The rising cost of journals and difficulties associated with hybrid journals limit access to knowledge by scientists in poorer countries1. The economic and technical difficulties that contribute to the North to South knowledge gap will not be resolved until alternative mechanisms for the distribution of information are developed and scientific societies take steps to revise the present tradition. Until then, scientists in developing nations will continue to be disenfranchised.

Although the North to South gap is widely acknowledged, the gap from the South to the North is less appreciated. Yet this deprives the global scientific community of much essential information from developing countries. It is caused by problems faced by publishers in these countries in meeting the costs of printing and distributing their peer-reviewed journals. Scientists in such regions have difficulty publishing in high profile journals. As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, has said, “The invisibility to which mainstream science publishing condemns much Third World research thwarts the efforts of poor countries to strengthen their journals — and the quality of research — in regions that most need them”.

Fortunately, electronic publishing can resolve many of these problems (see Briefing, page 195). The feasibility of this has been shown by organizations such as the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development (EPT)2 and workshops organized by the British Council3. The EPT has facilitated the online publication of 16 peer-reviewed bioscience journals in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. With a small investment, publishers can readily learn to prepare their publications in web-compatible format and benefit from the increased visibility. The independence so gained allows developing countries to establish their own distribution sites, so strengthening their science base.

Thanks to online journals much previously unknown research now forms part of the international knowledge base. The heightened awareness that electronic distribution provides leads to renewed enthusiasm for publishing in local journals, and the sense of isolation often felt by the scientific community begins to diminish.

The gap from North to South will take time to close as new mechanisms are developed and attitudes change. The gap from South to North can be closed more swiftly since the technology is easy and low cost and, importantly, access to the Internet is not immediately essential if partnerships can be made with non-profit facilitating organizations and scientific societies.