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Open access in Africa – green and gold, the impact factor, ‘mainstream’ and ‘local’ research

I have been following the debate raging in the UK and beyond about whether the Finch Commission and the Research Councils UK  - and then the EC with a slightly different emphasis – were right in opting for support for the ‘gold route’ of open access publishing rather than prioritizing only the ‘green route’ of open access repositories. There seems to have been a general consensus in the commentaries that I have read that this will disadvantage the developing world, which will be faced with the barrier of high article processing fees and become increasingly excluded. The green route, through continuing creation of institutional repositories, would be better for us, we are told.

I don’t agree. The reasons are complex, but at heart this takes us back to the question of whether we are seeking access to or participation in the production of global literature. Which policy path would most effectively give voice to research from Africa, largely silenced in the current system? Access to world literature is also important, but is inadequate on its own, risking perpetuating a neo-colonial dispensation that casts the dominant North as the producer and the developing world as the consumer of knowledge.

I have come to think that the green/gold debate is in fact a distraction from dealing with more insidious issues in our research publishing systems. These include the dominance of journals at the expense of other forms of publication; the almost universal adoption of the ISI and its Impact Factor as the basis for recognition and reward; and, most insidious of all, the marginalization of great swathes of global research through the implementation of this commercialized ranking system.

Another related but under-recognised issue is the extent to which there is an assumption that scholarly publishing is a commercial business, built around profit creation. This has led to a free rider syndrome, allowing senior administrators to remain oblivious to the need to address support for research communication as a policy issue. In this regard, Finch sets a good precedent, in making it clear that getting beyond the issues that block effective research communication requires government investment.

Once the argument moves to discussion of what the impact of these new open access policies would be on the participation of the developing world, then the nature of the debate changes. I would argue that the either/or dichotomy between green and gold is in fact a distraction –  the wrong question, generating the wrong answers. Whether green or gold is not that relevant in the African context unless one understands the mechanisms of exclusion that consigns our research publications to the margins. Even then there is unlikely to be a clean either/or solution. What is important is an understanding of the contextual issues and the power dynamics that are at play.

 History and context – a neo colonial system

African universities outside of South Africa tend to be very young, with most institutions dating from the post-colonial period in the second half of the 20th century. Only a few decades later, the World Bank and the IMF implemented structural adjustment programmes that marginalized higher education in favour of primary schooling. Just as the higher education system was expanding in the global North, universities were starved of funds and thus of the continuing growth that they really needed to function effectively. In the 1980s and 90s, if you appreciated diatribes that could sear your eyeballs, you had only to listen to African intellectuals at conferences berating structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF.

In around 2000 came the solemn revisionist discovery that in fact higher education was very important and should be supported. This was not long after South Africa emerged from apartheid, so the 21st century in our region has been a period of reconstruction of battered higher education systems. In these circumstances, there were two conflicting ambitions in the minds of university leaders. One was to be able to [re]join the global academic community, building prestige and recognition in the competitive terrain of publication impact and university rankings. The other was to demonstrate a contribution to national and regional development in countries that faced overwhelming challenges.  Or, as a university administrator put it to us recently, the biggest battle southern African universities face is to combine the achievement of both prestige and relevance.

One has to ask why this is so difficult. The answers are to be found in the ideology and global hierarchies created by the corporations that had come to dominate the journal publishing system. Open access developed in good part in reaction to the dysfunctional nature of this bloated system and its vertiginous subscription rates. In the global North, the debate has largely been about how to get visibility for journal articles locked behind paywalls in these journals and less about hierarchies of knowledge that marginalized a great deal of world research.

 The impact factor

The reason that the two goals of local and international impact are irreconcilable in our region has a lot to do with the universal adoption of the ISI Impact Factor as the dominant metric used as the preferred route globally for achieving research recognition in a managerialist and competitive higher education system. The IF is also, in the developing world, the biggest barrier to the achievement of recognition.

