Open Access in Latin America: Embraced as key to visibility of research outputs

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Caralee Adams

Developing and emerging countries searching for a model of Open Access publishing should take a long look at how the publishing system has evolved in Latin America.

Before the phrase “Open Access” was coined and the movement officially launched, academics in Brazil embraced sharing scholarly research online and the idea spread.

In 1997, SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online) was launched as a pilot program to coordinate academic publishing on the web for a collection of Brazilian journals. This pioneering effort was supported by both the research funder community, with the São Paulo Science Foundation (FAPESP) as a principle player, and the scientific information community, with the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information playing a leading role.

“The main objective of the program was to strengthen the visibility of the journals,” says Abel Packer, who led the efforts with SciELO from the beginning and now serves as its Director and Consultancy Committee President. From the beginning, Latin America started with a move toward Open Access, he says. Within a year, Chile led by its National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) adopted the SciELO model and the network began to grow. By 2002, the SciELO system became a reference point for indexing quality journals, and many countries clamored to participate. Ultimately SciELO burgeoned into an ongoing program expanding to 15 countries, primarily in Latin America, but also including Portugal, Spain, and South Africa. (The full list of countries can be seen at

SciELO proved to be a powerful tool in addressing the problem of locally-generated research being noticed and recognized by the international research community. “Open Access soon showed it was the best way to raise the profile of Latin American-published journals,” says Packer.

Now, most all nationally published journals in Latin America are Open Access. “Today, if it’s not on the web, it doesn’t exist,” says Packer. In 2010, around 85% of academic publications in Latin America were publicly available through the Internet, however, about 35% satisfied Open Access journal standards of the Budapest Declaration. Currently, Scopus Journal catalogue points to the statistic that 72% of Latin American indexed journals are Open Access compared to about 13% of all journals.

The SciELO model for supporting Open Access publishing is a decentralized system, where each country uses common standards and technology developed by SciELO – yet, each funds and manages its own infrastructure and operations. “SciELO was a new avenue to give visibility to the intellectual output of the region and have it openly available to the users without any financial or technological barriers,” says Nicholas Cop, a consultant on the SciELO program based in the U.S.

A few elements stand out as being key to helping Open Access take root so successfully in Latin America. Getting participation from the best peer-reviewed journals from the beginning helped the effort in Latin America start with a good level of credibility, says Packer.

Support from public institutions was also critical. Most of the Latin American journals are not-for-profit enterprises maintained by national public academic institutions or scientific societies.

“Instead of investing in buying journal subscriptions, the universities put money into producing journals themselves,” says Juan Pablo Alperin, a researcher with the Public Knowledge Project, who has deep expertise in the region.

There is a tradition for Latin American universities to be the vehicles for national development, receiving most of the public funding available for technology, innovation, and education. And, with so much of the institution’s research being publicly funded there is an expectation to turn that research over to the public, he says. “Everything is aligned already for outputs to be a public good,” says Alperin.

The model has expanded. It is now fully operational in South Africa since July 2013, which meant a strong advancement to sponsor the efforts of local organizations to promote Open Access.

“It’s important to understand what is happening to drive the growth of Open Access in Latin America,” says Heather Joseph, SPARC Executive Director. “It’s definitely being looked at by emerging markets in Africa and Asia as a success story, and as a potential model for them to follow.”

Another Open Access organization in the region is Redalyc, established in 2003 and based at the Autonomous University of Mexico State in Toluca, near Mexico City. Redalyc was born out of a need to cover the social sciences and humanities, while SciELO – in its birth, had more of a focus on health and hard sciences, says Arianna Becerril, Director of Systems and Technology for the organization. SciELO has broadened its focus since then, and includes journals from all disciplines.

Redalyc serves as a repository for more than 900 peer-reviewed journals that have passed the evaluation, 60% of which are from the social sciences and humanities, acting as a complementary organization to SciELO. Redalyc has about 300,000 articles with nearly 2,000 added weekly. There are about 6 million downloads a month. Redalyc works in 21 countries, mostly in Latin America, but also Spain and Portugal. Unlike SciELO’s decentralized model, Redalyc is centralized with the entire database hosted on the same server, notes Becerril. It has working agreements with individual countries, such as Venezuela and Cuba, which maintain their own journals.

Eduardo Aguado initiated the project and serves as General Director of Redalyc. About half of Redalyc’s funding comes from the university that hosts it, the rest from a variety of sources. In addition to providing the Open Access platform, Redalyc staff members do software consulting and training for editors to improve the quality of their journals. “We are always seeking financial support from other activities in order to not charge the user when downloading an article,” says Becerril.

The organization now is in the midst of developing new metrics to reflect journal quality that go beyond the traditional impact factor, she adds. In February, Redalyc changed from a journal-centered model to a model that offers information about the research output of institutions and countries. It provides a homepage for more than 10,000 institutions and 150 countries that have published articles in the journals indexed by Redalyc.

