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An Elsevier African Megajournal Proposal Re-colonizing the university in Africa?

17496189016_fe7a3ed029_z-1In 2015, South African universities saw widespread student protests against a neocolonial heritage at universities that stood accused of a lack of post-apartheid transformation in institutional ethos, curriculum, and racial demographics. Operating under a number of hashtags, such as #RhodesMustFall, #DecoloniseTheUniversity and #FeesMustFall, the one issue that no-one seemed to speak about was the influence of the scholarly publishing system, which has a strong influence on faculty reward and promotion  systems., entrenching many of the trends that students were protesting against. A series of blogs will explore the political economy of scholarly publishing and the role of Open Access in South Africa at a crucial time in its university history.

Elsevier has recently rattled the rather glum view of the prospects of African journal publishing with what looks like a major intervention – a proposal to explore the potential for the development of an African megajournal. Could this mean that Africa – which until recently has hardly been on the radar of the big international journal publishers – has something to offer this large and hard-nosed multinational academic journal publisher? Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the imapact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?

It is perhaps a sad commentary on perceptions of the African continent that when a big corporation targets Africa as a new market, as Elsevier appears to be doing with this proposal, one of the first questions that can be asked is, ‘Does this mean that Elsevier’s business model is under threat?’  Given that the European Union, for example, is aiming for mandating full Open access to research by 2020 – with no embargoes, and affordably – and given also that governments like the Dutch government have been engaged at national level in hard negotiations with Elsevier to reduce subscription costs at a national level, it is quite possible that the commercial publishers are indeed worrying about the future of their current very high profit business model.

This is not without it ironies, however, as these developments have also come at a time when some major OA advocates are arguing that the current vision of OA is failing, a victim of its own tendency to over-zealousness and and lack of strategy and its capture by multinational journal publishers in the wake of the adoption of  ‘gold’ open access journals funded by Article Processing Charges (APCs). The field is thus very uncertain indeed.

From the publishers’ side, it is very telling that Elsevier has recently acquired SSRN, the social sciences open access collaborative platform, after buying Mendeley some years ago. The most probable motivation behind these purchases would seem to be a strategic vision of the power to leverage open data in a networked research environment in which data analysis has become a powerful strategic research tool. Controlling large data sources is likely to become a very powerful base for a commercial company that wants to provide metrics as a core competence, as Elsevier already does through Science Direct.

The main problems for African research publishing up until now have been interconnected: a general lack of interest on the part of African governments in funding or supporting scholarly publishing activities; and exclusion from the mainstream of prestigious international scholarly journal publishing, with African journals and their content being regarded as of ‘local’ interest only, with very few of them qualifying for the citation indexes. So for research institutions to be courted by Elsevier might prove very seductive, offering as it does the potential for the ‘international’ cachet of association with a big name in global scholarly publishing.

What has happened is that group of research institutions – the African Academy of Sciences, the South African Medical Research Council, the African Centre for Technology Studies, an inter-governmental think tank,  and IBM Research Africa are considering the creation of an African megajournal with Elsevier. They are being courted through Elsevier’s undoubted ability to offer a high level of technological support, author and publishing training, and the potential for international profiling of African research. Given the profile of the research organisations involved, there are serious questions to be asked about what it will mean for African governments to have this scale of strategic research publication – scientific, medical, technological and research networking – placed in the hands of a profit oriented publisher as hard-nosed as Elsevier.

Elsevier publishes a number of African journals and participates in the WHO HINARI initative for the provision of free or low-cost medical journals to developing countries. It also h as its own corporate responsibility programme, offering training, conferences and workshops. It has, for example, for over a decade offered a twinning programme between African medical journals and leading biomedical journals in the US and UK, enhancing editorial and publishing skills to grow their presence and reach, as well as running mentoring programmes and skills development initiatives for African journals and their authors.

A review of of other large journal publishers shows a similar signs of an expansion of interest in research from Africa and the developing world.  Taylor and Francis over the last few years has developed a long list of African journals, with an editorial office in Johannesburg, a mission to collaborate with with learned societies and institutions and partnerships for co-publication with local publishers. This has been a particular strategic focus, with active recruitment of local titles. Biomed Central has a prominent Malaria Journal, has held African capacity building workshops and conferences and runs the Open Access Africa Twitter feed. Wiley has just announced a partnership with Egypt-based Hindawi Publishing, initially for the publication of nine journals, which will be managed by Hindawi and published on their website. In this way, Wiley says that it aims to benefit from experience in OA publishing and Hindawi’s experience in what is described as a rapidly expanding market.

