in research capacity in many developing countries and fuelling so-called brain drain towards regional research hubs and high-income countries.
Internet and mobile research: improvements in communication technology have contributed to an increase in literacy levels and access to information in real time, disseminating knowledge and connecting people across the developing world. Mobile internet connections have greatly increased access to research in LMIC, and they are positively correlated with increased research productivity.
Importance of research data: over the past decade, the increased ability to share large datasets online and the desire to enhance research reproducibility have increased the importance of research data in scholarly communication. Yet LMICs’ capability for harnessing digital data and implementing cutting-edge technologies appears limited and progress is much slower than in high-income countries. For instance, Africa and Latin America together only account for less than 5% of the world’s colocation data centres. This new digital gap also extends to technologies like artificial intelligence and the use of big data in research, where, on top of the infrastructure, LMIC researchers struggle to acquire data literacy skills through training.
Changes to search and discovery: Researchers have more avenues to disseminate and discover research. Abstracting and indexing databases and referencing tools remain important, but social platforms like ResearchGate are increasingly used as tools to discover relevant research and access it free of charge, and to disseminate research findings to a global audience without having to publish in international journals. Researchers also make widespread use of Sci-Hub, a platform containing copyrighted scholarly content, even where they have legitimate access to content. These platforms are highly likely to have had a detrimental impact on usage of Research4Life resources in recent years.
In the final section, the review assessed each trend by considering its disruptiveness (i.e. the extent to which it changes current research or scholarly communication practice) and its relevance to Research4Life. Three overarching themes appear especially important to Research4Life’s strategic outlook from our analysis of these trends:
Growth in LMIC research: research in LMICs is growing both in terms of the total amount of money invested in R&D and the total number of researchers that need access to scholarly literature and research data. There is greater recognition of the link between research and sustainable development, growing demand for researcher training and a persistent research funding gap vs. high-income countries. These factors all point to a continued need for initiatives like Research4Life which aim to promote equitable participation in the global system of scholarly communication system.
The rise of open access: OA is changing the amount of literature that is freely available to LMIC researchers, as well as publishing business models. The rise of both author-pays and subsidised OA models, plus growth in illicit sharing of copyrighted materials, is steadily eroding the value of paywalled content. Access to Ebooks and databases is likely to remain of value for longer than journal articles, and OA itself creates a new challenge of equitable access to publishing. Taken together, however, these trends are likely to progressively undermine Research4Life’s existing value proposition over the next five years.
Changes to search and discovery workflows: new researcher workflows have also changed the landscape by radically altering the user experience of search and discovery. In particular, AI-powered search engines and social platforms are gradually replacing publisher platforms and aggregators, bringing the research to the researchers and not the researcher to the research. At the same time, digital IDs are seeking to streamline researcher identification and authentication, further improving user experiences and accelerating personalisation of content discovery. As the technology continues to improve, these trends are likely to make the existing Research4Life interface look increasingly obsolete. These three themes represent the priority areas for Research4Life to consider as it plans for its next funding cycle and beyond.
Article Publication Charges
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Expenditure in Research and Development
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
Political, Economic, Social, Technological analysis
Research and Development
Sustainable Development Goals
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
Research Consulting was commissioned by Research4Life to undertake this landscape and situation analysis of the key trends in the research communications landscape, including funding of research in and for low-and-middle-income countries, considering how these may impact the strategic direction of Research4Life.
Background to the project
Research Consulting was commissioned by Research4Life to undertake a landscape and situation analysis of the key trends in the research communication eco-system.
Taking into account recent developments, the study aims to:
Understand the external dynamics and recent changes within the research communication ecosystem, including the funding of research in and for low-and-middle income countries, which may have an impact on the value provided by Research4Life for its stakeholder partners and users;
Identify the key trends in research communication which are likely to have a bearing on the strategic direction of Research4Life over its next 5-year cycle.
We use a simplified version of the PESTLE framework, a tool used by companies to track the environment they’re operating in or are planning to launch a project, product or service. PESTLE lists six dimensions that a company must consider when assessing its market position (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) and gives a bird’s eye view of the external landscape from different angles.
In this report, we focus on political, economic, social and technological (PEST) dimensions. This simpler framework focuses on those factors that are directly relevant to research and scholarly communication, and which have, or are likely to have, an impact on Research4Life’s value proposition and market positioning. For simplicity, legal issues, such as those concerning copyright law, are discussed as part of the broader political movement towards OA or changing social attitudes towards towards content sharing in online platforms.
This landscape analysis has sought to identify the key trends affecting research and scholarly communication using a mixed methodology. Firstly, the identification of trends was informed by our own knowledge and years of investigation on the research topics. Secondly, it was influenced by the analysis of interviews and survey responses undertaken for an internal Infrastructure Review, undertaken for Research4Life by Research Consulting over the same timeframe as this landscape analysis. Finally, desk-based research was undertaken to find evidence on the key trends. The review combined quantitative analysis of publicly available datasets (e.g. published by UNESCO, the World Bank and others) with comparative analysis of qualitative information published in academic journals and grey literature.
This report is organised around four main sections. Section 2 discusses global trends that are, or are likely to be, consequential for international development; it provides the broader context for the trends discussed in the following sections. Section 3 reviews the main trends shaping research funding, research production and research dissemination in low-and-middle-income countries. Section 4 discusses the most relevant trends in scholarly communication and how these affect the business model of publishing and the user experience of researchers, as both authors and readers. Finally, the conclusions assess the likely impact that these trends will have on Research4Life’s value proposition and market position over the next five years.
"Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge. "
--Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC Chinese Poet
It is important to note that the trends and subsequent future implications outlined in this report are plausible, but not definitive. They stem from an analysis of academic literature, our findings from interviews conducted with key stakeholders and survey responses as well as our own informed opinion. They may come to pass in full or in part, or indeed a combination of multiple outcomes could occur in a variety of different ways. These trends are significant at the time of writing but may prove to be less significant than we expect in future.
We would particularly like to thank the Review Board Administrators, Andrea Powell and Kimberly Parker for the guidance they have provided throughout the duration of the project. We also thank the individuals listed in the Infrastructure Review report who kindly participated in our consultation, and provided valuable feedback on their experience of Research4Life and the scholarly communications landscape which helped to inform the contents of this report.
Research and scholarly communication take place within a fast-changing global context. This section explores the political, economic, social and economic forces (“global megratrends”) that developing countries are both affected by and contribute to creating.
The Sustainable Development Goals: a consensus vision for global development?
The United Nations (UN) have played an active role in framing global consensus for international collaboration, development and sustainability since the global partnership for sustainable development agreed at Earth Summit of 1992 (UNCED, 2020). In September 2000, UN members agreed eight goals to reduce global poverty by 2015, known as Millennium Development Goals (UN, 2020a). These were followed in 2015 by a broader vision, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that combine the aspiration of ending poverty, improving health and education, reducing inequality and pursuing economic growth in a way that tackles climate change and protects the environment (UN, 2020b). This ambitious vision continues to guide development thinking and multilateral cooperation, providing a framework for international relations that reflects the vision and priorities of both high-income and low-and-middle income countries. It is also supported by a proposed reform of the UN Development System introduced in the 2030 Agenda, which will establish a strategic UN Development Assistance Framework led by an independent resident coordinator (UN, 2020b).
Rise of populism and nationalism
In recent years, however, the multilateral ethos embodied by the SDGs has been called into question by the rise of populism and nationalism in low-and-middle income countries. The United States Government, the largest contributor to the UN, has advanced an America First agenda that has placed it at odds with the ideas of shared prosperity and cooperation that underpin the SDGs. The US has threatened to withdraw support to the United Nations and has withdrawn from several UN treaties – most notably the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. At the same time, the rise of strongmen in countries like Russia and Turkey, and of right-wing populism across Britain and Europe, has contributed to this global realignment. One of the central tenets of this nationalist ideology is mistrust towards multilateral institutions and a transactional, protectionist view of international relations. This has hurt global trade, multilateral action on climate change and disarmament, and even regional collaboration. There are also signs that this political environment might further align Overseas Development Assistance with the trade and/or political interests of donor countries, instead of focusing on the needs and challenges of LMICs.
