The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, November 30, 1999

Cornell U. Offers Developing Nations Digital Journals on Agriculture


A project at Cornell University is providing developing countries with much-needed aid -- in the form of digital journals on agricultural research.

The project, the Essential Electronic Agricultural

Colleges and government research organizations in 104 developing countries are eligible to buy a collection of back issues of 140 agriculture-research journals for $10,000 -- far less than the cost of subscribing to the journals.
compresses four years' worth of text from 140 agricultural and life-science publications onto 173 CD-ROM's. The journals, whose subjects include soil sciences, food chemistry, and veterinary medicine, are intended to help agricultural scientists conduct their research and teach their students. While the collection is not meant as an aid for farmers, many of the researchers who will use it routinely share their work with farmers through local extension offices.

According to Wallace Olsen, the project's director, journal collections in libraries in many developing countries are plagued by theft, mutilation, and decay due to hot, humid climates. And many libraries can't afford the cost of international subscriptions. In some countries, Mr. Wallace says, budgets for subscriptions vary widely from year to year, so journal runs are left with gaping holes. "Many of the collections have been described as 'Swiss-cheese collections,'" he says.

"It is a mammoth library," says Mr. Wallace of the digital archive, which contains publications from around the world from 1993 to 1996. The set includes a CD-ROM with an index to the publications and software for using the journals on a P.C. running Windows 95. Colleges and government research organizations in 104 developing countries are eligible to buy the collection for $10,000 -- far less than the estimated $375,000 cost of subscribing to the journals individually for four years.

Before creating the collection, Mr. Wallace and his colleagues investigated what journals and areas of research would be most useful to scientists in developing countries. They looked at which publications were most often cited, and worked with researchers in developing countries to find what information they needed most.

After compiling a list of about 300 publications, the project's designers set about their most onerous task -- obtaining the necessary permissions from the journal publishers.

"We were happy to do it," says John Tagler, director of communications for Elsevier Science, which has about 30 journals in the collection. But Elsevier, the world's largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals, and other publishers were worried that giving away content to the project would cut into their journals' subscription bases.

"We're asked often to provide special offers or donations to the developing world, but what made this interesting was that we really were positive about Cornell," says Mr. Tagler. He says the project's organizers made a number of changes to assuage the publishers' fears.

The list of eligible countries, for example, omits several that fall into the World Bank's classification of developing countries but are wealthy enough that their institutions might be able to afford journal subscriptions. Some countries with records of rampant copyright violation are not eligible, because publishers feared having their products pirated. Participating publishers receive no compensation for their contributions.

Cornell is also offering annual updates to the collection, but those articles will not be available to customers until about two years after they are first published. According to Mr. Tagler, that practice will allow publishers to continue to sell first-run subscriptions to institutions that need up-to-date research.

One of the most comforting thoughts for publishers, according to Mr. Olsen, is that the CD-ROM collection is putting the journals into untapped markets. "The people in developing countries can't afford to buy them anyway," he says.

Mr. Olsen says the project, which was started with grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, should be self-sustaining beginning in January. But he says the project will need to raise additional money to publicize the collection further.

Most of the project's sales thus far have been to African countries, says Mr. Olsen, but Cornell has received orders from organizations in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Researchers in South America have also expressed interest in the collection, he says.