Should this activity perhaps be welcomed? On the whole, the continent has been sadly lacking in the exposure for its research,  skills development, technology capacity and infrastructure support that Elsevier is offering. And undoubtedly, there will be many scholars and institutions who would be delighted at the profiling and potential for increased impact and reach that would be offered by one of the biggest journal publishers in the world.

According to a study of journal publishing in Africa, commissioned by African Journals Online (AJOL, covering 330 respondents, the majority of African journals are – often struggling –   ‘scholar journals’ run on a voluntary basis by individuals or small groups of scholars, with only 19% of journals surveyed published by commercial publishers. Support from universities and national governments has been largely lacking.  AJOL, an initiative supported by INASP, hosts 517 journals on its online platform, of which 208 are open access, offering 65,917 OA articles for download.

The South African government has been an exception to the general pattern of national -level indifference to scholarly publishing, with the Department of Science and Technology supporting the SciELO South Africa journal publishing platform through the Academy of Science of South Africa. What this offers is the provision of financial support for journals and their hosting on SciELO SA in partnership with SciELO Brazil. There is no doubt that if this were to be expanded rapidly and extended to other African national academies of science, through NASAC, this could provide a path to a powerful regional presence, on the Latin American model.  This was discussed at a high level forum held in 2015, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Is Elsevier’s proposed megajournal likely to be of overall benefit to the continent?  According to the first reports, this is likely to be an OA journal using APCs, but perhaps with a 5-year development period in which no APCs would be asked for. Elsevier claims to be planning long-term for a low-cost APC for this venture, probably with additional donor support. There could therefore be a window for the growth of the journal and whether or not the venture lands up ultimately facing Elsevier’s commercial OA model with very high APCs would remain an open question for quite a while. And would the journals find themselves part of a truly international community of scholarship, as a result of this venture, or consigned to a special-case ‘developing world’ status?

Elsevier’s aims are expressly developmental, aiming at wider exposure for African research across the African continent, applying affordable APCs without resorting to the exceptionalism of donor-funded support for distribution of journals in the developing world. Considerable support is proposed for authoring and technology infrastructure, training in the different aspects of journal publishing. The company has an extensive corporate responsibility programme with a wide variety of initiatives aiming to support and expand the discoverability and accessibility of African research. It is aiming to partner with 39 journals in Egypt, five in Nigeria three in South Africa as well as the megajournal proposal. The institutions responsible for these journals, Ylann Schemm from the Elsevier Foundation assures us, will retain full ownership of the journals, but the content will be hosted as OA on Science Direct. The proposed megajournal, in this context, Schemm describes as a joint effort with funding agencies, governments and NGOs, reliant on Elsevier’s publishing capabilities to create ‘a common platform for African research’.

But there is a negative side. There has been a considerable growth in the number of funding agencies demanding open access to the research that they fund, leading to a rise in the number of ‘green’ open access repositories; support for the payment of APCs for OA journals and for hybrid journals. In this context, a spate of complaints about the good faith of large international publishers in operating open access gives cause for concern.

The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), in a statement signed by a long list of international organisations, complains that Elsevier’s OA policy, introduced in 2015, in fact restricts rights for articles placed in repositories, rather than providing fully open access.  Embargoes are imposed, up to 48 months; the licence applied is CC-ND-NC rather than the open CC-BY licence; and the publication licence applies to all articles previously published and to be published in the future.

Thus Elsevier has developed its own version of OA licensing. Very few authors would understand the implications of these provisions, and the limitations they could place in the way of access, but as an Australian editor put it when he was sacked for protesting when his journal, the Medical Journal of Australia, was outsourced to Elsevier:

‘One of the fundamental questions is whether you regard the knowledge that’s generated through research as a common good… In other words, it should be there for everybody to use, paid for by the community through its taxes to research workers, or whether someone can come along and put a fence around these paddocks and say, “Well that’s actually mine.”’