Declining influence of high income countries and the rise of China
The rise of populist nationalism in high income countries has arguably legitimised the expansion of nationalism and populism in low-and-middle income countries. The governments of Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duarte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil express (to different degrees) this nationalistic drift. Even in those low-and-middle income countries where there has not been a drastic change of government, nationalistic undertones have permeated the political debate. This has reinforced legitimate concerns about foreign influence in domestic agenda, a more sceptical attitude towards the scope and role of overseas development assistance and resistance towards perceived political meddling by actors from high income countries. Increased protectionism and perceived political intrusions have reduced European and North American influence in parts of the developing world. At the same time, China has increased its global influence by forging strong commercial and investment links with low-and-middle income countries not just within its traditional sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific, but also in resource-rich countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South America. This expansionist, trade-focused policy by the Chinese government is likely to continue over the coming decades, with China increasingly poised to import resources, export products and delocalise production in large parts of the developing world. Strategic, cultural and political influence are likely to be the corollary to China’s soft power of economic integration (Carter, 2017).
Economic growth is on the rise, but so is inequality
Since the turn of the century, low-and-middle income countries have experienced rapid economic growth and this trend has continued in the context of a sluggish global economy post-2008 financial crisis. Over the past few years, the fastest growing national economies were all located in Asia (East and South) and Africa (East and West), with annual GDP growth of 6% or higher. Most countries in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Africa have also been growing at 3-6% per annum, while countries in Latin America and North Africa have alternated years of rapid growth with years of stagnation or recession (IMF, 2019). This growth has coincided with a continued decline in global poverty, with the proportion of people living with less than $1.90 a day1 declining from 42% of the population in 1980 to 26% in 2000 to just 10% in 2015 (World Bank, 2019a). The most dramatic decline was experienced by East Asia (from 80% in 1980 to 3.6% in 2015), followed by South Asia (from 55% in 1980 to 16% in 2015), Latin America (from 13.5% in 1980 to 8.6% in 2015) and Sub-Saharan Africa (from 59.6% in 1993 to 41.3% in 2015). However, while distribution between countries has diminished (Roser, 2020), wealth inequality within countries has risen dramatically. A report by Credit Suisse showed that 3.4 billion people (71% of the world’s adults) control assets worth just $7.4 trillion while, in contrast, the top 34 million people collectively control assets worth $113 trillion (Credit Suisse, 2019). The most dramatic decline was experienced by East Asia (from 80% in 1980 to 3.6% in 2015), followed by South Asia (from 55% in 1980 to 16% in 2015), Latin America (from 13.5% in 1980 to 8.6% in 2015) and Sub-Saharan Africa (from 59.6% in 1993 to 41.3% in 2015). However, while distribution between countries has diminished (Roser, 2020), wealth inequality within countries has risen dramatically. A report by Credit Suisse showed that 3.4 billion people (71% of the world’s adults) control assets worth just $7.4 trillion while, in contrast, the top 34 million people collectively control assets worth $113 trillion (Credit Suisse, 2019).
Services, debt and volatility
Although economic growth has generally translated into bigger government budgets, the increased demands of growing populations meant that per capita spending has not been growing as fast as GDP, and has been declining in some countries (under so-called ‘austerity’ programmes). Moreover, interest rates have remained historically low across high income and low-and-middle income countries to sustain growth and investment while sovereign debt is dangerously high, especially in the advanced economies. After a period of sovereign debt reduction, low-and-middle income countries have started spending and their debt is increasing again (IMF, 2019). Combined with high financial volatility, this situation heightens global economic risk as governments have few tools available to respond to future downturns in the financial markets.
Protectionism is on the rise
Another trend that threatens global economic stability is the rise in trade protectionism, consequential to the rise of nationalism. A number of trade barriers have been introduced since 2018, the most significant of which have been higher tariffs on bilateral trade between the US and China. This increase in protectionism has contributed to the slowdown in global growth, both via the direct effects on trade flows, supply chains and import costs, and via the wider indirect effects on business sentiment, uncertainty and investment around the world. This reverses a 50-year trend towards trade liberalisation that had seen the global tariff rate decline to an average of just 2.5% in 2017 (Bank of England, 2019). While in the short term trade tensions between the US and China have benefited some developing countries, a more severe trade war is likely to have a negative impact on LMIC economies that are heavily reliant on commodity exports (World Bank Blogs, 2019).
Rapid population growth
Over the past 50 years, low-and-middle income countries have experienced rapid growth in population, while population in high-income countries has stagnated. This trend has continued in the past 20 years at an accelerated pace, albeit with significant regional differences. East Asia has been growing at the slowest pace, at around 0.6-0.7% per year between 1998 and 2018. Latin America has grown by 1.1-1.2% per year over the same period, South Asia has grown around 1.5-1.7%, North Africa and Middle East just under 2% and Sub-Saharan Africa by around 2.7% per annum (World Bank, 2019b). This rapid growth was caused by a combination of high fertility rates and lower mortality, with life expectancy increasing significantly across the world. Consequently, we have an ageing population globally, with an unprecedented share of the population aged 65 and over (United Nations, 2015). Simultaneously, as an imbalance of the populations of high-income and low-and-middle income countries has materialised, migratory patterns have changed, with migration being the primary source of growth to populations in the developed regions since the 1990s (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, 2017). The consequence of this on research has been a ‘brain drain’, with a higher proportion of skilled workers from low-and-middle income countries bringing their expertise to high income countries and thus, depriving developing nations of human capital (Docquier et al., 2007). This has undoubtedly benefitted high-income countries and boosted economic capital but has been detrimental to the progression of LMICs.
Urbanisation, services and literacy
At the same time, the share of the population living in cities has increased across all regions, most dramatically in East Asia (from 40% in 1998 to 60% in 2018) and Sub-Saharan Africa (from 31% in 1998 to 41% in 2018) (World Bank, 2019b). This mass internal migration has also placed public services in urban areas under severe pressure, leaving central and local governments scrambling to respond to change. At the same time, however, these trends have enabled a rapid improvement in literacy rates and education levels, producing a class of young and aspirational people.
Growing demand for education
The combination of population growth, rapid urbanisation, and the spread of basic education has increased the talent pool for research, presenting opportunities for the development of science across LMICs. Alongside rising needs for basic services in urban areas, low-and-middle income country governments have faced a rise in demand for higher education (World Bank Group, 2017). As the more literate, urban population has adapted to the needs of a service economy and developed legitimate aspirations of social mobility, demand for university places has risen significantly (DFID, 2019), prompting governments to invest in higher education. As a result the number of universities in low-and-middle income countries has soared over the past two decades.
Internet access & the information revolution
Over the past decade, technology has had a big impact on various dimensions of public and private life. First came the internet revolution in the mid-1990s. Internet access has risen rapidly across all regions, but substantial differences remain. Around 88% and 84% of the population use the internet in North America and Europe. Respectively, 65% in the Middle East, 63% in Latin America, 56% in East Asia, 30% in South Asia and just 25% in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2019c). Then came the mobile revolution in the late 1990s and the smartphone evolution in the late 2000s, which greatly increased communication and democratised access to information by making internet connections available without the need for expensive broadband infrastructure. Mobile communication has increased dramatically, with the number of mobile cellular subscriptions almost doubling in LMICs over the last ten years (World Bank, 2019c), while the availability of smartphones is responsible for much of the growth in internet access discussed above. Improvements in communication technology have contributed to an increase in literacy levels and access to information in real time, disseminating knowledge and connecting people across low-and-middle income countries.
AI, big data and blockchain
In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been described as a new technological revolution (Makridakis, 2017), although some have questioned whether it is more of an evolution (Leetaru, 2019). Incremental gains in processing power and the rise of cloud computing have enabled the use of AI for data processing across various industries, gradually replacing humans with machines for increasingly complex tasks. Because AI allows the processing of large datasets (so-called big data) much faster than conventional methods, it can be used to find trends and make inferences that provide new knowledge and insights. Overall, AI is thought to bring economic opportunities for all countries (Makridakis, 2017), but commentators are increasingly concerned about the rise of AI colonialism (Kwet, 2019) and the destabilising effect that the centralisation of data-intensive activities will have on economic inequality between and within countries (Butcher, 2019). Low-and-middle income countries’ capability for harnessing digital data and implementing cutting-edge technologies still appears limited: Africa and Latin America together account for less than 5% of the world’s colocation data centres, highlighting the risk of LMICs being left behind (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2019).