I have enjoyed the targeted and tough attacks on the rigour and credibility of the Impact Factor by Stephen Curry and Bjoern Brembs in recent blogs. As someone who flinches when I hear the term ‘bibliometrics’, I appreciate Brembs’s comparison of the IF with ‘homeopathy, creationism or divining’ and would readily encourage the adoption of Curry’s series of declarations:

  • If you include journal impact factors in the list of publications in your cv, you are statistically illiterate. 
  • If you are judging grant or promotion applications and find yourself scanning the applicant’s publications, checking off the impact factors, you are statistically illiterate

The trouble is that the IF is taken with deadly seriousness in southern African universities and is all too often used as a proxy by international agencies for the evaluation of national research effectiveness. Lesser known is the extent to which the criteria for inclusion in the ISI are skewed to actively exclude the developing world and its interests from this dominant system. As Guèdon describes, by an extraordinary sleight of hand a distinction was made by the ISI in 1982 between ‘local’ and ‘international’ or ‘mainstream’ science. ‘Local’ or national research was relegated to a lower level – or irrelevance – and only ‘Third World contributions to mainstream science’ would be considered for inclusion in the ISI.  In other words, a research article gets into the ISI if it addresses the interests of readers in the English-speaking North.

In this way, the research interests of three quarters of the world are relegated to irrelevance in the dominant global scholarly publishing system and downgraded to the ‘local’, while whatever is included in the Science Citation Index constitutes mainstream science. Effectively, Nelson Mandela becomes ‘local’ and George Bush ‘international’.

We could perhaps learn from Groucho Marx giving the finger when he was refused membership at a country club: ‘I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.’

 Institutional repositories

What this system has inevitably meant is that there are very low rates of publication in the ISI from the countries consigned to the periphery. This is particularly the case in the smaller African countries outside of South Africa, which dominates African production in the ISI. Does it make sense to maintain an OA institutional repository to profile ISI journal articles when many institutions are producing between 25 and 100 articles a year? And in institutions that are battling with issues of capacity and infrastructure in the wake of the policy turbulence that I have described, should these repositories be institutional or subject-based? All in all, the role of repositories – regional, institutional, subject-based, archival – may well be different to the common assumptions about journal article deposit and mandates.

 Beyond journals – local relevance

While the road to prestige and rankings is delivered largely through the commercial journal system, the way to social and development impact is surely through open access, with the ‘grey literature’ that Finch recognized at its heart. In our context, in Africa, access to the non-journal literature is not, as Stevan Harnad averredmerely providing access to research data and grey literature’ that the Finch Commission recommended for inclusion in repositories (my emphasis). Rather, in the developing world, access to this kind of research output is a very important part of ensuring the relevance of research to local and regional needs – or indeed ensuring the wider impact of research outputs in ways that have recently been recognised in the World Bank’s OA policy.

What this does raise is the question of peer review. Universities are anxious to ensure the quality of the research that gets placed online and are exploring alternative quality evaluation approaches to deliver this goal.

 The question is, therefore, what open access policy should look like in the developing world and in southern Africa in particular. This is likely to  include open access publication; the recognition of a wider range of  research outputs; repository and communication strategies that recognize this and which take account of the realities of available capacity and infrastructure. And – a challenging issue – how to change reward and recognition systems to bring them into line with the real strategies of governments and institutions?

Posted in African Scholarship, Open Access, Scholarly Publishing.

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From the IPA 2012 Congress to the Finch Report – publishers and open access

The Finch Commission report was released in the UK on 18 June.  Entitled  ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’, this report, by an independent working group headed by Dame Janet Finch, tackled ‘the important question of how to achieve better, faster access to research publications for anyone who wants to read or use them.’

The report and its subsequent endorsement by the UK government and then by the EU stirred a storm of controversy in the open access community as a result of its central recommendation: that the UK should opt for a ‘gold route’ approach to achieving this goal, with substantial government research funding allocated to supporting article processing fees (APCs) for publication of UK scholars’ work in open access journals. The role proposed for repositories was to ‘play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation.’