There have also been complaints from the Wellcome Trust, as a major funder of the OA publication of the research it supports. Wellcome complained that more than half the articles it had paid Wiley to make open in hybrid journals were not compliant with the depositing and licensing requirements. Elsevier did not comply in 31% of hybrid journals and 26% of full OA journals. All PLOS articles were compliant. Wellcome said that it had paid for close on 400 articles published in the hybrid model that had not been deposited, as required, in the PubMed Central repository.

Lastly, as the entire editorial team of linguistics journal Lingua, found out when they opted to leave Elsevier, they could not take their journal with them – it now belonged to Elsevier – and they had to found a new journal.

It could be argued that OA status would protect the journal and its content from capture – after all open is open, surely, and the content should be accessible in perpetuity. For all this, there is surely a risk in allowing a commercial company, and one with a very strong commitment to high profit levels and to the exclusionary competitive ethos of the Impact factor, to have control of the the research publication of key African research councils. The research produced by these councils is of national and regional importance and its capture by a commercial company might put at risk the ability to leverage the research for public benefit. There are particularly hard questions to be asked about medical journals, for example.

To complicate things further, South African universities have at been facing upheaval as resistance to the neo-colonial state of the higher education curriculum has taken centre stage in a wave of student protests in the country.  Campuses have been burning to the chant of #RhodesMustFall and #Decolonising the university. How does a progressive takeover of the publication of African scholarship look in this context?

Photo: Desmond Bowles – CC-BY-SA – http://jdbashton.com/rhodes-must-fall-part-2/

Posted in African Scholarship, Intellectual Property Rights, Open Access, Scholarly Publishing.


Open Access and African Research Publishing in the 21st Century

What needs to be done to achieve an enabling policy environment and the necessary technical infrastructure and professional  skills in Southern Africa to foster the effective communication and publication of African scholarship? 5134325669_1a8fc4b51e_m

And what benefits would accrue from more effective communication of the scholarship in the region?  What would the region gain?

These were the core questions explored by a variety of speakers at a Leadership Dialogue attended by southern African Vice-Chancellors and organized by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), at which the UCT IP unit was a joint sponsor. This workshop, a prelude to the Going Global 2016 conference being held at the Cape Town international Convention Centre, focused on Open Access and African Research Publication in the 21st Century.

The choice of this focus on Open Access was triggered by an announcement that Elsevier was sponsoring the development of an open access African megajournal, in collaboration with the African Academy of Sciences, the African Centre for Technology Studies, the South African Medical Research Council and IBM Research Africa.

This initiative, under the auspices of the Elsevier Foundation, an independent charity founded by the company, appears to be doing a lot of the things that African governments ought to be, but are in general not doing. Elsevier has sponsored open access workshops with AAS, offers training in writing and publishing skills, and sponsors the use of technological platforms for open access dissemination.  ‘We believe that there could be a much greater return on investment over the next ten years if African institutions, access programs and publishers could address awareness, usage and research capacity in a collaborative and integrated manner’  the Foundation states[1].

The question that arises from this is a crucial one. If, as African governments tend to approach research publication, the general trend continues to be a free rider syndrome in which everyone steps back and says ‘Publishers can do this well, so we do not have to’, what are the potential gains and losses? The gains may be highly professional journals – this time with African content, unlike the historical content profile of commercial journals. However, an ostensibly public benefit initiative such as this, which focuses on the core business out of which Elsevier makes its very substantial profits, is unlikely to stay completely free of charge for very long. Once it begins to be monetized, will African scholars, universities and governments be able to afford to publish in it? They will be able to read it, but payment levels for publishing an article are likely to be so high that only well-endowed authors from overseas universities will be able to afford it. In other words, will it become another neo-colonial enterprise?

The outcome would in these circumstances be that African-based scholars would have access to the journal – the ability to read the articles – but are unlikely to be able to participate in the production of the knowledge in the journal and could lose African control over the publication of a lot of African research.

I will return to a more detailed discussion of the perspectives provided by the different speakers in subsequent blogs, but here are some key points offered on how policy change could be best achieved and what the policy environment could look like.

Government support for regional OA – the Latin American model

The key policy pressure point if Africa is to achieve effective dissemination of its research production is the need for more active government involvement in providing financial support for the communication and publication of scholarship. This could be support for the development of publishing efforts, for journals, books and development-focused research outputs, something that is certainly needed. This is an environment, in which most local journals struggle on, on the back of voluntary labour and inadequate technical infrastructure.  Scholarly books can only be produced in low volumes and have to be targeted at a general readership to survive at all.  And the large volume of research that is produced by the scholars who aim to address African needs and counter African problems is largely lost – never published, or is published by individual research units, to reach limited audiences.

