Equitable access to research in a changing world: Research4Life Landscape and Situation Analysis

By Rob Johnson and Victoria Ficarra, 20/05/2020

In this time of global crisis and uncertainty, scientific research, and equitable access to its outputs, has assumed a central role in the lives of billions of people across the globe. As a mission-driven business, we are fortunate to work with stakeholders across the research and international development communities to improve the effectiveness and impact of research and scholarly communication. Which is why, today, we are pleased to share the findings of our landscape and situation analysis for Research4Life. 

The report sets out to assess the shifting dynamics and external influences relevant to the problem of equitable access to research. We are grateful to the Research4Life Executive Council for its willingness to publish the report for the benefit of other stakeholders in the wider research communication ecosystem, and indeed the broader world.

We are also grateful to Kudos for allowing us to use the new Kudos Pro platform to help us communicate the findings to as wide an audience as possible.


What is Research4Life?

The Research4Life initiative is a public-private partnership, launched in 2002, which aims to close the knowledge gap between high-income and low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). Now, the partnership includes five United Nations agencies (WHO, FAO, UNEP, WIPO and ILO), approximately 175 scholarly publishers, Yale and Cornell University, as well as other stakeholders.  The initiative works to achieve this aim by providing free or low-cost access to research publications and online resources, most of which would otherwise be locked behind paywalls. As of March 2020, there are up to 23,500 research journals (including nearly 10,000 Open Access titles), 80,000 ebooks and 120 other digital resources available via the initiative’s five programmes to over 10,000 registered institutions in 125 eligible countries.


Making sense of the research and scholarly communication landscape

In late 2019, Research Consulting was commissioned by Research4life to undertake a landscape analysis and infrastructure review to assess the partnership’s organisational effectiveness and inform their future strategic direction. The objectives of the landscape analysis report were to:

  • understand the external dynamics and recent changes within the research communication ecosystem, including the funding of research in and for LMICs, which may have an impact on the value provided by Research4Life for its stakeholder partners and users; and
  • 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.

To achieve these objectives, we conducted a review of current global trends in the scholarly communications and research landscape, with a particular focus on LMICs, to better understand the key developments and to inform future efforts. Our analysis used a simplified version of the PESTLE framework, assessing the political, economic, social and technological trends globally, on research in and for LMICs and on scholarly communications. The levels of this analysis are visualised in the infographic below.

Figure 1 Visualisation of the levels of analysis covered in the report


Three key trends

As part of our work we identified and considered 35 trends relevant to research and scholarly communication, scoring these on their relevance to and the severity of their impact on Research4Life. The outcomes of this exercise are shown in Figure 2, below, and the details on each trend can be found in our full report. For the purposes of this post, however, we want to highlight three overarching trends which we believe will shape Research4Life’s future.

1. A developing LMIC research base

Research in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is growing both in terms of the amount of money invested in research and development and the number of researchers that need access to scholarly literature and research data.  The combination of population growth, rapid urbanisation, and the spread of basic education has resulted in the number of universities in LMICs rising exponentially over the past couple of decades. This increased talent pool for research has been underpinned by rising public sector research and development investment. 2020 UNESCO data shows that, between 2007 and 2016, the overall increase in R&D investment was 15% in the least developed countries, 13% in Latin America, 79% in Northern Africa and 54% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this growth in public sector R&D investment, private sector R&D investment in LMICs is unfortunately still lacking. Further, our findings show that the funding gap across research communities in LMICs remains significant, and continues to constrain the research which can be conducted in these countries. Despite all the progress that’s been made, between 1996 and 2018, Africa produced only 1.5% of global scholarly outputs, Central, South and South-East Asia 1.8%, and Latin America 3.7% (source: Scimago).

2. Open Access on the rise

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 through Sci-Hub, Researchgate and other platforms, is steadily eroding the value of paywalled content.  Building on recent work by Piwowar et al (2019), the proportion of article views that are to OA or otherwise free-to-read articles in Research4Life countries can reasonably be expected to exceed 70% within the next five years.

The move to open access is likely to progressively undermine Research4Life’s existing value proposition in the coming years, but this does not mean the problem of equitable access to research has been solved. The provision of access to Ebooks and databases will remain important even as increasing numbers of journal articles are available free-to-read. Furthermore, the author-pays model of OA is also creating a new challenge of equitable access to publishing that the Research4Life partners are well-placed to tackle.

More broadly, what is lacking is a globalised perspective on the OA movement to allow speedier and more consistent global adoption. Many LMICs have a long history of open access publishing, with Latin American initiatives such as SciELO and Redalyc often cited as exemplars, but the OA agenda to date has been largely driven and dominated by high-income countries. With UNESCO launching a Global Consultation on Open Science in February of this year, the hope is that the coming years will see greater international consensus, fulfilling the African Union’s desire for Open Science to serve as a ‘game-changer in addressing inequalities.’

3. A widening digital divide

New researcher workflows and the adoption of artificial intelligence are radically altering the user experience of search and discovery. Digitised information is now more accessible than ever, meaning researchers have a lessening need to access physical libraries. In addition, the growth of social platforms such as ResearchGate  and Mendeley  has facilitated new forms of communication between researchers and their audiences, allowing them to disseminate and discuss their work as well as prompting future collaborations with fellow researchers. However, alongside these changes is a growing digital divide between low-and-middle income countries and high-income countries, with the infrastructure and expertise needed to leverage these emerging technologies being comparatively sparse in LMICs. Although these advances overall have facilitated improved access to scientific information, they have also brought with them new challenges, such as ensuring technological development in high-income countries doesn’t mean LMICs are left behind. Enabling equitable access to research must therefore involve consideration of infrastructure, tools, services and training as well as scientific and technical content.

Figure 2 Impact matrix for global trends in research and scholarly communication (see full size)

 Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Research4Life’s future value proposition will depend on its ability to address these emerging trends and identify new opportunities from them. Our work was largely completed prior to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, but we have added a separate addendum updating our findings to reflect developments in recent weeks.  As this document notes, trends that were emerging slowly are now proceeding at breakneck pace, while others have shifted course or stalled. Overall, we consider it all but inevitable that COVID-19 will lead to:

  • strengthened demands from policymakers, funders and the general public for open access to scientific publications and data;
  • increased investment by governments in scientific research, information and advice; and
  • reinforcement of the links between science and policy, in response to societal needs.

These developments are consistent with the broad direction of travel outlined in our landscape report, but are now being urgently prioritised in the context of COVID-19 by international actors such as the United Nations


Next steps

Over the coming months we will be supporting INASP in undertaking a ‘user review’ on behalf of the Research4Life partnership. Building on our landscape and infrastructure reviews, this work will involve in-depth interviews of stakeholders in multiple countries; case studies of the usage journey and experience of a range of users; and surveys. The findings will inform decisions regarding the longer-term and strategic future of the partnership, in terms of programme development, content expansion, user training and support and technical upgrades. In the meantime, we are pleased to make the findings of our work so far available to all who are working to improve equitable access to research in low and middle-income countries – an ambition that has come to be seen as crucial to global development and indeed, global health.