The most vehement objections were from supporters of the ‘green route’ of open access repositories and mandates for the deposit of journal articles in those repositories. A key thread in these early responses to the Finch report has involved speculation on how publishers might react, debating whether there will be price gouging on APCs, and whether the move to gold OA will entrench the hegemony of publishers. In short, critics ask whether publisher interests have driven this policy direction.

Stephen Curry’s post in the Guardian countered this view with the perception that ‘the research publishing business remains in ferment’.  I attended the International Publishers Association 2012 Congress in Cape Town the week before the release of the Finch Report. Given the potentially dramatic shift in scholarly publishing that the Finch Commission introduced just after its closure, the IPA discussion suddenly has added significance. It was little reported and there were some interesting discussions, which I think endorse Stephen Curry’s view – the publishing industry is indeed in ferment, hardly a position of strength.

Moreover, with debate over whether or not this policy will be detrimental to scholars from the developing world, the fact that the IPA was held in South Africa also offers perspectives on this issue.

 Publishers and digital disruption  – a ‘tsunami’?

The impact of the global momentum of open access was recognized at the IPA Congress, where OA was described as  ‘a tsunami’ by Michael Mabe, CEO of the International Association of STM Publishers, ‘like nothing the world has seen’.

WIPO Director Francis Gurry in his speech also used a strong metaphor for digital disruption, describing it as ‘a perfect storm’, arguing that change is now so rapid that it is not possible to be ideological, as the circumstances on which ideology depended are in flux. Copyright is now about challenge and contention, he argued, with the central controversy in the knowledge society being the clash between property rights and the social, central to the way knowledge and creativity are transmitted in our society.  It would be nice to have a neat solution, he said, but there were none and so an incremental approach is the most useful approach.

The sense of overwhelming, even cataclysmic change that surfaces in this discourse does not strike me as the language of confident market manipulators, although, of course, publishers trying to extract as much as possible from the new deal would be an obvious outcome. It is their ability to control the situation that is in question.

Publisher attitudes to green and gold

Michael Mabe of STM, made great play of the serious difficulties that were experienced in the development of a digital observatory for the EU’s Peer Project, which sought to research the effects of large-scale green route deposit. He complained of the technical problems that arose from the incompatibility of the data they were taking in from various sources, the complexity of implementation and the extreme unwillingness of authors to deposit.  While the participating publishers contributed 22,500 articles, there was a very low rate of uptake by authors invited to deposit. Of the 11,000 authors canvassed, 10 deposited ‘timeously’ and the intervention finally resulted in 170 authors depositing, a 2% take-up.

So, with regional green route model as difficult and obstructive as this European enterprise, Mabe’s conclusion was (unsurprisingly) that if the free deposit route is that difficult then surely it is better to pay to publish. Given the closely-linked dates of the Peer project completion, the Finch Report announcement and the EC adoption of a green or gold solution, it is likely that these initiatives reinforced each other’s findings, given an overlap of the people and organisations involved in the various initatives.

Was this chest-beating on Mabe’s part a publisher propaganda exercise?  Did the gentleman protest too much?  Although I was tempted to read it this way at the time, a check on the Peer findings suggested otherwise. Some of the key findings concerned the difficulty of building large-scale infrastructure; the unlikelihood of author self-archiving creating a critical mass of content, and the preference of scholars for the version of record – the final journal article. Of the positive results, one was that the acceptance and utility of OA has grown considerably.

Willem van der Stelt, Executive VP for Corporate Strategy at Springer endorsed this, speaking enthusiastically about the development of OA journals in a global environment in which Brazil, India and South Africa are becoming stronger players. Springer is investing heavily in OA journals, currently launching 100 of them.  Springer owns Biomed Central, the largest OA journal publisher. Van der Stelt said that Springer has left Biomed alone since it was purchased, did not interfere with its way of working and has used it to change the culture of Springer. He suggested that they might change the company into an author services company – what this means needs some unpacking.