Investing in tech for development
In this context, some low-and-middle income countries have looked at technology as an opportunity to bridge the productivity gap with high-income nations, driving public investment in STEM disciplines and innovation. This is consistent with the SDG vision (UNCED, 2020) (SDG target 17.8) and the establishment of the UN Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries (United Nations, 2020a). The strategy makes sense because software development does not require an extensive industrial infrastructure for production and sale of products, a particularly advantageous geographical location or favourable trade deals. There are certainly low-hanging fruits that the adoption of AI technology can and probably will bring to low-and-middle income countries, although it is unclear how much this will spread across a characteristically under-resourced private sector in much of the developing world. By contrast, developing cutting-edge AI technology requires a combination of knowledge, digital infrastructure and investment that may not be available in low-and-middle income countries. While rapid technological development is affecting investment decisions in LMICs, donors are also looking to support adoption of latest technologies.
As knowledge is increasingly shaping economic development, the role of research and innovation in society is changing rapidly – and so are the roles of the different actors that shape its agenda. This section reviews the trends affecting research funding, production and diffusion in both wealthy and resource-constrained economies.
The links between research & sustainable development
The ability to produce and have access to scientific research is considered a conduit for sustainable development in low-and-middle income countries (Franzen et al., 2017); (Vogel, 2012); (Vinkler, 2008); UNESCO, 2019). The establishment of the UN Academic Impact (United Nations, 2020b) (UNAI) initiative indicates that universities are seen as having a crucial role to play in achieving the sustainable development goals through teaching, finding novel solutions in their research and promoting Global Goal ideas across institutions and into our communities (Charlton, 2020). This ties in with research funders and policymakers’ increasing focus on demonstrating research impact.2 The link between research and economic development is influenced by issues related to research production (i.e. the quality and relevance of research), research diffusion (including scholarly communication and knowledge exchange activities) and research uptake (i.e. the extent to which research and evidence are used in decision-making). A growing amount of research is aligned to the sustainable development goals (SDGs), especially in the areas of agriculture, sustainability, health and interdisciplinary research topics (Institute for Scientific Information, 2019), and the SDGs themselves set an agenda and provide a framework for scientific endeavours (United Nations, 2019). This research comes primarily from high-income countries (Times Higher Education, 2019). Low-and-middle income countries also contribute to SDG research, but they do so in areas of regional focus (Institute for Scientific Information, 2019).
Redressing imbalances in research collaboration
Scientific collaborations have been growing between high-income countries and LMICs as well as among LMICs. LMICs’ collaborations with high-income countries have been affected by perceived problems of equity. Common criticisms are that research partners from high-income countries generally retain leadership over research projects, gobble up most of the budget, maintain ownership over the IP, claim first authorship and impose their research agenda and research ethics standards onto LMIC partners with little consideration for local practices and priorities (Schroeder et al., 2019). These concerns have disincentivised some LMIC researchers from pursuing collaborative projects or, more commonly, have caused conflicts during the projects – especially around research data sharing with partners in high-income countries (Bezuidenhout and Chakauya, 2018). A recent report (Rethinking Research Collaborative, 2018) looked at these problems and suggested a number of principles for fair and equitable partnerships, including commitments to redress hierarchies, critically engage with the context of LMIC partners, respect diversity of knowledge and skills, align with LMIC research priorities and invest in building long-term relationships. By contrast, collaborations between LMICs are generally more equitable and tend to create more capacity among developing countries researchers. These collaborations tend to work along regional lines, supported by regional organisations (for instance, the African Union and the Association of South-East Asian Nations both have research strategies) and by the emergence of regional research hubs such as Egypt, India or South Africa (Royal Society, 2011).
The rise of China in research geopolitics
Increased awareness of the link between research and sustainable development has inspired many overseas development funders to support research capacity strengthening activities across LMICs. While these have traditionally been the remit of European and North American countries, the rise of China as a research powerhouse (Cai and Ng, 2019) has also been reflected in its increasingly significant role as an international funder of research (Cyranoski, 2018). For instance, the China–Africa science and technology partnership programme (CASTEP) was launched in 2009, with the Chinese partners providing funding for African scientists to study in China, and for research equipment on their return home. Just like European and North American countries, China sees research collaborations as a way of advancing its soft-power, preparing a qualified workforce for the delocalisation of some of its production and securing the provision of important economic assets – especially in agriculture (Cyranoski, 2018). These developments are rebalancing global influence in scientific research and offering more avenues to collaboration, but some actors have expressed concerns about their implications for academic freedom (Pils and Svensson, 2019).
Politicisation of science
Another emerging challenge for research is the recent trend towards the politicisation of science, with examples ranging from the alteration of scientific theories for political reasons to the outright rejection of expertise that has accompanied the rise of populism. Examples of science politicisation include the rise of climate change ‘denialism’ and conspiracy theories around vaccines and infectious diseases. Although the contrast between popular belief and science is not a new historical phenomenon, its recent rise in countries with a strong scientific tradition has undermined the role of evidence in policymaking and could have long-lasting consequences for research and scientific communication. A UNESCO report found that “the combination of political polarization and technological change have facilitated the rapid spread of hate speech, misogyny and unverified 'fake news', often leading to disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression” (UNESCO, 2017). In some low-and-middle income countries, this has provided ammunition for backsliding on civil liberties (Article 19, 2018). Although this has traditionally been associated with media freedom, the effect has spread to academic freedom as well – especially in LMICs (Pils and Svensson, 2019).
Public sector R&D investment is growing…
Consistent with the SDGs’ ambition that developing countries invest a greater proportion of their GDP in research and development, in 2006 the African Union set a target of raising gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) to 1% of GDP.3 This compares to an average GERD of 2.37% across OECD countries (OECD, 2019). However, very few LMICs reach the 1% mark. Analysis of publicly available data (UNESCO, 2020a; World Bank, 2020a) shows that across Research4Life countries, Group A countries are only investing in R&D an average of 0.28% of their GDP, while group B countries are investing 0.32% of their GDP. This trend is common across LMICs. In 2016, investment in R&D in Africa was 0.42% of GDP, Latin America was 0.66%, in South and West Asia 0.55% and in Central Asia 0.18% (UNESCO, 2020a).
On a more positive note, R&D investment in low-and-middle income countries is growing in absolute terms, often emboldened by strong GDP growth. The overall increase in R&D investment between 2007 and 2016 was 15% in the least developed countries, 13% in Latin America, 79% in Northern Africa (UNESCO, 2020a) and 54% in Sub-Saharan Africa (Marsh, 2016). Central and Southern Asia are the only regions that have experienced a decline (22%) in R&D expenditure over the same period (UNESCO, 2020a).4
…but private sector R&D is lacking
Whilst public sector investment in R&D is growing in real terms, private sector R&D investment in low-and-middle income countries is still lacking. For example, around 66% of India’s GERD, 50% of Brazil’s GERD and 39% of South Africa’s GERD comes from governmental budgetary allocations. The private sector contributes less than 20% of the total R&D expenditure in LMICs, and in several cases less than 10% of the total (UNESCO, 2020a; United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 2018), whereas in OECD countries the private sector contributes between 40% and 60% of GERD (OECD, 2015). Recent analysis (Cimini et al., 2016) shows that government R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP is not related to the scientific performance of nations as measured through bibliometric indicators. This is because research institutions that are internal to the government are generally less compelled to publish papers than research centres related to higher education, but also because of the significance of international collaborations.