There could also be government support for the use of digital platforms and repositories to ensure the publication of what is produced – the ‘green route’ of the open access movement. The strongest models offered by the speakers at the conference were supported by national and regional governments, through federated repository systems hosting journal articles, theses and dissertations, and other outputs. In South Africa the Academy of Science of South Africa is following this route in alliance with the Brazilian SCIELO initiative, offering government support to journal publishers in getting exposure for their journals.

This draws on the fact that the prime example of the collaborative approach to the dissemination of scholarship in the developing world is in Latin and South America, where research and its dissemination is mainly government funded and built on regional co-operation. There are 3,500 journals on regional platforms, 76% of them OA with no article processing charges. La Referencia provides confederated repositories in 8 countries giving wide regional reach to scholarly publication. There is open access legislation providing OA mandates for the publication of government funded research in Peru, Argentina and Mexico. The benefits of this system are higher visibility and access and increased citations for an entire region. It has also made Brazil the second biggest publisher of open access journals in the world.

Brokering policy change – the European Universities Association  

The other regional level initiative discussed was from the European Union’s Horizon 2020. This is built upon the need to acknowledge the new ways, in a digital world, in which research is conducted, assessed and used by other researchers and society. It aims to develop new and alternative ways for researchers to conduct, publish, and disseminate research in a digital world. The overall initiative is supported at top level in the European Commission, with Director level EC executives responsible for implementing the programme. In other words, the European Commission sees research and the communication of research as a key strategic focus that will help growth and improve lives in the region.

On the ground, the policy being implemented through the European Universities Association is in the first instance underpinned by the development of a number of documents to support HEIs in making the decision to implement OA. An Expert Group on Open Access has been set up.

The main actions include:

  • Information gathering and sharing, mapping the EU OA landscape and establishing a platform for dialogue and the sharing of good practices.
  • Dialogue and mobilization of researchers, using workshops and other fora, engaging them in the development of new academic recognition systems.
  • Engaging with publishers to discuss economically realistic and viable conceptions of the OA future.
  • Mobilising politicians for a fair and balanced and innovative publishing system, using position papers and seminars at national level.
  • Encouraging researchers to deposit their papers in institutional repositories (this works better than mandates in the EU environment).

In other words, the recipe in this context is concerted action in the academic community, with a lot of time taken in mapping implementation needs, reaching consensus and setting up activities.

West Africa: Codesria’s African vision for African Research Dissemination

At a conference held in Dakar in early April, the declaration that emerged from an extended discussion of research publication in Africa stressed the need for consensus building on OA, on collaboration across the region through the creation of dialogues, the creation of infrastructure, including a regional confederated OA platform, and educational programmes building capacity in publication, technology management and use, and in academic writing.

The importance of government support for open scholarly communication, through financial and logistical contributions, was stressed as a necessary contribution to a successful higher education system that could contribute to national and regional priorities.

Delegates agreed that the reward system, currently dominated by the Impact Factor and the push for international ranking, needed to be replaced by a broader-based and locally relevant recognition system. This, in fact was seen as one of the major hindrances to the delivery of an effective, locally and internationally relevant research system.

A working group would need to be created among African research institutions to drive change in the region, working with local champions to broker change from the bottom up and developing the arguments to persuade governments to provide more support for universities and the dissemination of the research being funded by governments and donors.

Recognition and reward systems

The workshop’s focus on the values inherent in the research enterprise highlighted the impact of market-driven approaches to research delivery and the distorting effect that this could have on developing country universities and their research. The negative impact of market driven approaches on research priorities and on reward systems has to be assessed and care taken to align the core identity and mission to society of African universities, argued Sijbolt Noorda, of the Magna Charta Observatory, one of the sponsors of the Leadership Dialogue.

Brokering change – an African perspective

The message that emerged overall was clear: there needs to be a change initiative driven by champions and experts drawn from the research community, focused on actively brokering policy change, producing policy briefs drawing on strategic approached to change management. This needs to be fostered through the creation of communities of practice, drawn from universities and research councils, using social media, policy-focused advocacy, workshops and seminars targeting key policy-makers. This enterprise will need to draw on the African-focused research that has already been carried out, largely donor funded.

