ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Web Library of Research Output

Data gathered and analysis carried out using public funds should be in the public domain, their dissemination is in the public interest. Here are some initial ideas about setting up a web library that ensures open access to publicly-funded social research output.

A Web Libraryof Research Output

Data gathered and analysis carried out using public funds should be in the public domain, their dissemination is in the public interest. Here are some initial ideas about setting up a web library that ensures open access to publicly-funded social

research output.

V SRINIVASAN

A
large amount of social science research is carried out in the country, much of it with government, bilateral or multilateral funding, that is, public funding. Such research usually results in the production of reports, many of which contain useful data, analyses, ideas, and recommendations. But only a small portion of this output feeds into policy-making or public debate; the bulk of it is hardly circulated. Indeed, most of it is treated as virtually secret, inaccessible to the public in whose name it is carried out. Unfortunately, it is not an accepted view that data gathered and analysis carried out using public funds are a part of the public domain, and that their dis- semination is in the public interest.

A scan of the websites of various government bodies illustrates this well. The ministry of social justice and empowerment and the ministry of rural development list some research reports on their sites but do not provide access to the listed reports or supporting studies. The reports of the National Sample Survey Organisation or the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, to name just two important bodies, are not available via the internet. The government has commissioned 20 studies or reports on child labour but only two or three are available on the internet.

The result is that a great deal of research work is duplicated, since there is no access to previous research in the same area. Today, even if the authors of these reports wished to disseminate them widely, they lack an effective mechanism for doing so.

To address this problem, the innovation centre of a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation, Society for Service to Voluntary Agencies (SOSVA), has proposed a strikingly simple solution: the creation of an internet library housing all economic, social and political studies and reports prepared with government, bilateral or multilateral aid.

Such access to previous research would prevent duplication of research work in the same area and check plagiarism. The quality of research would be improved by public scrutiny. Discussion on the themes covered could also be advanced considerably. Finally, the disseminated work could feed into policy-making or public debate. SOSVA proposes that electronic copies of any study, report or document prepared using government or international funds be submitted to the web library. This proposal is along the lines of the practice followed in the US whereby a copy of any book published in the country must be deposited with the Library of Congress to receive a Library of Congress Control Number.

Unless this is done, no public grant, foreign or Indian, would be deemed utilised; indeed, the comptroller and auditor general or other appropriate agency would report that the funds are deemed unutilised. Steps need to be taken to make this legally binding and administratively effective. These studies would then be posted on the web library, which would have a standard classification system and easy search tools. The advantages of such a library are the advantages of the internet: At no cost, a huge wealth of information would be available to the public. Moreover, users would not need to know of the existence of particular reports or other materials in advance; they could discover them while browsing through the library, as it were.

Not only would duplication of labour be avoided, and the quality of research improved by subjecting it to public scrutiny, but the quality of debate on questions of public interest could be enhanced. That, in turn, ought to spur genuine development.

The same library could also host many documents that are available today but only as hard copies, that is, in printed form, and therefore in effect accessible only to a few. The idea could be developed further and the web library need not be restricted to work undertaken by government and donor agencies. For example, the web library could include doctoral theses, documents of international nongovernmental organisations, and so on. Linkages can be provided to other electronic libraries as well, to constitute a core bibliography to be available on the websites.

This idea could be extended further. The web library need not be restricted to work undertaken by government and donor agencies. For example, the documents of international non-governmental organisations or agencies could be put up on this site. Links could be provided to other electronic libraries to constitute a core bibliography available on the internet.

Certain technical and legal issues involved in setting up such a site may need examination. Some reports (or portions of them) may need to be withheld on grounds of “national security”; others because they reveal confidential or copyright materials. However, these questions appear fairly easy to resolve.

The costs involved for setting up the web library, either as a fully owned portal facility co-hosted in a data centre or as portal hosted in a private hosting service provider, are negligible (a few lakhs of rupees) compared to the public funds spent on such research. The potential social benefits of such a web library are huge.

In a sense, it could be argued that providing such access is a legitimate extension of the current efforts under the Freedom of Information Act. Although the thrust of the act is towards transparency in decision-making by government, the fundamental principle of the act, that government must throw its books open, applies as much as to information dissemination and development benefits as to decision-making.

EPW

Email: sosva@hotmail.com

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Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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