The funding gap remains large and consequential
There is strong evidence in the literature on the lack of research funding and how this acts as a key constraint on the research conducted in low-and-middle income countries (Cloete, 2015; Jacob, 2019). The funding gap across LMIC research communities has been worsened by public spending cuts undertaken under structural adjustment programmes. Overall, this has resulted in poorly-resourced research facilities and the limited adoption of modern information technologies (Vasquez et al., 2013; Vogel, 2012). Moreover, the lack of investment in R&D has also had a knock-on effect on the number of people undertaking a research career in LMICs. Adjusted by purchasing power parity (PPP), the average gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) per full-time researcher in low income countries is US$40,440 per year and US$118,020 per year in lower-middle income countries. This compares with US$261,910 per researcher per year in high-income countries (UNESCO, 2018). In other words, compared to their counterparts in high-income countries, LMIC researchers benefit from less research funding not only in absolute terms but also when adjusted for the lower living costs within their own country. This makes the choice of a research career unattractive, and stifles growth in research capacity in many low-and-middle income countries.
ODA funding for R&D is significant but controversial
To address the persistent R&D funding gap, international research funders, development agencies and charitable organisations have been increasing their funding for research in low-and-middle income countries. Generally speaking, high levels of overseas development assistance (ODA) appear positively correlated with high levels of foreign R&D development (World Bank, 2019d).5 The two strongest areas of research activity and funding in low-and-middle income countries are agriculture and health, which are heavily funded by international sources, followed by transport and energy (Jacob, 2019). Yet there is an increasing awareness across the development community that funding from high income countries has an influence on shaping the research agenda of LMICs (Harris, 2019) and has, in some cases, created a dependency on external funding sources to conduct research. In this context of heightened national sensitivities, much recent development assistance has focused on strengthening research capacity in low-and-middle income countries through research training, research management training and funding for research infrastructure. As a previous report for Research4Life notes, anything which is seen as perpetuating what many donors feel are inequitable relationships between high income and low-and-middle income countries is unlikely to be supported (Powell et al., 2017), whether it concerns unbalanced research collaborations or the support for legacy business models in scholarly communication.
Universities’ growth is decoupled from research
The rapid growth in the number of universities in low-and-middle income countries discussed in section 2.3 has not translated into a significant increase in university research activity. Only a small number of universities have significant research activity (HERANA, 2018): most institutions prioritise teaching over research, do not have a formal and/or accessible research strategy, and lack research administration and research management capacity (Beaudry et al., 2018; Cloete, 2015; Cloete et al., 2018; Consort, 2017; Marjanovic et al., 2017; Migosi et al., 2011; Vogel, 2012). In such an environment, research cultures of enquiry and critical thinking are hard to maintain and this attitude also affects teaching, limiting the extent to which students are encouraged in independent exploration and enquiry (Shin and Lee, 2015). Despite these problems, the development of large networks of higher education institutions, such as the African Research University Alliance and the African Academy of Science, is a positive development that is driving research activity in many LMICs. Combined with stronger government incentives for technology and innovation, this will likely benefit research production across low-and-middle income countries over the coming years.
Diversity of research actors
In this context, some of the most relevant and influential research undertaken in low-and-middle income countries happens outside academia: in specialised research institutes, think tanks, or government-backed research agencies. In some countries, research agencies and institutes conduct research in national priority areas and have direct access to and influence on decision-makers (DFID, 2019). Although international donors are likely to support research conducted by research institutes and think tanks,6 these organisations generally lack the financial and human resources to conduct in-depth research (OECD, 2008). As some commentators have observed, non-governmental organisations have in the past been excluded from open access debates, and may be unable to take advantage of initiatives such as Research4Life (McGrath, 2019).
Persistent lack of researchers
The lack of funding, inadequate physical and digital research infrastructure, limited training capacity and the lack of career path all contribute to LMICs having a very low number of researchers, despite sustained international efforts to strengthen research capacity in LMICs (DFID, 2019). Research4Life Group A countries have an average of 87 researchers per million inhabitants, whereas group B countries have 527 researchers per million inhabitants (UNESCO, 2020a). This compares to a global average of 1,163 researchers per million inhabitants and an average of 4,037 researchers per million in high-income countries (UNESCO, 2020a). The recruitment of women in the profession is especially low in LMICs compared to high-income countries. Female participation in the research workforce in LMICs varies between regions (UNESCO, 2020a) and is especially low in Sub-Saharan Africa (for instance it is just 17% in Ghana, 13% in Ethiopia and 10% in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and in South Asia (14% in India and 30% in Pakistan). Moreover, studies of scientific occupations have shown that, compared to men, women tend to drop out of the research career pipeline at the point they should be moving upward. Accordingly, female scientists are increasingly under-represented at each stage of the scientific career ladder but there is little comparative evidence from LMICs as to the causes (Pulford et al., 2017; Thege et al., 2014).
Demand for research training
Low-and-middle income country governments are acutely aware of the lack of researchers in their countries and many are trying to remedy this situation. For instance, if Africa wants to achieve even the world average for the number of researchers per head of population, it would need to rapidly train one million new PhDs (Marsh, 2016). Some countries have put in place ambitious research training targets. For instance, the Ghanaian Ministry of Education has mandated that, by 2020, all lecturers must hold a PhD in order to teach at a university, sparking investment in research training that is high-volume but may compromise on quality. Although the total number of researchers is rising in LMICs, the picture is patchy. Lower middle-income economies have seen their share of world researchers go down from 6.9% in 2007 to 6.4% in 2013. On the other hand, the number of researchers in low-income countries has grown by 39% since 2007 to reach 1.3% of the world total in 2013 (UNESCO, 2015). We were unable to find more recent data to assess whether recent government efforts to increase the number of researchers are producing results.
These initiatives are already changing the researcher demographic in many LMICs. Younger research professionals are digitally born and tend to have more familiarity with a range of online discovery and author tools. This creates opportunities for Research4Life but it also presents challenges. Evidence from the Harbingers study of early career researchers (Nicholas et al., 2019) shows that younger researchers are very appreciative of social media as a tool to give their research visibility and to exchange views and opinions with their peers. This is true especially for research-specific social media, like ResearchGate, but increasingly so for generic social media platforms such as Twitter and WeChat. This trend is perhaps even more marked in LMICs, where social platforms like ResearchGate are widely used as tools to discover relevant research and access it free of charge.
The internet has changed research
The spread of the internet has changed the way research is conducted. Researchers no longer need access to physical libraries, as digitised information is more accessible than ever. Search and discovery of scientific literature has been radically simplified by the use of search algorithms and once rare articles and manuscripts can now be downloaded in endless copies. As governments started to systematically collect data at large scale and freedom of information legislation has spread internationally, freely accessible public datasets have become key research resources across all disciplines and fields. At the same time, the rise of the social web has enabled a two-way communication, where researchers can disseminate their findings, discuss their research methods and set up collaborations on a variety of blogs, specialised sites and digital platforms. This has improved access to information but also created new problems, with cases of research becoming visible despite its low quality (van Vlokhoven, 2019).
Research data is of growing importance
Internet and communication technology has also made it easier for researchers to share not only the results of their research, but the underlying data that supports them. Rising demands on researchers to do so, whether as a standalone object in an online repository or as a supplement to a journal article (with the latter being the most common approach (The Scholarly Kitchen, 2014) were a key development in this area (Beckles et al., 2018). The shift in paradigm shows a desire for a more transparent approach to research: this is supported by some but questioned by others, due to the burdens it imposes on time-starved researchers (Ex Libris, 2019). The uptake of data sharing practices is still limited, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, where researchers may erroneously assume that that research data only refers to work that is quantitative or technical in nature (Digital Curation Centre (DCC), 2015). Furthermore, when it comes to data sharing, researchers often struggle with appraisal and selection, i.e. what data to keep and why (JISC, 2019). Despite these ongoing problems, there is broad recognition that dissemination of research data is becoming as important as dissemination of research findings, not only to validate these findings but also to replicate and expand the original research through a cumulative process (National Academy of Sciences, 2009). Despite its positive effects for research users, open research data has created some unintended changes to publication practices among authors (Mueller-Langer and Andreoli-Versbach, 2018). Moreover, researchers in low-and-middle income countries are concerned about the intellectual property implications of sharing research data (Bezuidenhout and Chakauya, 2018).