Some practices seen as self-evident in the US and Europe, for example, like setting up an institutional repository run by the library and supported by the university’s ICT division, have proved highly problematic in poorly resourced universities, in regions where training in digital librarianship is patchy and ICT infrastructure is under-resourced. As publishing consultant Garry Rosenberg pointed out, the domination of the large commercial journal publishers is built on their ownership of symbolic academic capital, driving reward systems, something that repositories cannot deliver to developing country researchers and their universities.

It is important that the models conceptualized be appropriate to the African context and not blindly drawn from models prevalent in the global North. The practice of charging Article Processing Charges for open access journals paid by the author, for example, is proving problematic even in rich countries and is highly exclusionary in countries where there are not the resources to support researchers to pay APC charges.

Sustainability will be a core issue. African universities are under-funded and academic staff tend to be overworked and burdened with heavy teaching loads. A major threat to sustainability in these circumstances resides in the addiction to the prestige of international journals, a hugely expensive system that drains the resources of universities. In addition, it is inimical to the publication of research that is of critical importance in Africa but does not have impact in the United States. The recent Ebola epidemic is a powerful example of the negative effects of such a system. Weaning the academic community from the promotion systems that tie universities into this publication system have to be part of the advocacy and policy change programme.

Lastly, any policy change intervention will have to address the need to draw on the full range of research outputs that are produced in African research institutes in particular. Usually categorized somewhat dismissively as ‘grey literature’ these less formal publications, often of high quality, address the variety of audiences that need access to research findings, in agriculture, public health, ecology, and educational development, to name but a few.

The different levels of publication, the different audiences that need to be addressed, and the resources needed in different contexts will all have to be identified.

Working with government

Finally, any policy change initiative will need to identify, build relationships with and collaborate with informed and sympathetic players within government departments and parastatals. These champions will be needed to expand the constituency within government circles and help identify networks that policy brokers could tap into.

In order to achieve this in a chronically underfunded and under-resourced system – a persistent hangover from World Bank and IMF policy implementation in the last decades of the 20th century – is going to be a considerable task. What is going to be needed is focused and policy-driven information on the benefits of effective communication of the research that is carried out, not only for publication in prestige journals and university rankings, but especially in research areas that address the major imperatives in the region. The question is how effective research communication can help build countries.

The wild card – piracy

Globally, piracy may well play its role in changing the system as the SciHub site set up in Kazakhstan, with its huge library of journal articles is already suggesting. Used for millions of downloads, most of them, ironically, from the well-resourced countries with the highest level of access to commercial journals, this may well prove to be the Napster of the scholarly publishing world

[1] http://planetearthinstitute.org.uk/partner-spotlight-elsevier/

Posted in African Scholarship, Open Access, Policy.


Fast-tracking OER policy and practice in South Africa – Unisa on the move

10172701_10153986781275257_146907157_nThe question of open access to research, teaching and learning resources in South Africa has for a long time been a somewhat paradoxical space in national and institutional policy. There has appeared to be sympathy for open access and OERs, and some government support evidenced, for example, in the Academy of Science’s partnership with SciELO for the creation of a national platform for OA journals, SciELO South Africa. At an institutional level, the number of OA institutional repositories has been growing, the University of Stellenbosch has added the creation of a lively and ambitious open journal publishing programme, and the country’s leading research university, the University of Cape Town in its Open Content Directory now takes a wide-ranging approach to the research and teaching and learning resources it hosts. What there has not been up until now is a coherent national policy framework with in-principle support for open content produced through public funds.

It is now in OER rather than OA that the question of openness has at last been mainstreamed. In an earlier post, I wrote more than two years ago, I reported on the  in the Department of Basic Education’s support for for OER learning support materials in schools and the suggestion in the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Green Paper, that it would support OER in distance and open learning. The schools initiative, with Siyavula, was a great success, with millions of textbooks printed for distribution as supplementary materials to students in grade 10 in government schools, with the text available on an open licence online and a very successful online collaboration space for teachers and learners. Since 2011, the development of open Siyavula science and mathematics has continued, with further open textbooks now available for grades 4 to 10.

Now OER in higher education appears to be moving towards implementation. In its recently-published White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, the national department for Higher Education and Training has announced that there will be support and funding for the collaborative creation of open learning resources to be used across institutions. There is also provision for the creation of a comprehensive licensing framework for open resources within an overall IP policy framework for higher education and training. There is also support for open source software.