Springer’s new suite of OA journals extends across all subject fields, including the social sciences and includes Springer Plus, a science mega-journal on the model of PLOS One. It will be interesting to see whether these OA journals are, like BMC, more open to developing country issues, more aware of the world outside of the global North and more egalitarian in their approach to what constitutes important global research.

The hybrid model, which has only had a 3% uptake, would see subscription prices falling year by year, van der Stelt said, if uptake increased. (what is clear, however, is that this option is not popular with authors.)

There were more oblique interventions that endorsed my sense that, for all the bluster, publishers realized that there is going to be downward pressure on publishing profit margins as changes impact on the industry. Salvatore Miele of CERN raised the prospect of  SCOAP3, a consortium approach to OA journal publishing in high energy physics designed to lower costs and now in procurement phase. This and other disruptive journal initiatives, like PeerJ are likely to challenge complacencies in the traditional journals.

This does not look to me like a context in which gold OA subsidies will drive high prices. Rather, as Richard van Noorden argued in Nature:

If researchers do fall in line, the wide adoption of open access will shift everyone’s publishing behaviours. Scientists may start discussing with universities where, and how much, they can afford to publish. Publishers and learned societies that rely on profits from library subscriptions will have to be more transparent about the costs of publishing. The latest open-access journals, such as PeerJ and eLife, may gain from the resulting melee (see Nature 486,166; 2012).

So the tendency is more likely to be downward pressure on APCs from research authors who will now find themselves directly responsible for paying publishing costs rather than having this happen at a remove, by the less powerful librarians.

A different vision for repositories?

The most vehement objections were from supporters of the ‘green route’ of open access repositories and mandates for the deposit of journal articles in those repositories. This up until now has probably been the dominant policy route for OA. To my mind the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed ‘grey literature’ is an important revision of what has been up until now an almost religious aversion to thinking about anything other than peer reviewed literature. Much valuable research emerges in research papers, policy briefs and reports on research in progress. ArXiv has demonstrated the power that this kind of publication has in building research collaboration. At the IPA Congress, Salvatore Mele, Open Access Director at CERN described this terrain. Open matters, he argued, and makes scientists happy, bringing them both visibility and citations..

The Finch Report view of the potential for digital repositories bodes well for African universities, where we have found a strong interest in digital collections of research papers of this kind.

A softer face for publishing?

Also important – although apparently not heard and understood by some of the big publishers, I discovered in tea break conversation – was the need to improve the image of publishing, to put a better face on the way publishers are perceived.  We need to provide a soft face for IP in a hostile environment, Francis Gurry argued, talking about publishers and negotiation of an instrument for the visually impaired. Certainly the battle over SOPA and PIPA in the US and the boycott of Elsevier that resulted demonstrated a high level of suspicion and hostility to large publishing. Too-high prices were recognized as an aspect of this negative perception – as author agent Wendy Strothman said, the industry has to learn to deliver content efficiently in any medium at a good price in a market in which publishers have to learn to become B2C businesses. Or as Gurry put it – we cannot have a situation where it is easier for a consumer to get a product illegally that to buy it legally.

And for Africa?

 I think the jury is out on what this could mean for us in Africa. The immediate worry that has been expressed in reaction to these developments is a fear that once again, African academics will be excluded by the high price of APCs . The availability of waivers does not seem to help this perception, perhaps because of the unattractiveness of being in a position of dependency.

Today’s news, though, adds another dimension. Thompson Reuters has announced a partnership to include the SciELO journals platform on the Web of Science. This will include the South African journals that are steadily being added to the SciELo South Africa platform. The growth of locally produced journals – and the replication of a model like the SciELO SA programme, carried out by the Academy of Science of South Africa and supported by the Department of Science and Technology – could be a beneficial outcome of the radical policy shift that we are seeing.

There is a price on this shift, however and that is the willingness of governments and research institutions to invest in scholarly publishing. At the moment, one of the startling aspects of the Africa higher education policy environment is the absence of attention to research communication, something that is now putting us seriously out of line with the rest of the world.

More on that in the next blog.

Posted in Open Access, Policy, Scholarly Publishing.