AI and big data in research
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become an essential tool in the statistical analysis of datasets which would otherwise be too large to analyse (Bean, 2019). AI holds great potential for research (National Academy of Sciences, 2018) as it allows the analysis of large sets of unstructured data such as images, videos and aud7io files (Cremer and Loebbecke, 2019). AI is widely used to undertake research in many displines in high-income countries, but low-and-middle income countries’ research organisations are still struggling to complete their digital transition and their electronic infrastructure remains lacking. The development of “no-code” machine learning will democratise access to AI in the future (Bisson, 2019), but it may not address the researcher skills gap in low-and-middle income countries unless data literacy is included in research training. In fact, the increased interest in data, and computational approaches to interpret it, may increase the skills gap. Research organisations and private companies alike are in need of staff with coding and quantitative analysis skills, and this trend is only expected to grow (Gaskell, 2018).
A strong digital infrastructure is essential to effective research production. Although individual elements of this infrastructure are becoming increasingly cheaper to procure and more widely accessible globally, their interconnection has long been growing in complexity (National Research Council (US) Office of Special Projects, 2001). There are more nodes in the infrastructure network (more research organisations, digital libraries, databases, local networks, high performance computing facilities) and stronger connections between these nodes (compatible software, increased bandwith, metadata and preservation standards etc). Some parts of the technology infrastructure are delivered by individual organisations (including universities), while others are national or international in nature. Despite this organic growth, there is little clarity around roles and responsibilities for providing, maintaining and controlling digital research infrastructure and business models remain untested (World Economic Forum, 2014). While there is an opportunity for strategic investments in enabling research technologies in low-and-middle income countries (World Bank, 2019e), the fast pace of technological progress means that such investments cannot be considered a one-off exercise. Sustainable solutions to prevent low-and-middle income countries’ researchers falling behind in the technology adoption curve will require a combination of international support and domestic investments in both infrastructure and training capacity.
A growing digital divide
As data becomes increasingly important in research, researchers will have a growing need for support staff with knowledge of software and data science. Even in high-income countries, this specialist expertise is often not readily available to researchers (Open Research Data Task Force, 2018). Such expertise is even rarer in LMICs, where library staff tend to be poorly trained, understaffed and underresourced (Njuguna and Itegi, 2013; Ossai-Ugbah, 2013). Alongside the infrastructure gap, this lack of support further contributes to perpetuating the digital divide between high-income countries and LMICs.
The internet has changed the way scholarly outputs are distributed, and technology is also changing the way they are discovered and communicated. Governments, research organisations and individual researchers are adapting to these changes, albeit at different speeds. This section explores the drive towards new forms of scholarly communication and how it is affecting the landscape in which Research4Life operates.
Access to scholarly communication and the SDGs
The Digital Access to Research (DAR) programme within the UN Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries has identified access to scientific research as a key development catalyst, and convened workshops with over 35 countries to discuss how to remove barriers to access (Mulumba et al., 2019). Access to research in LMICs is linked to sustainable development in several ways. First, it can inform policy and practice within a country and support development (Gwynn, 2019). Second, it is instrumental to research production, with access and use of electronic resources in research being positively correlated with increased publishing in international journals (Ani et al., 2015). More broadly, access to scientific knowledge can stimulate innovation, disseminate good policy and practice, and create a more capable and productive workforce.
While not mentioned directly, the need for access to research outputs is implicitly seen as a catalyst for development in a number of SDG targets. Target 17.6 aims to enhance international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and to enhance knowledge sharing “on mutually agreed terms”. Reference to “mutually agreed terms” reflects a shift in development thinking towards the recognition that developing countries have mechanisms for knowledge sharing that may differ from those prevalent in high-income countries. This covers a wide range of knowledge sharing mechanisms (including most notably, sharing of traditional knowledge and the intellectual property regime that surrounds it (Phillips, 2016)). SDG targets 9C and 17.8 advocate for enhanced access to information and communications technology as a way to disseminate knowledge and support development. Within this framework, barriers to knowledge access (be they infrastructural, language-related or financial) are incompatible with the vision set out in the SDGs.
The rise of open access
Although access to academic literature is not the main priority for research capacity strengthening in LMICs, it is nevertheless important to support research production. These considerations underpin both the rationale for Research4Life and much of the raison d’etre for the Open Access (OA) movement. OA makes published scholarly content available in online digital copies, free of charge at point of use, free of most copyright and licensing restrictions, and free of technical or other barriers to access (for a fuller overview of the subject see (Hook et al., 2019; Johnson et al., 2018; Piwowar et al., 2018). The uptake of Open Access has been driven significantly in recent years by interventions from and policies of research funders, combined with the growth and maturity of digital publishing technology. OA policies have been adopted by a growing number of research funders and research organisations based on the argument for access to scientific knowledge as an economic driver and/or the view that taxpayers and charitable donors have a right to access what they pay for (Tennant et al., 2016).
A rise driven by the developed countries
The SHERPA/Juliet website lists 147 research funders with an OA policy (as of January 2020), of which only a handful are from LMICs. While the website is likely to underestimate the global number of funder policies from low-and-middle income countries, the numbers reflect the fact that OA in its current form has been a movement largely driven by high-income countries. Although LMICs have indeed been actively working to improve free access to scholarly communication since before the birth of Open Access (as the example of SciELO demonstrates), high-income countries have hitherto been the primary drivers of the OA movement. The three essential reference papers on open access, i.e. the Budapest, Berlin and Bethesda declarations were mainly prepared and supported by institutions, organizations and communities from high-income countries (Schöpfel, 2017). In February 2020, UNESCO launched a consultation on an international standard-setting instrument on Open Science, in recognition of the fact that ‘a global understanding of the meaning, opportunities and challenges of Open Science is still missing’ (UNESCO, 2020b).
..but with implications for global scholarship availability
Despite OA having so far being largely driven by high-income countries, its effects on scholarly communication are arguably global. Estimates of the proportion of content that is open access vary due to definitional, methodological and measurement challenges (Johnson et al., 2018). However, as Figures 3 and 4 show, the overall trend is clear with the proportion of global articles that have OA copies increasing rapidly in recent years. A growing number of studies suggest that 50% or more of articles published in recent years are now available in open access form (Martín-Martín et al., 2018; Piwowar et al., 2018; Science-Metrix, 2018).
The development of Plan S
The most significant development in recent OA policy is the introduction of Plan S, a European-led initiative that commits participating research funders to ensure that all the research they fund is made open access immediately upon publication in compliant journals, platforms or repositories. Plan S has been formally endorsed by 17 European research funders, four international funders (including the World Health Organization), research funders in Zambia and Jordan. It has also been boosted by supportive statements signed by 27 funding, publishing and research organisations, including the African Academy of Sciences. The stated ambition of the Plan is to flip scholarly publishing from a subscription-based system to a pay-to-publish system. However, with cOAlition S-supported articles representing just over 5% of global research publications (Quaderi et al., 2019), publishers have argued that, as currently constituted the timelines and transitional mechanisms proposed are unworkable (Inchcoombe, 2019). The balance might tip in favour of a more rapid transition to OA if rumours of a forthcoming US Executive Order requiring immediate access to federally-funded studies are confirmed (Subbaraman, 2019).7
Regional variations in approaches to access
Meanwhile, Plan S has also refocused attention on the implications of open access for developing and emerging economies. Partly in response, Latin American countries, with support from UNESCO, recently launched AmeLica - a communication infrastructure for scholarly publishing and open science that uses a collaborative, sustainable, protected and non-commercial approach to scholarly communication. Similarly, African countries have supported AfricArXiv, a repository for African Research that hosts pre-peer review manuscripts (known as preprints), and the African Academy of Sciences has launched its own open research platform. Both AmeLica (Amelica, 2019) and AfricArXiv (AfricArXiv, 2019) have set out their own principles, which underline their different strategies for achieving the goal of Open Access. A number of platforms from outside the Anglophone publishing community have recently agreed to join forces with a view to democratising scientific knowledge following a multicultural, multi-thematic and multi-lingual approach (UNESCO, 2019b).