It now looks as if these policy ideas might be fast-tracked, ahead of national policy development, by one of the country’s biggest and perhaps most powerful institutions. Last week the distance institution, the University of South Africa (UNISA) hit the twittersphere with the announcement of a comprehensive new OER strategy. While it might seem that yet another university committing to OER is of passing interest, in this case, this policy has to be taken seriously as a potentially path-breaking move that is likely to have considerable impact beyond the confines of distance education alone.

One reason is simply the size of the institution. With 329,000 students out of a total national cohort of  938,000, according to 2011 figures, it is bigger than the Open University in the UK, is probably the largest HE institution in Africa and enrolls around 35% of all the higher education students in South Africa. It is also the longest-standing distance university in the world, and one that provided higher education opportunities to the political prisoners on Robben Island and many other Black South Africans in the apartheid years, in spite of its institutional conservatism and alignment with the apartheid government. So to have a transformed UNISA in a democratic South Africa committing to a comprehensive plan for OER – and an avowedly Afrocentric version of open learning – is an important move that will resonate well beyond the institution.

In its strategy document, which lays out a comprehensive and well thought through implementation plan, UNISA aligns its OER ambitions with the proposed government policy and sees itself as a front-runner in getting implementation going:

Although the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training states that the DHET will “develop an appropriate open licensing framework for use by all education stakeholders, within an overarching policy framework on intellectual property rights and copyright in the post-school sector”, Unisa cannot wait for this to be developed but should rather engage with developing a licensing framework and contribute the work towards the development of a national policy.

 The aim is not to produce OER resources on their own, but to shift from producing all their own teaching materials to ‘harnessing, contextualising and integrating what already exists where feasible and educationally appropriate.’

In describing this initiative, some important themes emerge in the strategy document. One is top-level support: the Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s name heads the list of participants in strategy development and the word is that he is an active supporter. Another is comprehensive planning. This new strategy is more than simply a statement of intent, but is underpinned by a set of guiding principles and strategic priorities that demonstrate cohesive thinking about capacity and institutional planning needs. It is pleasing to note the emphasis that is placed on the support that must be provided to students using the open resources.

At the heart of the guiding principles of the new OER strategy is the recognition of UNISA’s place on the African continent. Although statements of Afrocentrism in South African universities can be gestures towards political correctness, this one seems well grounded. It is not just that UNISA will address ‘African thoughts, philosophy, interests…’ but that the institution aims, through a focus on African ideas, to leverage its networks and infrastructure to address ‘the neglected and marginalized issues relevant to South Africa and the rest of Africa’.  Positioning UNISA in this regard – as the institution is capable of doing, given its size – it aims to address the imbalances in the global scholarly landscape, by ‘making African scholarship an authentic part of the global knowledge enterprise’, through making African voices widely and openly accessible.

This is particularly important, as the current global focus in the Open Access movement, for example, with its journal-centredness and its continuing insistence on the importance of impact, has not yet reversed the marginalization of African knowledge in global evaluations of research production and impact. As an open learning institution, Unisa’s use of OER falls in behind the inclusiveness and values of social justice that an institution like UNISA – and the Open University – espouse in their creation of educational opportunity for those who are otherwise excluded from higher education opportunity and advancement.

This could, of course, all be hot air, but the thoroughness of the engagement of this document with the details of what would be needed for success and its strategic awareness of the benefits that could arise, as well as solid support within the institution suggest that there is a good chance of success here. Like the Open University, UNISA sees considerable marketing benefits accruing from its own production of high-quality and relevant teaching and learning materials and the efficiencies and advantages for students inherent in harnessing content available from OER resources from elsewhere.

So the new business model includes ‘systematic integration and adaptation of open content produced outside Unisa into new course environments where there is no print constraint’, linked with new models of accreditation and sharing content as OER as a marketing tool to attract students researching higher education options.

In discussing licensing, interestingly, a SWOT analysis identifies as a threat the ease, in a digital environment, of people’s ability to copy and use Unisa’s resources. The proposed approach to fielding this threat of ‘piracy’ is to move to an open licensing regime, but also to build Unisa’s strength in student support and effective assessment. This looks like a strategic response to MOOCs, too – the value is perceived to be not in ownership of the content, but, particularly acutely in Africa, in providing scaffolding and support to students and creating an interactive environment where these dialogues can happen.