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Academic spring – open access policies take the world by storm

Photo: Eve Gray CC-BY

I would normally count the Easter weekend as a quiet time with little happening online. I was proved very wrong, to my delight. At the same time I was proved right on another front – the period of Open Access as a fringe activity, a protest from the sidelines, is definitively at an end. One reason that this pleases me enormously is that this changes definitively the largely futile game of global catch-up that research universities in Africa seem destined to play. If we really want to emulate the best practices of global scholarly publishing it is now very clear that open access publishing is something that we have to embrace. This is doubly good news, because open access offers African researchers, their universities and governments the opportunity to overcome the barriers that face dissemination of African research in its attempts to penetrate the dominant commercial scholarly publishing block. OA has the promise of real reach and impact – locally and internationally  – and it now has the unequivocal backing of major international organisations. But there is also going to be some work to do to ensure that the policies we develop conform to our own needs, not just those of developed countries.

So what did happen this weekend? First of all, UNESCO’s Information and Communication Directorate published its Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Access to Scientific Information. That UNESCO has launched an Open Access policy initiative is not news – it was launched to the end of 2011. I was familiar with the draft of the policy document from our discussions at the UNESCO Open Access Forum in November 2011, but it was good to have the final version in hand, one that we can use and cite and send to our colleagues and governments.

The Policy Guidelines, written with admirable clarity by Dr Alma Swan, are comprehensive, explicitly intended to inform the development of open access policies for scientific research by national governments. What is going to be needed now is active participation by African organisations, stakeholders, institutions and individual academics so that the policymaking process is really geared to the strategic goals that have been articulated for African research efforts. And, of course,  to ensure that these strategies are really aligned to our needs.

Then came the World Bank’s announcement of its Open Access initiative. It has created an Open Knowledge Repository as a one-stop shop for much of its information. An Open Access Policy will be applied from 1 July 2012, governing a range of World Bank publications and research outputs that will need to be in the Open Knowledge repository. This applies to monographs, chapters in monographs and journal articles as well as reports, with the former being deposited in their final pre-publication version. Peer review or review by project coordinators is required for all publications that are deposited.

The Creative Commons licence that has been adopted by the World Bank is the non-restrictive CC-BY that allows for copying, adaptation and distribution, even for commercial purposes. A non-commercial licence will govern only those works published by outside publishers –who will be required to comply with the open access policy.

I was just getting my breath back from these two major moves when the Guardian report on a Wellcome Trust announcement added to the seasonal celebrations. The Wellcome Trust is launching a new mega-journal, eLife, which will directly compete with the major scientific journals, like Nature and Science. One of the biggest research funders, with a strong commitment to the importance of applied research and its social and development impact, the Wellcome Trust was an early adopter of open access policies, requiring research outputs from the projects it funds to be deposited in PubMed Central. It is now going to strengthen these requirements.

It has to be remembered that these initiatives came hot on the heels of the boycott of Elsevier, now signed by some 9,000 researchers, arising out of protests against the Research Works Act  – an attempt to reverse public and donor funder mandates for open access deposit of publications arising out of this research.

Why should this be relevant to us, at the other end of the world and on the margins of the global scholarly publishing system?  At the beginning of this century, African universities and governments needed to rebuild their research systems after the depredations of World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programmes.  The focus in this recovery period tended to be on the need to rebuild prestige and so the policy focus and  reward systems for researchers gave preference to publication in the big international commercial journals, with their high-impact ratings. This has proved a futile exercise. The volume of African articles in the international indexes remains very low and a price is paid for this participation in the distortion of local research priorities, often sacrificed in order to get into Northern-focused journals.

What we have found in our Scholarly Communications in Africa Programme is that the universities we are working with are in fact particularly interested in the potential for the development of scholarly publications that can contribute to their strategies for research contribution to national and local development imperatives. That means working not only with journal articles but also with a range of other research papers as well as ‘translations’, for policy or community impact.  The major international policy announcements of the last week offer a powerful affirmation not only of open access, for reasons of human rights and greater social justice, but also for a broader vision of what a research reward system should focus on. In this regard, we are likely to be involved in a policy dialogue in which developing country research organisations can engage in dialogue about the focus of global open access policy initiatives, contributing to the debate rather than just playing follow-on.

