Will Open Access Replace Medical Libraries in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Visiting the library of a Nigerian medical school last year, the empty shelves and outdated journals conveyed a sense of emptiness and decay. The familiar reference books on front-row display were all several editions behind. The librarian took me to a section with rows of desktop computers that were rarely used due to epileptic power supply and lack of internet access. A few working computers shared a slow bandwidth connection.

The library, once the indispensable hub of learning in medical schools has become increasingly irrelevant in some institutions. Lack of funding has caused some libraries to cancel journal subscriptions and eliminate the budget for new books. So, how could medical libraries in sub-Saharan Africa restore their roles as gateways of information, and reestablish their position as an intellectual partner in the sphere of medical education, training, and research?

Help may be coming through the Open Access movement that is now making high quality online journals and self-archiving materials freely available to the end-user. Costs are subsidized by authors or institutions who may be required to pay submission or publication fees. In some cases, fees are waived for authors from low-income countries (LICs). This arrangement is primarily beneficial to end-users in LICs, as funding for Open Access is primarily from high-income countries.  Currently 5389 journals are listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals, which covers all subject areas from the humanities to pure sciences. Among the best known open access journals are those from BioMed Central, an online publisher of free peer-reviewed scientific articles, many with a respectable Impact Factor.

Forward-looking medical schools in LICs may be better off replacing the shelves in their libraries with computers connected to the internet. Some of these computers will be donated by organizations such as Computer Aid International that collaborate with NGOs to provide needed equipment and support for health and education. Interested Diaspora groups could take advantage of such partnerships to contribute to medical education in their home countries.

Lack of awareness may be the major obstacle to the dissemination of  Open Access in sub-Saharan Africa.  Efforts to publicize this service, such as the Open Access Week being held October 18-24, 2010 has attracted participants from 69 LICs, but very few from Nigeria. Also, BioMed Central and Computer Aid International are hosting a two-day conference in Nairobi, Kenya, from  November 10-11, 2010 that will bring together researchers, librarians, university administrators and donors to discuss the issues surrounding access to scientific and medical research, and the role that open access journals can play. The conference “will discuss the benefits of open access publishing in an African context, from the perspective of both readers seeking access to information, and researchers seeking to globally communicate the results of their work.”

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