So things seem to be moving in South African OER. Something that interests me in particular, though, is an ancillary issue that might be missed by anyone not familiar with the publishing industry and that is how this Unisa strategy is going to impact on textbook use and thus on the textbook industry. A bigger question lies behind this, one that the more forward-looking publishers are engaging with right now; what exactly is a textbook in an integrated digital environment where even face-to-face courses are supported by extensive online environments? A textbook, after all, is a scarcity product: with not enough lecturer time to teach everything, the core of a discipline is made available in a single publication, with illustrations and case studies. Is this really needed now, in the form in which it currently exists? And could textbook material more usefully be integrated into the institutional LMS? Or provided on an online platform and customised to the course concerned?

At the annual international publishers’ meetings in mid-2008, UNISA was reported – to the concern of publishers – to be planning a move to a supply model that would consolidate the delivery of learning materials in UNISA’s own courseware packs, changing and potentially reducing its reliance on textbooks. Given the dominant position of UNISA in the local textbook market, this seen as a move likely to have a decisive impact on the availability of open resources, or on the price and range of university textbooks, depending on the directions it would take.  Currently some industry players are concerned that Unisa appears to be discouraging the prescription of textbooks in first year classes.

Because of its disproportionate size in the SA HE sector, something as big as its shift to OER and to more comprehensive provision of course materials to its students is surely going to accelerate changes in textbook publishing in South Africa. After all, with 35% of the country’s students in this one institution, it would be naive to underestimate the pull that the institution has had, over many years, for local publishers eager to corner large classes and garner good sales. This was especially the case if the publisher was able to offer a direct sale deal, so that every student in a class got a book, given that the sell-through rate in bookshops has traditionally been about 35% of students in a class.

By the end of apartheid, a tradition had developed among South African publishers of head-hunting UNISA lecturers with big classes  and offering higher than average royalties in return for a secure market (especially if the lecturer would set class tests and exams in such a way that the students had to have the book). This potentially had an impact on quality issues, if authors in this context were selected not for their academic/pedagogical excellence or their writing skills, but for the size of their classes (Gray, 2001).

Given the importance of Unisa to this sector, it is worthwhile speculating on what changes might be brought about by developments at Unisa in the coming years. Unisa provides its students with course materials that are produced by its own (large) course publication unit. Textbooks – local and imported – are often prescribed to accompany course materials and these are sometimes provided to students with their course materials, but more often purchased by students from bookshops. In a distance education institution as big as Unisa, with its students spread to the remotest areas, the logistical challenges of getting course materials and textbooks to all its students are formidable. Discussions of the potential of the internet to solve many, it not all, of these problems have been a matter of debate at Unisa for the last few decades – ever since the early days of the internet, which coincided with the early days of a democratic South Africa.

Now that this vision can be delivered, there is the promise of the availability of OER resources from across the world to supplement what Unisa lecturers produce themselves, leaving the institution to focus more strongly on learning support. As the strategy document puts it:

Unisa can benefit by shifting from authoring and producing all its own materials to harnessing, contextualising and integrating what already exists where feasible and educationally appropriate. This combination of access and exposure to high-quality learning materials will create an environment where richer teaching and learning can take place.

A big question is the role that will be played by commercial publishers. Will they simply be marginalized or put out of business by the availability of OER, or will their skills be harnessed in different ways? Are open/commercial partnerships going to offer advantages? Already the trend emerging among the big international publishing companies is the purchase of online learning environments, so that their strategic focus starts to move from ownership of content to ownership of the technology, the delivery vehicle and the learning process. Wiley, McGraw Hill and especially, Pearson are already moving in this direction. This new environment offers the opportunity for content to be disaggregated, customized and localized, something that South African lecturers have been asking for, for a long time.

Or, as some commentators suggest, is this simply going to be a matter of selecting the best OER resources available and cutting out commercial products altogether?

This is going to be an interesting space to watch.

 

Eve Gray (2001)Academic Publishing in South Africa, in The Politics of Publishing in South Africa, edited by Monica Seeber and Nicholas Evans, Holger Ehling Publishers and University of Natal Press.

Posted in Intellectual Property Rights, Open Education, Policy.

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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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