Posted in African Scholarship, Open Access, Policy.

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The policy gap – research communication in limbo in South Africa’s new Green Paper

South Africa has a shiny new Green Paper on Post-School Education. However policy weary we might be, this is, refreshingly, a good document, with the right ambitions for the overdue overhaul of the higher and further education sector.  It quite rightly identifies the country’s huge deficit in further education and the failure to provide sufficient training for employment to meet the overwhelming need in this sector. This policy document does not appear to fall into the trap of trying to turn universities into human resource factories, but rather seeks to leverage the strengths of the most functional institutions to help upgrade the under-developed further education sector.

If the Green Paper is implemented as its stands, the universities are facing a considerable upward trend in the number of postgraduate degrees to support sector growth; greater research differentiation between institutions; enhanced attention to teaching and learning effectiveness; effective use of ICT for increased efficiencies in distance and face to face learning; expansion in the number of academics to meet increased teaching and learning and research targets; and the encouragement and nurturing of young academics. Extra funding is proposed to meet these needs. The driving ethos is that of collaboration, cooperation and intra-institutional synergy to ensure that the stronger institutions can contribute to the upgrading of the weaker ones. The Green Paper places itself firmly in the 21st century as it proposes the adoption of flexible and innovative models of teaching and learning delivery, building on the affordances of information technologies. This is articulated as a way of improving access and increasing economies of scale.

This is an enlightened view of university education that includes, gratifyingly, the endorsement of collaboratively developed open educational resources, the idea of collaborative learning networks, online student support, and the suggestion that government might support the production of open textbooks. The support of UNESCO for OER, as part of  ‘a growing international movement’ (p. 59), is clearly an important motivating force behind this radical move. Indeed, as I write, the SA government is co-hosting a UNESCO Forum on OER Policy in Africa.  The Green Paper mentions UNESCO’s work on open education resources as a motivation for these provisions, but does not respond to the more recent development in UNESCO of an Open Access programme, launched in late 2011 at the UNESCO Open Access Forum.

The UNESCO OA initiative provides some guidelines on what would constitute a more expansive vision of what needs to be done by way of national policy for the creation of a comprehensive approach to research publications and communications. The initiative focuses explicitly on Africa, saying that in spite of improvements in ICT availability, awareness of OA remains low on the continent and in other developing countries. The brochure produced to launch this initiative summarises the advantages of OA thus:

 Through Open Access, researchers and
 students from around the world gain increased
 access to knowledge, publications receive greater
 visibility and readership, and the potential impact
 of research is heightened. Increased access to and
 sharing of knowledge leads to opportunities for equitable economic and social development, intercultural dialogue, and has the potential to spark innovation.

 In other words, OA is perceived in the UNESCO programme as a driver for the development impact from research that the SA government has persistently asked for. It is also the capacity builder that the Green Paper seeks, a space in which research processes and findings can be shared and these findings made available for the creation of learning and training materials and ‘translated’ for use by businesses, social entrepreneurs, and communities. As I set out in an earlier blog on the UNESCO OA Forum ,  UNESCO follows in this initiative behind a number of other organisations and countries that are investigating and adopting new regional and national frameworks for research communication, based on rapidly-changing digital research practices.

The research communications gap in the SA Green Paper

Disappointingly, this is not reflected in the SA Green Paper – a big hole at the centre of its 21st century vision – with no attention paid to the need for national policy to address access to knowledge through the communication and publication of research. All that we get is the statement that the government wants to ‘increase the number of patents and products developed by our universities and research institutions’ (p. 44).  It looks as if we are back in the 20th century industrial economy vision of research ‘outputs’ (patents and journal articles) driving national economic development, a very limited view of the potential of research in a digital world.

