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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Focus on Developing World

Workshop Links Vision Scientists to Information, Research Tools

Group of eight people stand side-by-side, smiling for camera.

Participants in the workshop on information resources included (from l) Dr. Erica Raterman, NEI deputy director Dr. Belinda Seto, Sabera Banu, Thandavarayan Kumaragurupari, Pamela Sieving, Dr. John Prakash, Dr. Amy Kullas and Qing Liu.

If you’re a scientist at NEI, it is relatively easy to find and peruse research papers by others in your field. A PubMed search typically leaves you just one or two mouse-clicks away from the full-text paper(s) you’re seeking. In part, that’s because NIH holds subscriptions to a slew of scientific journals, as do most U.S. research institutions.

Now imagine (or perhaps recall) doing an online literature search from a lab or clinic in southern India, rural China or any other developing part of the world. You’re more likely to hit an “Access Denied” page, because poorer research institutions have limited means to pay for journal subscriptions.

NEI and the NIH global health interest group recently hosted a workshop to address this and other issues faced by vision researchers in the developing world. It was a chance for librarians at vision research institutions in unique parts of the world to share challenges and solutions for improving access to scientific publications and other resources. In developing areas, there’s an urgent need for improvement. Cataract and other treatable eye conditions are still leading causes of blindness in the developing world.

In India, the urgent need for eye health research and education contrasts sharply with low access to information resources. With prices that have climbed 145 percent overall during the past 6 years, online journal subscriptions are becoming increasingly difficult to afford, said Thandavarayan Kumaragurupari, a senior librarian at Aravind Eye Hospital and Dr. G. Venkataswamy Eye Research Institute in Madurai. “When Indian research is published in expensive journals, all too often it goes unnoticed by other researchers in India,” she said.

Sabera Banu, a librarian at LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, noted that a powerful, global movement toward open-access publishing has “allowed for wider dissemination of work to developing countries.” But open-access journals tend to cover their publication costs by charging authors rather than readers, which can make it challenging for researchers to get their work into journals at all. And some of the most prestigious journals “still require expensive subscriptions,” she said. 

A project by the Association of Visual Science Librarians (AVSL) and the Seva Foundation (a U.S.-based charity partnered with Aravind) is working to improve access to journals and information tools for researchers in India and other countries. 

Eight eye care institutions in five countries—Aravind and two other centers in India, plus centers in China, Egypt, Nepal and South Africa—will work together to enhance training, resources and collaboration among their vision librarians. The project, called Solution in Sight, was funded by a $140,000 grant from the Elsevier Foundation, a charitable arm of the Elsevier publishing company. AVSL has played a continuing role, “working with medical and research centers to identify their needs, and to provide mini-grants for staff training, Internet servers and books,” said Pamela Sieving, a volunteer with NEI’s international programs. She and all of the librarians invited to speak at the workshop are members of AVSL. 

Librarian Qing Liu noted that her library at Tianjin Eye Hospital and Medical University in China has a continuing medical education program to train early-career researchers in literature search and evaluation skills. It’s important for researchers to appreciate that a “library is not just a place, but a service,” she said.

Sieving said she hoped that the workshop would help call attention to opportunities for global collaboration among librarians and among researchers working in the vision sciences. Kumaragurupari offered a case in point. Fungal keratitis (inflammation) in the cornea is a leading cause of vision loss in tropical regions and a major focus of research at Aravind. Though it’s less common in the U.S., there are occasional outbreaks, typically from fungal contamination in contact lens solution. In 2009, researchers at Aravind and the University of San Francisco, California, began collaborating on an NEI-funded trial in India that is helping to develop and test better treatments.

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