June 8, 2017

Whatever happened to the Iraq Virtual Science Library?

Whatever happened to the Iraq Virtual Science Library?  

There is a tension in the open access movement between increasing researchers’ access to scholarly publications and transforming the academic publishing system. Open Access advocate Kamran Naim is so excited about everything happening today in open access (the Max Planck 2020 initiative and the new Unpaywall chrome extension, for example) that he was reluctant to talk with me about the Iraq Virtual Science Library, a project from more than 10 years ago.  “There may be more interesting things going on in the world of open Science” he warned me.  Still, for me, the Iraq Virtual Science Library was an awakening to cost and barriers to scientific literature set up by journal publishers, and how it deepens inequalities.  I'm glad he agreed to the interview anyway- which informed much of the following story, which starts with the Iraq Virtual Science Library (launched in May 2006) and ends with the open access database of Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals.

The idea for the project came from a group of AAAS fellows who had been working in Iraq. In an interview, Naim told me  “Prior to the 1980s, for centuries Iraq had the most prestigious institutions and had best healthcare system in the Middle East and it really degraded under the Ba’ath party where there was a heavy militarization of the Iraqi science sector.” After the first Gulf war, publishers weren’t allowed to sell their content into Iraq and Iraqis weren’t allowed to travel and attend conferences.  
“What we were trying to do was to try and help Iraqi scientists who had been shoved into military activities get re-engaged in civilian science and so the Iraqi Virtual Science Library Project was an effort to extend the hand of support and help them connect back to the world of international science by giving them access to research information. We did that with the help of the Department of State and the Department of Defense and negotiated deals with the major science publishers to make content available.”  
With a small budget of $500,000 Naim negotiated with the major publishers for content.  Most of the major publishers provided 90-98% discounts on the content and were glad to participate as a public relations opportunity.  It wasn’t problem free: one of the publishers actually left the IVSL after the first year and negotiated directly with the government in Kurdistan for a couple million dollars. 

From his perspective today, the approach of trying to increase access for certain groups by negotiating with the publishers only reinforces the system.  Naim asserted that the The industry is under oligopolistic conditions.”  (click here to hear me try to say oligopoly). Actually when you see that someone can offer a 98% discount, it seriously calls into question the pricing of the product.  

In terms of technical solutions, the platform used was similar to institutional library platforms in the US, but they had an additional challenge of providing access in the middle of a war -- academics weren’t necessarily coming to campus or even staying in the country so they provided multi-institution individual logins.  This meant that individuals had to complete a form and submit it to set up individual logins that had to be confirmed by registrars at each institution who assigned a user id and password that needed to be changed every 120 days. The US Defense Technical Information Center actually set up the registration system, but I’ve been assured that  “we weren’t surveilling users and what they were using and accessing.” When I asked him what it meant that it was a Department of Defense, an American project,  he told me “we focused on the good rather than the broader context of what it was and the fact that it was a nonproliferation project.”   The project was well received, even when a group in 2008 proposed the locally built, open source, Iraq Virtual Library, the proposed, but never launched platform was almost identical with a few changes, including letting users choose their own passwords.  

Sketch of IVSL Training in Amman Jordan, Photo Credit: Sarah Polaski, Modified withSketch Maestro
IVSL Librarian Training in Amman
The biggest challenge was going online, and that’s not even talking about electricity or internet access. Because of sanctions, Iraqi academics didn’t have experience with electronic journals.  In a survey of users published in 2015 (see below), password problems were still the top complaint.  Sarah Polaski, explains her role in the project: “(Naim and I) actually made it functional because we provided the training of trainers and the other face-to-face contacts that made it sustainable (at least it got to the point of being owned by the Iraqis).”   Passing on control of the system was a goal from the beginning, the transition to the Iraqi ministry of higher education and scientific research started in 2008 or 2009 and was officially transferred on June 7, 2010.  They committed funds for the project for the first few years and it seemed like a success.  “We felt that the only way this project was going to sustain itself was to become a national priority, so it felt good (to hand it over).”

After the transition, it worked very well for a few years. The librarians at Iraqi Institutions were key to expanding discoverability and use. Responsibility for the project at the ministry level was a challenge. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research passed authority to the Iraqi commission for computer and informatics (ICCI). In 2015 publishers cut off access and IVSL was taken offline for lack of payment. There are a lot of speculations about why the funding stopped, even so, the project is still highly valued by the Iraqi community.  One Iraqi I reached out to told me that it is “still considered a vital project” and although they don’t have the budget, that they are putting together a plan with Iraqi Universities “to deal with big publishers” through shared contributions. Salam Baker Sanawa, the CEO and chief engineer of Sempertools, which hosted the IVSL, told me he was ready to re-activate it anytime. Sempertools now hosts the open access “Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals” database.  This project was inspired by the IVSL and has had 15 million hits to it's open access collection of 250 journals.

Actually it was through the Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals that I found social science research on the Iraq Virtual Science Library.  The database itself is remarkably easy to use.  There is no login and abstracts are available in Arabic and English.  Much like our colleagues in Iraq have to do, once I found the articles I was interested in, I had to copy the arabic text from a PDF bit by bit into google translator.  It’s rough going, but remarkably easier than learning Arabic. There are problems with trying to work in a language you don't understand.   