Copyright reform, content syndication and piracy
A corollary of the move to open access has been the increased adoption of more permissive licences, particularly those offered as part of the Creative Commons licensing structure, and growing calls for retention of copyright by authors or institutions, most notably by cOAlition S (cOAlition S, 2019). These changes come against a backdrop of ongoing copyright reform in both the developed and developing worlds, and continued debate over the relationship between copyright and deveopment (Adewopo, 2018; WIPO, 2009). Most pertinent for academic publishers, however, has been the growth of scientific social networks such as ResearchGate, on which much content has been found to be illegally posted and hosted (Jamali, 2017). This has contributed in part to growing experimentation with the syndication of content by academic publishers (Hinchliffe and Schonfeld, 2019). A further driver of these developments is the pirate website Sci-Hub. With around 60 million academic papers and serving over 400,000 requests per day (Himmelstein et al., 2018), Sci-Hub is in persistent and large-scale infringement of copyright and misuse of individual user credentials to gain access to institutional networks has been declared illegal by several courts. Despite that, and despite routinely having its domain taken down, the site experiences high levels of usage among researchers from low-and-middle income and high-income countries alike. There are indications that researchers use Sci-Hub out of convenience, even where they have legitimate access to content (Bohannon, 2016), and thus it is highly likely to have had a detrimental impact on usage of Research4Life resources in recent years.
Other access initiatives
Aside from OA, some publishers offer other access initiatives in the form of free, low-cost or time-limited options, often targeted at specific audiences (Reller et al., 2020). Publishers and funders have agreed to make scientific papers available that can improve the response to global emergencies – especially in the health sector. Publishers can sign up to collective response initiatives such as the Emergency Access Initiative and the Statement on Data Sharing in Public Health Emergencies so that, when a global crisis hits, immediate free access to the latest research findings may help to inform the response (Wellcome Trust, 2020). Other access initiatives include promotional campaigns for featured articles, free access for patients and caregivers, free access at public libraries, providing free access for new journals until they become established, access to Nobel Prize winners work and providing website links to authors that they can share on their platforms that provide 50 days’ free access (Reller et al., 2020).
The shift to an author-pays model
For LMICs, a wholesale shift to a pay-to-publish OA model would have a number of consequences. On the one hand, it would provide free access to scholarly communication to all LMIC researchers. On the other hand, the high cost of article processing charges (APCs) would make it very difficult for LMIC researchers to publish in Gold or Hybrid OA journals, therefore limiting their visibility. Furthermore, commentators in Latin America have argued that establishing charges for authors risks undermining existing structures designed to support researchers and keep public money within a publicly managed ecosystem (Aguado López and Becerril García, 2019a). In response to these concerns, Plan S funders have stipulated that compliant open access journals and platforms must provide automatic APC waivers for authors from low-income countries and discounts for authors from middle-income countries (cOAlition S, 2019). Meanwhile, the same funders are seeking greater transparency in publishers’ pricing (Wise and Estelle, 2020) and the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Indian Government Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan has argued that they would negotiate APCs that are “normalised for India” (Poynder, 2019). Both solutions present challenges. From the perspective of authors, the current system of waivers is insufficient and inconsistently implemented between publishers (Burchardt, 2014). For publishers themselves, the requirement to waive and reduce income for a significant, and growing, number of articles from LMICs is inherently challenging and potentially unaffordable (Rouhi, 2019).
The changing publishing marketplace
The market for scientific, technical and medical publications has seen sustained, though unexceptional, growth in recent years. Publication volumes continue to grow at a faster pace than revenues, putting downward pressure on costs, and the longstanding trend towards aggregation on both supply and demand sides remains the norm (Johnson et al., 2018). The ‘leakage’ of scholarly content from publishing platforms, through both licit and illicit sources, means that publshers’ pricing power appears to be in decline and the equilibrium price for content and related services is being reset (Schonfeld, 2019). In response, library consortia, notably the University of California system and Germany’s DEAL consortium, have been emboldened to cancel their so-called ‘big deals’ with the major publishers. In high-income countries, there is a growing trend to convert these existing big deals into transformative agreements that include OA publication, with 77 such agreements listed on ESAC’s transformative agreement registry as of February 2020 (ESAC, 2020). The extent to which these agreements are appropriate to LMICs remains unclear, with some commentators arguing that LMICs might be better sticking to traditional licensing agreements for the read element and relying on local solutions for the publish element (Poynder, 2019).
Consolidation & diversification in the publishing market
These new market dynamics seem likely to only accelerate the move towards consolidation within the marketplace, and the diversification of many larger publishers into workflow and analytics solutions. The market for STM online services is growing faster than for journals or books, with many products now seen as ‘must have’ information for academic libraries (Simba Information, 2020). The perceived threat posed by open access to subscription business models has already prompted a series of acqusitions of fully open access publishers and platforms by long-established publishers, with the purchase of F1000 Research by Informa Group the most recent example (Page, 2020). Finally, the recent acquisition of French publisher EDP Sciences by China Press (EDP Sciences, 2019) and Danish AI firm UNSILO by the Indian company Cactus Communications (Rydahl, 2020) shows that academic publishing is not immune to the shift in economic power from West to East.
Growth in subsidised OA publishing models
Concerns over the barriers to publication erected by APC-based models have played a role in the growth of subsididised OA publishing (also referred to as ‘Platinum’ and ‘Diamond OA’): open access journals and platforms that do not use publication charges. Over 70% of the full OA journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals do not use publication charges, and although the number of articles published in gold no-APC journals is substantially lower (Dallmeier-Tiessen et al., 2010), the scale of this publishing model is nevertheless significant. It is particularly popular in China, where 91% of OA journals published by Chinese learned societies did not charge APCs in 2013 (Montgomery and Ren, 2018), and in the humanities and social sciences, where research funding is much lower than in the experimental sciences (Edwards, 2014) and academics are resistant to the APC model (Mandler, 2014). The model is well-established in Latin America, where SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online) has been in operation since 1997, and has more recently been adopted by charitable funders such as Gates and Wellcome, as well as the African Academy of Sciences’s Open Research platform. Launched in November 2018, the Amelica cooperative infrastructure for scholarly communication represents an attempt to preserve and strengthen the diamond open access model as a viable alternative to APC-based OA publication models, as espoused by Plan S (Aguado López and Becerril García, 2019b).
Researchers’ attitudes towards OA
Attitudes towards open access among consumers of academic research are positive. This is especially true in low-and-middle income countries, where access problems can be more acute. A survey of over 500 LMIC researchers revealed problems for researchers in gaining access to research literature in the first place and a very positive attitude to OA research and OA journals (Nobes and Harris, 2019). However, when selecting a journal in which to publish, LMIC researchers saw OA as a much less important criterion than factors relating to international reputation. This mirrors attitudes from researchers in high-income countries, where the appreciation for OA as consumers of researchers is not matched by a commitment to use OA as producers. The survey of LMIC researchers also found that a majority of respondents had published in an OA journal, and most of these had paid an article processing charge, while only around 20% had deposited their research in an institutional repository (Nobes and Harris, 2019). Attitudes to OA publication are also being shaped by ongoing efforts to reform incentive and evaluation systems for research. The San Franciso Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA, 2013) aims to halt the practice of using the journal impact factor as a proxy for the merits of an individual researcher’s contributions. Meanwhile China has recently announced a number of changes to its research and higher education evaluation system that commentators believe have the potential to significantly reshape the journal landscape (Tao, 2020).
Open access articles are more viewed
There are also indications that OA articles attract a disproportionate share of article views. One recent study (Piwowar et al., 2019), published in preprint form only, suggests that in 2019:
31% of all journal articles were available as OA.
52% of article views were to OA articles.
Given existing trends, the authors estimate that by 2025:
44% of all journal articles will be available as OA.
70% of article views will be to OA articles.
The Unpaywall dataset on which this analysis is based is derived from pageview patterns of 200,000 active users globally, of which the majority are in developed economies (Piwowar et al., 2019). There is evidence that readers in low income countries are less likely to use publisher websites to discover content than those in high income countries, and more likely to use subject repositories, social networking sites, or Sci-Hub (Gardner and Inger, 2018). In view of this, the proportion of article views that are to OA or otherwise free-to-read articles in Research4Life countries can reasonably be expected to exceed 75% within the next 5 years.