It is not that our government is not aware of the advantages of OA. It has undertaken investigation of research publication in the last decade. The Department of Science and Technology commissioned evidence-based research from the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa  (2006) and as a result supports the ASSAF Scielo South Africa programme for the creation of an open access platform for accredited local journals. The Department of Higher Education and Training has accepted and is implementing an ASSAF report on scholarly books, which includes open access proposals.

These initiatives – as valuable as they are – impact relatively little on the institutions and the ways in which they do or do not support the communication of research. Without the development of more comprehensive national research communication policy, there is room for the persistence of a free-rider syndrome that has the universities and their academics perceive publication as something that someone else does. There is no policy pressure for universities to support the communication and publication efforts of their academics nor to ensure that research investment results in access to the knowledge that has been produced. Where there have been open access initiatives, for the creation of research repositories and, in the case of Stellenbosch University, investment in the creation of an open access journal publishing programme, these have been the result of the hard work of individual champions and forward-looking administrators and so they risk remaining isolated examples in a fragmented system.

What is missing is a comprehensive, nationally-based approach to the communication of research and the infrastructure, skills and support systems  needed to support this. This could be the glue that could hold together a really forward-looking South African research effort, one that could do what it does best – operate at the cutting edge of high-technology research development, as it is doing in the Square Kilometre Array project as well as producing high-level research that impacts directly on improving people’s lives and contributes to national development.

UNESCO has outlined the different drivers that need to be addressed in a national policy of this kind – technology network infrastructure; institutional frameworks to reflect changes in scholarly communication; new business models to reflect societal expectations; collaboration within communities of researchers; and alignment with the national R&D system. These all face challenges in the existing system for institutions and governments that need to be met in comprehensive policy initiatives. I will look at these in my next blog.

* Illustration: Attribution Some rights reserved by F. Montino

 

Posted in African Scholarship, Open Access, Policy, Research.

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Open Everything at UCT Open Education Week

The first global Open Education Week took place from 5-10 March.  One of the questions that I found myself asking when I was asked to participate in some of the UCT events was ‘What is open education?’  Is it the use of  OER – putting course materials online – or something broader? The answers that emerged from panelists at the University of Cape Town moved well beyond the narrower frame of courseware to a challenging and interesting discussion of the interconnectedness of communications for the university’s different missions in a rapidly evolving digital environment.

This is in line with the Open Education Week’s aims:

Open education is about sharing, reducing barriers and increasing access in education. It includes free and open access to platforms, tools and resources in education (such as learning materials, course materials, videos of lectures, assessment tools, research, study groups, textbooks, etc.). Open education seeks to create a world in which the desire to learn is fully met by the opportunity to do so, where everyone, everywhere is able to access affordable, educationally and culturally appropriate opportunities to gain whatever knowledge or training they desire.

At UCT, the key event was an afternoon-long Western Cape-based panel discussion on Tuesday 6 March involving speakers from UCT, the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University.  A gratifying number of people attended, filling the seminar room on what was a mid-term working afternoon. My impression was that ‘open everything’ is a much more mainstream cause that has been the case in the past and is attracting wider attention than before.  Of course, attitudes to open approaches havereceived a boost in South Africa with the Department of Higher Education’s adoption of OER policies in its new Green Paper, as I wrote in a recent blog and the Department of Basic Education’s adoption of OER resources in schools.

Dr Max Price

Dr Max Price

The UCT Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, opened the panel discussion. This was significant in itself – a Vice-Chancellor lending support to an open education event. Commenting on the mainstreaming of OER policy internationally, Price identified the challenges facing wider open education practices as not only technical, but residing principally in the attitudes of staff. There are a number of fears that have to be dealt with, he argued – IP issues, fear of loss of control, of the work required. Very usefully, Price suggested the need for the creation of incentives, a citation system for OERs and career credit awarded to participating academics.

It was good to hear such a direct message of support from the leader of a university that I have long seen as ambivalent about these issues, but which is now clearly moving steadily towards a more comprehensive institution-wide open agenda.

