Developing Nations to Receive Free Online Access to Major Medical Journals
Six "giant" publishers of medical journals announced yesterday in London that they will provide free or discounted electronic access to about 1,000 publications for developing countries, the Washington Post reports. Spurred by the World Health Organization and designed to reduce what WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland calls the "health information gap between rich and poor countries," the program is expected to benefit 600 medical schools, research laboratories and government health departments in the developing world -- mainly in Africa but also in Latin America and Asia (Brown, Washington Post, 7/9). Under the proposal, the six companies -- Elsevier Science, Springer Verlag, Wolters Kluwer International Health and Science, Harcourt General, Blackwell and John Wiley -- will provide free online access to 62 countries with a gross national product of less than $1,000 per capita. Another 34 countries with GNP per capita between $1,000 and $3,000 will receive discounted access (Donnelly, Boston Globe, 7/9). The agreement "covers about 1,000 of the world's top 1,240 medical journals," the New York Times reports (Petersen, New York Times, 7/9). For example, Wolters Kluwer, in addition to 374 other journals, publishes AIDS, with an annual subscription cost of $1,200 for foreign institutions. Currently, the high subscription price for these journals makes them unattainable in many developing countries, leaving doctors and researchers there without the "latest medical research, much less the equipment or drugs to put that knowledge into practice," the Wall Street Journal reports (Phillips, Wall Street Journal, 7/9). A year's subscription for some journals can reach $3,000 (Barber, Washington Times, 7/9). "These are the type of high-level, peer-reviewed research developments reviewed regularly by physicians to learn of the latest outcomes that might influence choices in patient treatment," Connie Hoffman, director of communications for Wolters Kluwer said, adding, "We would like all physicians to have access to that important information, regardless of the financial status of people in their country" (Wall Street Journal, 7/9). The program is slated to begin in January (Manning, USA Today, 7/9).
Following Drug Makers on a Smoother Road
The publishers' move to provide the free and reduced access echoes drug makers' "newfound commitment to make medicines for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis widely available" to developing countries, the Post reports. But the "democratization of medical information ... is likely to be far easier and cheaper than the democratization of pharmaceutical therapy" (Washington Post, 7/9). Noting that the decision heads off the public debate over access recently faced by drug makers, Barbara Aronson, a librarian at WHO headquarters in Geneva and one of the main forces behind the new initiative, said, "This may very well have been a preemptive move, but if so, it's an elegant one, a gracious one and a generous one" (Boston Globe, 7/9).
A Need for Computers
The journals will be made available through an Internet portal WHO is establishing as part of Health InterNetwork, a U.N. program created to increase the availability of research tools in "resource-poor countries" (Washington Post, 7/9). In addition, the Open Society Institute, part of philanthropist George Soros' charitable foundation, will help fund the initiative and assist in providing Internet access and computers to poor countries (Washington Times, 7/9). Aronson noted that many of the countries that will benefit from the new program lack a technical infrastructure, as many medical schools and health institutions do not have computers. WHO "plans to ask technology companies for help in getting more computers to researchers in developing countries," she added (New York Times, 7/9).