Rise of scholarly publishing in LMICs
Low-and-lower-middle-income countries produce a relatively small proportion of the global scholarly output. Between 1996 and 2018, Africa produced only 1.5% of the global scholarly outputs, Central, South and South-East Asia 1.8%, and Latin America 3.7% (Scimago, 2020). Overall, many LMICs lag behind other regions in terms of research productivity across all disciplines and their research remains comparatively marginal in the global context of academic research production. Moreover, a handful of countries account for the majority of peer-reviewed publications (Patra and Muchie, 2017; Trotter et al., 2014). The rapid increase in the global number of scientific publications over the past decade has been driven particularly by China, but low-and-lower-middle income countries have also experienced rapid growth in their publication output. Between 2003 and 2016, 16 of the top 20 countries with the largest increase in total publication numbers were LMICs, with compound annual growth rates of between 7.5% and 27.6% (World Bank, 2020b). This growth in publication outputs has partly been driven by increasing pressure on researchers to publish, with research universities using research performance assessment to drive academic promotions. This has led some observers to conclude that the scale of R&D investments is not a driver of publication efficiency (Gonzalez-Brambila et al., 2016).
Article quality in LMICs
Despite the growth in overall publications and the growth in international collaborations, researchers in LMICs still struggle to publish in reputable international journals (Cash-Gibson et al., 2015). There is widespread distrust in the editorial and peer review processes with ignorance of the local context being suggested as a reason that LMIC publications do not receive due regard (Beaudry et al., 2018). Some have also argued that the imperatives of global competitiveness have created a hierarchy determined by values from high-income countries over low-and-middle income countries (Gray, 2010). Despite these problems, there are little signs that researchers in LMICs are willing to change their ambition to publish in journals with high impact factors, regardless of whether they are open access or not (Atolani et al., 2019). In other words, support for alternative and OA publishing outlets still appears higher among researchers-readers than it is among researchers-authors.
As researchers in low-and-middle income countries struggle to publish in high quality journals, the pressure to publish forces them to publish low-quality research in low-quality journals. This affects visibility of LMIC research because these journals are often poorly indexed online or not even included in major abstracting and indexing databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, becoming in effect ‘invisible’ to other researchers. In particular, early-career researchers often do not understand how the publishing system works and the lack of publishing literacy is increasingly pushing them to publish in ‘predatory journals’ (Beaudry et al., 2018; (Mouton and Valentine, 2017). Much scholarship from low-and-middle income countries remains outside of the main abstracting and indexing databases (particularly the Web of Science index) and institutions and scholars often lack cohesive dissemination strategies, resulting in unpublished research that is not held in university libraries or available online and therefore not easily accessible (Trotter et al., 2014).
International collaborations & research productivity
The other factor explaining the increased productivity of researchers in low-and-middle income countries is the rise of international research collaborations. International collaborations positively correlate with scientific impact, as measured using bibliometric indicators (Cimini et al., 2016). This is particularly evident in the case of LMICs, where research publicationsare high relative to domestic R&D investment and research capacity, a trend that is largely supported by the high proportion of international collaborations. Across the least developed countries, publications from international collaborations account for 70% of the total (Times Higher Education, 2020). Countries like Egypt (52% of publications coming from international collaborations in 2018), South Africa (53%) and Kenya (80%) have seen parallel increases in domestic research investment, international collaborations and research output (Scimago, 2019).
Multilingualism in scholarly communication
It is commonly recognised that the spread of English as the language of science has reduced the share of publications in other languages (Gordin, 2015). Moreover, as the Leiden Manifesto (Hicks et al., 2015) states, if impact is understood as the number of citations of international publications in Web of Science, a bias is created against research which is regionally and locally engaged in societal problem-solving. This dilemma may be particularly pertinent in the social sciences and humanities and even more critical for researchers working in contexts with languages other than English (LOTE) (Dahler-Larsen, 2018). In recognition of these concerns, the World Association of Medical Editors recently issued guidance that encourages medical journal editors to promote the option to authors of providing abstracts in the language of the location where the research took place. The guidance also specifies that journals should make those abstracts available to readers when provided, with consequent impications for search and discovery tools (World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), 2019). The dominance of English in scholarly communication is further called into question by the rapid growth of Chinese language publications, with recent work suggesting that China's contribution to global science far exceeds estimates based on the proportion of papers with Chinese addresses in databases of international journal (Xie and Freeman, 2019).
Ebooks and OA monographs
It was estimated that the market for scientific and technical books stood at $719m in 2017, and for medical books at $2,486m (Outsell, 2018), compared with almost $10 billion for academic journals (Johnson et al., 2018). This reflects the outsized importance of journal articles in most academic disciplines, though monographs, book chapters and edited collections remain the preferred form of scholarly communication in the humanities and some social sciences. Globally, recent data suggests that there has been a return to growth in spend on Ebooks since 2015, as well as a shift in academic library spending from print books to Ebooks, but a mixed economy of print and digital books remains the norm (Outsell, 2018). In low-and-middle income countries, Ebook publishing has so far mainly been used in education, while its adoption in research is still limited. For instance, the World Bank is piloting the use of e-reader and Ebook reading devices through a variety of education projects in LMICs. For Africa in particular, Ebooks have yet to spread widely due to financial, technical and infrastructure limitations (Okojie, 2018). A 2015 study examining worldwide usage of Ebooks from EBook Library and ebrary indicates that the number of Ebook titles available to libraries in LMICs is significantly lower than in high-income countries. Furthermore, the study indicates that users in LMICs are more likely to download Ebooks rather than read them online whereas users in high-income countries do the opposite. It is suggested that this could be associated with the greater availability of stable internet connection in high-income countries compared to the connection available in LMICs (Levine-Clark, 2015).
There has been a policy drive for OA monographs in many European countries, resulting in a growth in the number of open access monographs. For instance, funders such as the Austrian Science Fund, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council all mandate OA for monographs (Knowledge Exchange, 2018). In addition, UKRI have recently released a proposed new OA policy, which goes beyond Plan S in setting a deadline of 1st Jan 2024 for monographs, book chapters and edited collections to be made OA a maximum embargo period of of 12-month, unless a presigned contract prevents this (UK Research and Innovation, 2020). Despite the policy drive and a continued growth, however, OA has a much more limited share of the book and monograph market (recent estimates put the OA book market revenue at $37 million). Morever, the push for OA books and monographs appears limited to a fairly small number of high-income countries.
In sum, the same trends eroding Research4Life’s value proposition with regard to journal articles are present within the Ebooks landscape, but are proceeding at a much slower pace. There are fewer alternative online sources for Ebooks than for journal articles, and OA uptake is much less established.
The slow rise of an OA publishing infrastructure
Arguably, one of the factors that has historically limited the take up of alternatives to high impact factor journals is that fewer credible publishing alternatives exist due to unviable subscription models in the developing world (Duine, 2017; Trotter et al., 2014). Over the past few years, the desire to increase public sector support for home-grown scholarly publishing has motivated funders in low-and-middle income countries to subsidise home-grown OA journals. New OA journals can now be created cost-effectively using the many institutional repositories that have been established in universities. Alternatively, there are open-source publishing solutions like Open Journal Systems which is widely available in the developing world. In other words, the basis of an alternative strategy is already in place. As the new Latin American initiative called AmeliCA points out, Plan S seeks to regulate commercial agreements, where AmeliCA is focused on “building an infrastructure from and for the academy” (Poynder, 2019).
Emergence of new publishing and sharing platforms
At the same time, international funders like the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation have started to roll out their own publishing platforms, leading to the spread of preprints (i.e. a non-peer reviewed version of a research article). This has allowed researchers in LMICs faster dissemination and broader reach of their research prior to peer review. Although the practice of posting preprints has been on the rise for the past decade, it is difficult to tell whether it will spread to all research domains (Chiarelli et al., 2019). Finally, it is also not uncommon for authors in low-and-middle income countries to publish a version of a scholarly output in other locations, including the author’s personal websites, academic social networks and filesharing sites. Although these postings fall outside the traditional definitions of ‘gold’ and ‘green OA’, and in some cases contravene article licensing terms and copyright law, they are widespread because they tend to offer more visibility and discoverability than OA repositories (Jubb et al., 2017).