Open Access in Latin America came about in a natural way because journals were published by universities and were provided for free for anyone to download, says Becerril. The solution is unique to Latin America, she adds, but one that works and Becerril is optimistic will continue into the future.

There has been strong capacity building around digital journals and the number of repositories in “exemplar,” says Carolina Rossini, Project Director for the Latin America Resource Center at the Internet Governance and Human Rights program at the New America Foundation and who has advocated and provided training and policy advice for Open Access and Open Educational Resources in the region since 2005. The advocacy community, she points, plays a crucial role. For instance, the teams of Creative Commons Chile and Colombia have joined efforts from 2010 forward to train public funders and institutions on Open Access and have developed a website with step-by-step guides and information on implementing Open Access journals and repositories. The project is called “Open Journals” -

Still, Rossini notes that, except for Brazil, very few Open Access journals actually have Creative Commons open licenses. She advocates more be done to make them compliant with the Budapest Open Access Initiative. There is not the same awareness and concern in Latin America around intellectual property and copyright as in the U.S., which leads to less friction for publishing the journals online freely but also results in the lack of clear legal licenses that would make the publications in Latin America compliant with the Open Access declarations goals, she adds.

However, the Latin American approach is not as readily portable where commercial interests are already entrenched, such as North America, experts say. With publishing international journals, big publishers exert the same power and lobbying efforts in Latin America as they do elsewhere, says Rossini. She also adds that Latin American authors still prioritize the communication of their research in the highest impact factor journal, which are often published by multinational publishers. Those publications, in countries such as Brazil, for instance, do count more as career achievements than publishing in national journals. And when this is the case, the problematic of access and cost is very similar to the one faced in U.S. and elsewhere, Rossini concludes.

There has been recent positive movement in the policy front as well. In Argentina[1] and Peru, the governments recently passed a federal law mandating Open Access publishing of research funded with public funds. Lawmakers in Brazil have attempted - but not yet succeeded  - in getting such a mandate. “There is a lack of advocates and folks on the ground,” says Rossini. “It’s different than the U.S., because you have SciELO and the government providing institutional access to international journals and databases through portals such as Portal de Periodicos for those enrolled in public institutions. You don’t have that pressure because the university is not paying directly from its pockets.”

Also, La Referencia is a major driver behind Open Access in Latin America, according to Carolina Botero, Coordinator of the Law, Internet and Society group at Karisma Foundation in Colombia. She was one of the consultants who worked on the establishment of the project, which was the result of an agreement reached by nine countries in 2012 in Buenos Aires. The group is politically committed to push for access to research that is publicly funded. It was the force behind the adoption of current laws in Argentina and Peru, as well as a draft law in Mexico. Countries currently part La Referencia include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Perú, and Venezuela.

National agencies and research institutions are progressively establishing mechanisms to have researchers cover costs to publish in Open Access journals with author fees, said Packer. In Latin America, as in everywhere else around the world, covering publication costs is a core concern. Alperin said he worries about author publication fees emerging as a primary model for supporting Open Access journals. He thinks this funding mechanism puts regions, such as Latin America, at a disadvantage, by asking countries to pay author fees of journals from abroad, when it is already paying to publish local journals.

Yet, Cop says the author processing charges, which can be an integral part of research funds, could be another way of recovering costs and helping provide a more sustainable form of funding, as government funds can go up or down and financial models need to adapt, adds Cop. There is also a push to explore other metrics generated by Open Access to be used for evaluation of researchers’ work.

The commitment to Open Access seems firmly embedded now in the culture of Latin America. Particularly in the case of health information, there is an expectation that the results of health research be made freely available since health is treated more as a human right than a for-profit business, says Cop.

Also, Open Access journals are used intensively by college students and a result survey of undergraduates in Chile show clear acceptance of the approach, adds Cop. During academic breaks, there is a significant drop in the number of searches in the SciELO system, reflecting the high usage by students at Latin American universities.

In each Latin American country, it has been a coalition of researchers themselves, Open Access publishers, and academic librarians that have supported the model. “The reason Open Access is being embraced in Latin America is that it gives researchers visibility,” says Cop. “It gives researchers a way to get the information out to the rest of the world.”

-by Caralee Adams


[1] The Argentine Senate unanimously passed a law establishing the institutions of the National System of Science and Technology received funding from the National State should create institutional digital repositories of FOSS. According to the basics of the law, the open access model allows users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of scientific papers and use them for legitimate purposes related to scientific research, education management or public policy, free and without other economic, legal or techniques involving the Internet itself barriers. The Act also provides for the mandatory publication of primary research data after 5 years of collection, that can be used by other researchers.