Access to Research Saves Lives

The Story Behind Research4Life

Raharman Tamang, 20, was using a circular saw to cut a steel rod at a metal shop in Bhaktapur, Nepal, when the rod snapped and impaled his brain partially paralyzing him. Frantic relatives rushed him to a nearby hospital where they were told it was not possible to treat him. A second hospital turned him away because there were no beds available in intensive care. Finally, four hours after the accident, he was admitted to a third.

“I was on call when the patient came in,” said neurosurgeon Pratyush Shrestha. “I was the most senior person present at the hospital, but it was a totally new case for me. So, while the patient was being prepared for surgery, I had to do a very quick literature review. I found an article on a similar case in India in Pubmed. Thanks to the full text I got via Research4Life, I was able to make a plan for the surgery."

The surgery was successful and Raharman made a full recovery. Had Dr Shrestha not been able to access the article through Research4Life, the outcome might have been different. “Here we can’t pay for scientific journals which aren’t open access,” said the neurosurgeon, who plans to publish a paper about the case in a peer-reviewed journal – a reminder that access to research not only saves lives, it also leads to new research.

Research4Life has been providing free and low-cost access to scientific research for 20 years. It formed after a Kenyan researcher came into the World Health Organisation (WHO) Library looking for a paper he had discovered on the internet. Librarian Barbara Aronson knew that doctors, scientists and students in the world’s poorest countries had insufficient access to peer-reviewed journals because they could not afford the subscriptions. She also knew this meant they could not contribute to the global scientific discourse without risk of research replication. The Kenyan researcher, who found the paper online from his office in Nairobi, gave her the idea that publishers – many of which were on the path to digitization – might be able to solve this problem. Together with Maurice Long from STM, the trade organisation for academic publishers, she organized a meeting between six leading publishers and the WHO. A group of publishers, including Elsevier, gahered in New York with WHO representatives in 2000 and they agreed on a statement of intent and Access to Research for Health, which later became Research4Life, was born in 2001. 

Today more than 200 publishers contribute to Research4Life, which is a public-private partnership that includes UN agencies and Yale and Cornell Universities. Elsevier provides a quarter of the material, including over 3,000 journals, such as The Lancet and Cell, and 20,000 e-books. It also provides access to its Scopus, Embase, Mendeley and ClinicalKey platforms.

As it turns 20, Research4Life is expanding its scope to help researchers from developing countries move from being just consumers of research to producers of knowledge as published authors. Research4Life’s new strategy will focus on raising awareness, strengthening fundraising, and expanding its products and services from providing access to research to providing access to publishing opportunity. The aim will be to help researchers in the developing world fully participate in the global research community. 

The partnership aims to raise awareness through a new ‘Country Connectors’ programme in which users on the ground promote the platform and provide training. The Elsevier Foundation has committed $70,000 a year for three years to support the project, which will also include sourcing local content for the platform. Research4Life will also further align its activities with the SDGs, improve its language coverage and extend its content from journals, e-books and research tools to networks of peers, peer-review systems and funding information with the aim of supporting researchers at every stage of the research journey.

Expanding training is another priority. Research4Life already runs webinars and a regular ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC). These classes teach researchers how to navigate the platform and use its advanced research tools but also cover the wider publishing landscape, research techniques, intellectual property and copyright, citation and reference management and editorial and peer-review processes.