Skip to main content

The Role of the Soros Foundation in Disseminating Scientific Information in the former Soviet Union

Hello, I am Melissa Hagemann, Program Officer of the Science Journals Donation Program of the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundations. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this meeting.

I must first say that I have worked for the Soros Foundation since 1994, but only directly with the Science Journals Donation Program since 1998. Thus some of you, such as those from APS, ACS, and others have had a much longer history of working with the Science Journals Program, as these organizations were instrumental in the creation of the International Science Foundation. However, I will attempt to describe the work of the Soros Foundation in disseminating scientific information in the former Soviet Union. This will lead into the plans the foundation is developing for the provision of electronic journals. As I am presenting the foundation’s perspective, and not that of the learned societies or publishers, I will not be able to speak directly to all of the issues raised by this meeting.

The International Science Foundation (or ISF) was established in 1992 with a $100 million grant from George Soros. The funds were to be distributed directly to scientists in the former Soviet Union and Baltic States within two years. Mr. Soros’ purpose in establishing the foundation were twofold:

  1. He wanted to help the most talented scientists of the former Soviet Union to weather the economic crisis in the region without having to leave science or their countries.
  2. He wanted to encourage new approaches to funding and managing scientific research in the region.

Mr. Soros viewed the science and scientists of the former Soviet Union as part of the world’s intellectual and cultural heritage, and too precious to be allowed to disappear. By 1993, the ISF had provided 25,000 subsistence grants of $500 each to scientists. It was also in 1993, that the library assistance program of the ISF was launched. The program’s objective was to obtain scholarly journals in the major subject areas of the natural sciences and distribute them to key libraries, universities and research institutes in the fSU and Baltic States. Thanks to donations and deep discounts offered by the learned societies and publishers, scientists in the region were able to obtain the information they needed about developments in their field.

In 1994, over 100 journal titles were provided to nearly 400 libraries. In 1995, the library program distributed $5.5 million worth of American scientific journals at an actual cost of only $1.2 million.

The program operates as follows. The librarians work with the scientists in the region to select the titles they need most from our list of 115 core titles. This is a key aspect of the program, as it has always been felt that a simple donation program would not be nearly as effective, as allowing the scientists to select the titles themselves. The program then purchases the journals from the learned societies and publishers at deep discount prices. The journals are delivered to a warehouse in New York where they are sorted by country and shipped to our national Soros foundation offices within each country for further distribution to the individual institutions.

In 1995, the Network Library Program of the Open Society Institute-Budapest supported the expansion of the Library Assistance Program to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Through this program, libraries in the region were provided with complete sets of 1994 and 1995 journals.

Unfortunately, the absence of western contributions were a disappointment to Mr. Soros, and after spending $115 million of his own money, he decided to discontinue the ISF Program in 1996. Thus some have said that the ISF failed in only one sense – despite it’s indisputable successes on the substance of its program, the ISF never attracted the matching contributions from western governments that Mr. Soros had hoped for. However, in the end, Mr. Soros was convinced that the supply of journals to scientists in the fSU was still of utmost importance, thus he agreed to continue funding the program through the Open Society Institute-New York and renamed it the Science Journals Donation Program. Thus Mr. Soros has continued to fund the distribution of hard copies of scientific journals throughout the fSU at a level of approximately $2 million per year.

Last year we recognized the need to switch from hard copy to electronic journals. We brought together some of key players in the field for a meeting, and among those represented were AAAS, APS, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF). In addition, we conducted a survey through our national Soros Foundation offices of the connectivity of our recipient institutions. The results, as of July 1999 were as follows:

  • 327 institutions out of 396 served completed the survey
  • Of the 327, 188 institutions , or 57% were connected to the Internet
  • Of the 188 institutions connected, 14% had connectivity through a bandwidth of less than 28.8 Kb/sec which would make it difficult for the electronic journals to be received.

At this time I also began to receive letters from our recipient institutions in the region asking that the hard copy journals continue for at least one more year. As an example of the challenges faced by our recipient institutions, the Chairman of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences wrote:

“The problem is that most of our libraries are still unable to use the Internet on a large scale. The Internet connections are in most cases provided on a grant basis, and it is not yet clear whether they will be available next year. The use of commercial Internet providers is out of the question, since the average cost of an hour of dial-up connection is $2, while the average monthly fee for a leased line is $400, which is beyond the financial capabilities of our institutes. Moreover, even for those few libraries (mostly in Kiev), which have a leased-line connection at present, the efficient use of electronic subscriptions is doubtful. The reason is poor quality of communication channels enabling the data transfer only with a speed not exceeding 19.2 Kb/sec. Therefore if the transition to the on-line system is carried out too early, it can lead to the situation which a lot of money is spent by OSI for electronic subscriptions, whereas the large majority of Ukrainian scientists would actually have no access to the journals.”

Thus although we did come up with some ideas at our meeting, it was decided that the recipient institutions needed at least one more year of hard copy journals before they were ready to make the switch to electronic. In addition, at this time, Mr. Soros decided that he would not fund the Science Journals Donation Program past the end of this year, as he had been supporting this effort for seven years and was not willing to continue. Although the program will no longer fund the distribution of hard copy journals, there is a desire within the foundation to attempt to continue to provide scientific information to the scientists in the region. The responsibilities for this have been given to our Center for Publishing Development and our Network Library Program run out of the Open Society Institute-Budapest. The Network Library Program is developing a consortium of libraries throughout the region. The idea is to allow the libraries themselves to determine what they need to receive instead of developing a program and offering it to the libraries. Our hope is that by building this consortium, the libraries will then be able to negotiate on their own behalf for the electronic journals. This project is only in it’s infancy, but holds great potential, as I do believe that many of the journal publishers would still be willing to provide subscription rates on a sliding scale (similar to what they had offered the Science Journals Donation Program) to scientists in the region. In addition, our foundation network continues to expand, and we would hope to also build such consortia through our new foundations in southern and western Africa, as well as Haiti and Guatemala.

And finally, I have been working with CRDF and the American Astronomical Society on a pilot program to provide the AAS’ online journals to the astronomical research institutions in the fSU. At the end of last year, Gerson Sher of CRDF approached me with the idea of using our national Soros foundations, and his contacts through CRDF to identify institutions in the fSU that would be appropriate recipients of the AAS online journals. AAS and their publisher, Chicago Press, agreed to make their online journals available free of charge for one year to the fSU institutions. Thus 78 astronomical institutions were offered the free online journals for 2000. We are monitoring this effort and hope that this experience will help to shape any future initiatives the foundation undertakes.