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Internet may help bridge the gap

7 January 1999 (Nature, Vol. 397, page 10)

[PARIS] Until recently, many feared that increasing use of the Internet would widen yet further the knowledge gap between industrialized and developing countries. But such pessimism is giving way to optimism that the new technology may instead help spur a renaissance of science and technology in poorer countries.

The prospect that Internet access will eventually become widely available seems to be shifting the focus of the debate to issues related to the acquisition and production of the content of websites.

Use of the Internet in developing countries is now growing faster than anywhere else. According to a report from the International Data Corporation, the number of users in the Asia-Pacific region will grow from 6.5 million this year to 29.3 million by 2001, while the number in Latin America, Africa and Eastern and Central Europe will rise from 7.6 million to 25.6 million.

Lack of access to the Internet has been the largest barrier to its use in developing countries. "But this is changing extremely fast," says Ben Fouché, a South African who is vice-president of the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information , which was set up by the International Council for Science (ICSU) to promote the availability of scientific information worldwide.

Ironically, while developing countries have long struggled with inadequate copper-based telecommunications infrastructures, this lack is now proving to be an advantage. Whereas advanced countries are reluctant to replace their entire telephone systems, this is what is happening in many developing countries, such as Gambia, which are installing digital networks based on the latest fibre-optic technology.

"Developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog [advanced countries] because the infrastructure is becoming more affordable," says Fouché. Prices are being driven down by the liberalization of telephone monopolies, and by commercial operators looking to developing countries as future markets.

Joshua Rosenthal, from the Fogarty International Center of the US National Institutes of Health, points out that, whereas development of the Internet in the North was initially driven by the research community, in the South scientists will piggyback on commercial investment.

One of the most ambitious of the many commercial investments is Africa One ( Africa Optical NEtwork ), a proposal to throw a 39,000-km optical fibre submarine cable around Africa. The US$1.6 billion plan was launched by the International Telecommunications Union, with the support of 30 African countries, and companies including British Telecom and AT&T.

A plethora of initiatives is under way to boost Internet networks for universities in developing countries, for example at the World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and other UN agencies the latter mainly through an informal group of agencies known as PICTA , Partnership for Information and Communication Technologies in Africa.

Widespread access to the Internet allows scientists to use a vast range of tools, literature and databases, such as the US National Library of Medicine. It promises to offset the sharp drop in journal acquisitions by libraries in developing countries that has occurred over the past decade because of inflation.

"Less developed countries stand to benefit at least equally [to Northern scientists] from technological developments," says Paul Ginsparg, founder the Los Alamos physics e-print archives, which has established widely used mirror sites in India, China, Russia and Brazil.

But there is resentment among many scientists in developing countries at what they perceive as a lack of effort by publishers in the North to take advantage of the lower costs of distribution on the web to make online versions of journals available to them at lower prices than print versions.

Fouché points to the "paradox" that, although telecommunications companies are prepared to discount physical infrastructure in view of a future market, publishers seem reluctant to follow this example, even though the costs would be much less.

"Publishers have lacked a strategy for developing countries in terms of long-term market development. They are not asking what should we be doing to make information content affordable now." He suggests that subscription prices could be fixed according to purchasing power parity.

One of the few organizations with a pricing policy for developing countries is HighWire Press, a not-for-profit body set up by Stanford University to help universities and learned societies publish on the web at low cost.

Highwire has arranged with the publishers of many of the 100 or so leading journals it now puts on the web for explicit reduced rate subscriptions for countries with a per capita gross national product of US9000 or less, often for as little as one-third of the US price of print versions. Countries with US$3000 or less are eligible for even greater reduction. The UK Institute of Physics also offers free access to its 33 electronic titles to academic institutions in Africa.

The American Physical Society is considering national online-only site licences for countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Academic Press does not have specific licences with developing countries, but is "open to discussion," according to Chrysanne Lowe, its marketing director.

Scientists in developing countries are increasingly taking advantage of the web to publish their own journals. Rosenthal says that by doing so they will be better able to communicate between themselves, and to overcome some of the hurdles and prejudice that have hampered their efforts to publish in the journals of industrialized countries.

The Fogarty centre has launched a programme with the US National Library of Medicine to train scientists from developing countries in information technology. Two organizations have also been set up to help scientific societies in developing countries to publish online.

One is the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications , established by ICSU, and the other is the UK Electronic Publishing Trust for Development , set up by Bioline Publications, a bioscience publisher, and a not-for-profit Brazilian bioinformatics organization. Between them, they have launched two dozen web journals.

Research organizations from Latin America, supported by Spain and Portugal, are cooperating to build a directory of online journals, Latindex . This will eventually be extended to offer abstracts and full text. The idea is to offer editors the chance to make journals "more accessible and visible," says Ann-Marie Cetto, a physicist at the National University in Mexico City.

Declan Butler

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