The panelist’s presentations revealed different approaches in the participating institutions, with Stellenbosch standing out for the strength of the open access programme it is able to implement as a result of top-level logistical and financial support. From UCT, a narrative emerged of longstanding commitment to open dissemination by individual academics and departments, often going back decades. There was also a lively introduction to citizen science initiatives taking place at UCT. There is also a sophisticated understanding of an understanding of what is now an integrated research communication. From UWC also, insight into a long tradition of open source, open education and open access and the increased capacity that this brings.

The two chief challenges appear to be the question of institutional buy-in and top-level championing, and the challenge now being posed to a silo approach to the three university missions of research, teaching and learning and community engagement.

Michelle Willmers

This emerged clearly in the presentation by Laura Czerniewicz from the Open UCT Initiative and Michelle Willmers from the Scholarly Communication in Africa project, also at UCT. They presented a dynamic vision of developments in the ways in which research is now communicated. There is a shift from from a linear model of research publication as the end point and terminus of a research programme to a dynamic networked research environment in which communication takes place at every stage of the research cycle and the distinction between different outputs is diminished. The boundaries are blurring between research outputs as formal publications, research reports and other ‘grey literature’; enhanced publications such as  ‘translations’ for policy purposes or community impact; and teaching and learning resources. This also allows for the development of alternative metrics for valuing research contributions.

Dr Marion Jacobs, Dean of the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences, spoke, from her perspective as the Dean of a world-leading medical faculty, of a strong political and context-driven Afrocentric approach to communications in health studies. This involves recognition of excellence in research publication alongside commitment to meeting the needs of the SA health system in which access to health services is of primary importance. She provided examples of a number of online resources that contribute to public health care, ensured effective communications between health workers and patients in a multilingual country, and ensured the production of students fit for purpose in the South African context.

 Ed Rybicki , an A-rated virologist at UCT, confirmed an unacknowledged tradition – that there are a number of academics at UCT and other SA universities with a long record of putting research and teaching resources online for free access. Ed said that Africa produces just 0.7%v of global research, 66% of that from South Africa. We need to share it, he insisted. Ed says everything that he produces is and has long been open. He described a productive relationship with an Australian illustrator combining free and commercial provision of high quality scientific illustrations and the value of new developments like Apple’s iTextbook formatting tools.  The advantages that have accrued have been wide global takeup of open resources and the immediacy of web exposure of new developments.

Dr Reg Raju

Dr Reggie Raju, the Director of Library IT and Communication at Stellenbosch University  (SUN) described the impact of institutional support at Stellenbosch in creating a shared research space. The goal is to create a research footprint for the university, through an institutional repository, Sun Scholar , now ranked 165 out of 1,200  repositories internationally, and through an investment that has allowed the creation of a suite of online journals published by SUN and hosted on an OJS platform. The results of this programme, instituted in 2011 have been immediate, with rapid and substantial increases in journal readership and impact and growth in international submissions to the journals.

Mark Horner, of Siyavula told a story of a fairly common occurrence – a public interest project that emerges from a university but finds its space for expansion outside the walls of the institution, in Mark’s case with the Shuttleworth Foundation. A programme for open access science textbooks from schools has, in a 9-year trajectory, taken off from the basis of a collaborative postgraduate effort to becoming a mainstream government-supported resource now aiming for independent sustainability. The success story is that 2.5 million print copies of open access science and maths textbooks for high schools are being distributed by the Department of Education.

The afternoon ended with vivid overviews of citizen science programmes in biodiversity, presented by Tali Hoffman and Prof Les Underhill from the Avian Demography Unit in the Zoology Department and the Department of Statistical Science.

What was clear is that open education is alive and well in a number of centres in the Western Cape. However, there is fragmentation and too much dependence on often unacknowledged departmental and individual contributions. The SUN example, demonstrating the power of institution-level investment could usefully be explored in other institutions.  Institutional and government policy development to support open education in its widest sense would go a long way towards delivering the our national goals of growing participation in higher education and the enhancing university contributions to national development.

Posted in African Scholarship, Open Education, Research, Uncategorized.

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