Failed google translation of "Iraqi Virtual Scientific Library Evaluation Study An" from the IASJ 

In 2015, Sahla Alwan Jawad and Maysoon Abdul Kareem from Mustansiryah University published a survey of 167 Iraqi scholars sampled from a total of 33,114 registered users at the time. At the end of the usage survey, there are open responses for complaints and suggestions.  The top complaints were forgotten passwords, unfulfilled information requests, and difficulties getting the full text.  Younger users, designated as college students in the report, were identified with an additional set of complaints -- duplication of information on existing internet sites, difficult user-interface (or from google translate: The site has a kind of complexity and a lack of knowledge to use), and lack of availability of specializations in the field of medical sciences and economic and social sciences.   

In our general discussion about open access, Naim told me he believes that younger scholars will push the system toward openness, by rejecting the oligopoly of the major scientific publishers.
“What makes me hopeful is the increased recognition of scholars of the values of open and how there is really a kind of changing tide towards openness, and eventually the younger generation and their values are going to play a huge role --- they are not going to accept this industry and this situation that we’re in right now.”  
Although after 15 years only 15% of scholarly publications are available formally through open access, more than 50 % of articles are legally available in some form (pre-prints, green access, personal requests via Researchgate) and 60% of all scholarly literature ever published is available on the pirate site, SciHub.  Just recently, a new tool called Unpaywall from Impactstory helps find free legal versions of articles, even when the publisher charges an access fee. In Naim's view, “there is a wave of openness that is taking place outside of the formal channels of open access publishing, mostly driven by scholars wanting to share their work.”

The Iraq Virtual Science Library project shows how difficult and complicated it is to maintain secure access systems to electronic content licensed from scientific journal publishers. Even with steep discounts, the system is expensive to maintain and awkward to use.  The best hand of support the US can give to Iraqi scholars isn’t secure access to the best scientific journals, it’s open access to the best scientific journals.   Open access is a legitimate business model as shown by PLOS, eLIFE and Hindawi -- scholars appreciate that they gain a larger readership, and it’s the right thing to do.  Institutions need to revisit tenure and hiring practices that rely on journal impact factors, a practice that costs University libraries through high costs for subscription to high impact journals and journal citation reports.  

To my dear friends at CRDF - sustainability isn’t just about successfully transferring a project, we need to pay more attention to the material constraints we are passing on as well.  To my dear Iraqi friends - congratulations on the IASJ, I look forward to reading and sharing more of your publications, I hope you get full access running again soon, and in the meantime, check out http://www.research4life.org for institutional access to journal databases in health, agriculture, environment and innovation and the other links throughout this post.  And to Sarah and Kamran, thanks for helping with this post and for all you did on the IVSL.

Epilogue: This blog, was originally published on June 8 - on June 9th, Sempertools received word from the Iraq Ministry of Higher Education to re-activate the IVSL and they are working on launching it again. This is great news for Iraqi researchers. Access to paywalled papers can strengthen Iraqi research and in turn, the open access publication system now in place in Iraq. Will it also strengthen the Oligopoly?  What do you think?  


  1. Thank you, Laurel, for this very interesting and informative post!
    For the “Open Peer Review Exercise” we are doing, I’ll summarize your post, rate and comment it, and will finally provide a few recommendations for the ultimate polish of your text.

    Laurel’s blog post discusses the “Iraq Virtual Science Library”, which took off from the good idea of scholars of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to offer those Iraqi scientists, which have been involved into the war apparatus, possibilities to get back to civilian science.
    For getting the relevant information, Laurel conducted telephone interviews with Kamran Naim and Sarah Polaski, and moreover translated Arabic journal articles from the “Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals” database into English via Google Translator, (which turned out to be a Sisyphean task).
    The project “Iraq Virtual Science Library”, where Kamran Naim and Sarah Polaski are having major roles in, has originally been launched it in May 2006 in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense, and has finally been handed over to the Iraqi administration in June 2010. That the project has been received well was easy to read as librarians at Iraqi institutions amplified the discoverability of it. Nevertheless, there have been difficulties with the usage of the platform, e.g. as individual passwords had to be changed every 120 days. To set up the project, the AAAS scholars bargained with the huge scientific publishing houses, who obviously have a market oligopoly, to provide discounts on their contents. Although they could achieve discounts up to 98% for the IVSL, publishers had cut off access to their journals in 2015 due to lack of payment from the Iraqi administration.
    Already in 2008, a similar platform to this “Iraq Virtual Science Library”, named just “Iraq Virtual Library”, which offered material based on the principle of open source, was founded. These days, another platform, the open access “Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals” database, serves as a kind of follow-up-project to the former ones. This goes hand in hand with Kamran Naims hope that younger scholars are going to challenge scientific publishers as they will push the system towards openness. Laurel concludes, that the “best hand of support the US can give to Iraqi scholars isn’t secure access to the best scientific journals, it’s open access to the best scientific journals,” and points to material burdens concerning the continuation and sustainability of projects within development cooperation.

    1. Thanks for the summary, two little points of clarification - I didn't interview Sarah Polaski, she's a close friend of mine and it would have been very strange to do an interview. Her comments were provided in an email. Also, I believe Kamran Naim handled the publisher negotiations while working for CRDF, not AAAS.

    2. Also, the Iraq Virtual Library was just a proposal, it was never implemented.

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    1. I have edited the original post to reflect your suggestions, thank you!

  4. Hi Laurel! Your post is very well written and elaborates the story in an exciting way. A really good read! Furthermore, it portrays an aspect of openness (and open access) that is also a business model and a way of building/fostering markets. I recommend to edit the blogpost a bit further and submit it to the Scholarly Kitchen Blog https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/ which is one of the most important ones allowing also critical discussion for the scholarly publishing community.