Search & discovery techniques are changing
Technology is also changing search and discovery habits among researchers. While journal articles are still considered the primary sources for scholarly reading in most disciplines (humanities and some social sciences excepted), researchers show a willingness to change or adopt new strategies to discover and obtain articles (Tenopir et al., 2019). Long-established abstracting and indexing databases like Scopus and Web of Science retain an important role in the landscape, as do discipline-specific and patent databases, science and technology standards and clinical resources. However, recent years have also seen the emergence of web-scale discovery tools such as Digital Science’s Dimensions and Elsever’s 1findr, while reference tools like Mendeley and ReadCube are adding social networking functionality (Simba Information, 2020). Meanwhile, relevant articles may be discovered by browsing, searching online or receiving recommendations from others, and obtained from websites, subscriptions, or directly from colleagues through academic social networks.
Open access discovery tools are becoming mainstream
The once complex task of identifying articles available to read freely online is also being substantially simplified by so-called ‘open access discovery tools’. These are most often implemented as browser add-ons, including the likes of Unpaywall, Open Access Button and Kopernio (Gardner and Inger, 2018; Jisc, 2019).8 Open access discovery tools may be eroding the value of journal subscriptions, as libraries become able to identify the impact of dropping deals where a sufficient number of articles of interest is available via open access.9 Free-to-read articles are also widely available on the academic social networking site ResearchGate, where authors post their content sometimes in violation of the publisher’s copyright. Such leakage is eroding the publishers’ ability to monetise the value they create (The Scholarly Kitchen, 2019). The Coalition for Responsible Sharing has been pushing the website to install “an automatic pre-screening system that will prevent users from uploading copyrighted content to the platform” (Editage, 2019), while Springer Nature is working with ResearchGate to share licensed full-text articles directly.
Libraries’ role in research discovery is diminishing as their focus changes
Several studies have found that the importance of libraries is diminishing as information technology progresses, and in particular that the role of libraries in research discovery has peaked and is only holding steady in Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (Basri et al., 2012)Gardner and Inger, 2018). This is even more the case in LMICs, where a lack of training and resources has historically relegated libraries to a secondary role within many research institutions (Ossai-Ugbah, 2013). A recent study also highlighted that librarians behave quite differently to everyone else in search (preferring professional search databases and library-acquired resources) and pointed to a significant gap between what librarians recommend and how researchers behave (Gardner and Inger, 2018). Meanwhile, many libraries are assuming greater responsibility for the creation of, access to, and preservation of scholarly content created on campus, and exploring what role they can play in the development and sustainability of network-level tools and services (Lewis, 2019).
Evolving approaches to authentication and identity
Researchers and academics have long been frustrated with the authentication systems implemented on publisher websites (Springer Nature, 2019). These are arguably part of the reason for the success of platforms such as ResearchGate: the scholarly collaboration network appears to receive more visits than ScienceDirect and almost seven times more than SciHub (The Scholarly Kitchen, 2017). The “Get Full Text Research” (GetFTR) service is under development by a group of the largest scholarly publishers to overcome these issues with authentication on their individual websites and the ensuing poor user experience. GetFTR also aims to address increasing concerns that almost 100% of licensed content is now available on pirate websites, most notably Sci-Hub (The Scholarly Kitchen, 2019).
Trends have been identified at three levels
Research4Life operates at the interface between international development, research and scholarly communication. Using the PEST framework, the report has identified trends at each of the scales that are relevant to Research4Life’s influence. From the least to the most direct sphere of influence, these were: global megatrends that can be consequential for international development; research trends shaping research investment and research production in low-and-middle income countries; and trends in scholarly communication impacting access to and dissemination of research in LMICs.
Identifying key trends
This section seeks to measure the likely impact (significance) of each trend over the next 5 years. While many of the identified trends are already having discernible effects, in most cases the full impact will only be appreciated in the coming years. In assessing future impact we have chosen a 5-year time horizon, consistent with the objectives of this review.
The significance of each trend was considered in light of two criteria:
Disruptiveness: the likelihood of the trend producing a substantial change to current practice regarding research funding, production or dissemination.
Relevance: the relevance of the trend to the value proposition and market position of Research4Life.
Broad global developments, such as the rise of populism, urbanisation and increased levels of internet access have been excluded from this analysis, on the grounds that while they are contextually significant, their direct significance for Research4Life’s value is impossible to assess. They should be considered as the overall forces shaping developments in research and scholarly communication that have a more direct impact on Research4Life. This section will only seek to measure the significance of trends in research and communication.
In order to quantitatively assess how disruptive and how relevant these trends are we used a 7-point likert scale:
1 = very low disruptiveness/relevance
2 = low disruptiveness/relevance
3 = somewhat low disruptiveness/relevance
4 = medium disruptiveness/relevance
5 = somewhat high disruptiveness/relevance
6 = high disruptiveness/relevance
7 = very high disruptiveness/relevance
The results of this scoring exercise are summarised in Figure 7, below, while the full scoring of a consolidated list of trends identified in this report (including the global trends discussed in section 2) is presented in Appendix A.
Setting the priorities
Three overarching themes appear especially important to Research4Life’s strategic outlook from our analysis of these trends. One is largely positive (the growth in LMIC research) while two call into question the partnership’s current value proposition for LMIC researchers (the rise of open access and changes in search and discovery workflows). These themes represent the priority areas for Research4Life to consider as it plans for its next funding cycle and beyond.
Growth in LMIC research: research in LMICs is growing both in terms of the total amount of money invested in R&D and the total number of researchers that need access to scholarly literature and research data. There is greater recognition of the link between research and sustainable development, growing demand for researcher training and a persistent research funding gap vs. high-income countries. These factors all point to a continued need for initiatives like Research4Life which aim to promote equitable participation in the global system of scholarly communication system.
The rise of open access: OA is changing the amount of literature that is freely available to LMIC researchers, as well as publishing business models. The rise of both author-pays and subsidised OA models, plus growth in illicit sharing of copyrighted materials, is steadily eroding the value of paywalled content. Access to Ebooks and databases is likely to remain of value for longer than journal articles, and OA itself creates a new challenge of equitable access to publishing. Taken together, however, these trends are likely to progressively undermine Research4Life’s existing value proposition over the next five years.
Changes to search and discovery workflows: new researcher workflows have also changed the landscape by radically altering the user experience of search and discovery. In particular, AI-powered search engines and social platforms are gradually replacing publisher platforms and aggregators, bringing the research to the researchers and not the researcher to the research. At the same time, digital IDs are seeking to streamline researcher identification and authentication, further improving user experiences and accelerating personalisation of content discovery. As the technology continues to improve, these trends are likely to make the existing Research4Life interface look increasingly obsolete.
The changes highlighted above are already affecting Research4Life’s value proposition and they are poised to continue doing so in the coming years. As part of a strategic review of the partnership, it will be important for the partners to consider how these changes affect Research4Life’s existing value proposition but also to identify new opportunities to address emerging challenges. Adaptation to the changing external landscape will be essential if Research4Life is to remain relevant into the future.
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Below is a table that summarises the perceived importance of each trend. This is scored using the criteria of potential disruption to the research environment and relevance to Research4Life, within a 5-year time horizon.
Sustainable Development Goals
Populism and nationalism
Demand for education
AI and big data
Trends in research in and for LMICs
Equitable research partnerships
Rise of China
Politicisation of science
Growth in R&D investment
International R&D funding
Rising # of researchers
Demand for research training
Changing researcher demographics
Internet and mobile research
Importance of research data
Rise of AI and big data
Tech infrastructure growth
Trends in scholarly communication
OA impact on scholarly access
Development of Plan S
Copyright reform and piracy
Shift to author-pay model
Changing publishing marketplace
Growth in subsidised OA
Researcher attitudes to OA
OA impact on visibility
Rise of scholarly publishing in LMIC
Rise of OA publishing infrastructure
Other publishing avenues
Changes to search and discovery
Changes to author authentication
Relevance to Research4Life
Disruption to research environment