Subbiah Arunachalam is a visiting scientist at the DST Centre for Policy Research, IISc. Arunachalam started out as a researcher in chemistry, then became an editor of scientific journals, but eventually turned to his interest in information science. He is known for his work in scientometrics and in the past two decades for his advocacy of open access to knowledge. Arunachalam spoke to CONNECT about information science, science policy and research in India.
You’ve been described as an information scientist. What is information science?
There are two streams of information science, and they differ as much as chalk and cheese.
The first is where I belong – handling information and knowledge for the benefit of others. The purpose is to present to the users accurate and timely data to satisfy their specific needs so they benefit from it. The users could be professors, farmers, workmen, children, college students, the lay public, just about anybody. Information science of this kind goes beyond librarianship in that some of us, influenced by the work of Derek de Solla Price, Robert K Merton and Eugene Garfield, analyse knowledge production and use the scholarly literature to study the history and sociology of science.
The second kind of information science – the major kind – is a lot more technical and mathematical and deals with the transmission, reception, storage and retrieval of information based on the statistical analysis of communication between humans or machines. It was pioneered by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, and is a part of communication engineering although researchers in other areas use it too.
Could you tell us about your work and research interests?
I watch what scientists do and try to quantify India’s contribution to research in specific fields and answer questions such as “Are we doing research relevant to our needs?” I also like to see how knowledge produced by scholars leads to further knowledge – knowledge begetting knowledge.
I watch what scientists do and try to quantify India’s contribution to research in specific fields and answer questions such as “Are we doing research relevant to our needs?”
Another facet of my work concerns information useful for local communities – villagers, fishermen, farmers, etc. I was a volunteer for 12 years with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai where I experimented successfully with cross-cultural knowledge exchange through traveling workshops for development workers from Africa, Latin America and Asia.
So the work I do can have some relevance to academic and public libraries, scholarly communication and development work.
You said you like to study how knowledge begets knowledge. Is that broadly the field of scientometrics?
That is one major aspect of scientometrics and it is called bibliometrics. It is the study of how knowledge spreads and is exchanged – what Newton referred to as seeing further by standing upon the shoulders of giants – as reflected by references in research publications. This can provide insights into the social, cultural, and cognitive structures latent in the practice of science.
Tell us about the research at the DST-CPR here at IISc.
The CPR at IISc is one of five such centres set up by the DST, each with a different focus area. Ideally, what is required is a very large set up, a whole group of people who can address the relation between the nation’s needs and science and technology. Here at the IISc DST-CPR, at the moment, we are addressing certain limited but useful issues, one by one. We have published a couple of papers on practical issues and the third is getting ready. I believe they will have some impact. One of them is about why Indian researchers should shun the practice of paying publication charges to journals. Another is on why every researcher in India should have a unique author identifier. The third is about misuse of impact factors and other citation-based indicators by our regulatory bodies and funding agencies. We are also looking at ranking of academic institutions.
Evaluating return on investment is part of policy research and many funding agencies bring out periodic reports. It began with the National Science Board, USA, which in 1973 brought out the first of its biennial Science & Engineering Indicators. In India, the DST produces annual S&T reports for the nation. The work of DST-CPR, using literature data in conjunction with data on investments on R&D, personnel deployed, etc., to develop science indicators, will be useful for such reports.
Do you think science policy in India over the years has been adequately informed by policy research?
Mostly. A number of scientists have helped, right from Mr Nehru’s time – people such as AV Hill and PMS Blackett. In the early years after Independence, Nehru’s government sought the advice of scientists like PC Mahalanobis and Vikram Sarabhai and this tradition continues to this day, perhaps with a diminished intensity. Currently, Rajagopala Chidambaram is the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government. All these people are professional research scientists who have spent most of their time in laboratories before they moved into advisory roles. They need the support of a new breed of people who can look into maximizing the socio-economic benefits of science.
Policy research is important because poor advice will lead to poor policies. Unless we’re well equipped to handle the relation between science and economy, and science and society, it is difficult to provide the best policy choices.
Policy research is important because poor advice will lead to poor policies
What was your earliest engagement with science policy?
In 1982, The New York Times quoted passages from a provocative article I wrote for Science Today in 1976, titled “Why is Indian science mediocre?” The NYT write-up had juxtaposed my statement “If science is an enterprise aiming at the creation of new knowledge, we in India seem to have failed miserably in this enterprise,” with a summary of Mrs Gandhi’s speech at the Annual Meeting of the Indian Science Congress acclaiming India’s scientific achievements. I was summoned to explain. That was my earliest engagement with science policy.
Another of your interests has been advocacy of open access.
Yes, indeed. Some people even refer to me as “Mr Open Access, India”! I am an advocate of inter-operable open access repositories and open science.
If knowledge in the sciences, including social sciences, is locked up in subscription journals, only those who subscribe to those journals can access it. Unless all the knowledge you need is freely available, your ability to further advance knowledge is limited. If all knowledge is available to all, chances of seeing more knowledge produced are very high. That is the raison d’être for open access.
Unless all the knowledge you need is freely available, your ability to further advance knowledge is limited
There was resistance in the beginning but now even journal publishers who opposed initially are ready to come on board; but they also want to retain their profits and they’re trying to find models [for it]. Open access is now an accepted idea. According to a 2013 study funded by the European Commission, more than 50% of what is produced in S&T is available in the open in some form or the other. It’s remarkable – all within the last 20 years. Major funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporters of open access.
In India, journals published by the various Councils and Academies and some private publishers are open access. However, many Indian researchers publish in toll-access journals. But there is a way by which they can make them open access – they can make the post-prints available, which we’re persuading them to do. IISc has a repository; indeed, it was the first to be set up in the country and one of the earliest in the world, but the faculty and students don’t seem to be taking it seriously. Similarly, although the DST, DBT and CSIR mandate that research funded by them should be published open access, researchers don’t take it seriously and these agencies don’t enforce it. Science policy is not just about tabling reports before committees; it is also about persuading decision-making bodies to adopt certain policies and take action.
Do you think the emphasis on publishing in journals with high impact factors, which also tend to be toll-access, is one reason why open access isn’t yet the norm?
Not necessarily. There is a large number of people who want to publish in high impact factor journals, such as Nature, Science, Cell, and New England Journal of Medicine. But these journals have set the bar very high. Not many Indians are writing papers which can be published in such high impact factor journals. That is the truth. There are a few who can – by all means let them do that. For instance, in 2016, there were only 22 papers in Nature, 14 in Science and 3 in Cell with at least one author from an Indian address. You can see that if you go to Web of Science.
You have been coming to IISc and Bangalore for many years now…
I came here as a student in 1969. Ever since, I’ve been coming here like a pilgrim. I was a visiting fellow for three months when NCSI [National Centre for Science Information] was here and I used SCI [Science Citation Index] on CD-ROM to gather data for one of our earliest papers on S&T in India.
Another attraction is the Indian Academy of Sciences. In 1973, the Academy invited me to join them to edit their journals and subsequently be the Secretary. I was there for two years, but what an eventful two years that turned out to be. I helped the Academy reorganize their journal publishing programme; founded Pramana, the physics journal. I also persuaded the ageing Academy to enlarge its Fellowship to truly reflect the large number of bright scientists deserving to be elected.
Yet another link to Bangalore is a vibrant group of bright young people who go by the name “The Centre for Internet & Society”.
I like talking to scientists and thinkers and keep in touch with them to learn what they’re doing. Even in Chennai, where I live, I go to Matscience [The Institute of Mathematical Sciences] often.