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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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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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