Open Access and African Research

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 The gains may be highly professional journals – this time with African content, unlike the historical content profile of commercial journals.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.

Courtesy of Eve Gray

Giving Back in Cape Town

Volunteering. The act of giving back to those less fortunate than you is one of the most satisfying activities one can do. Being a good Samaritan is free as well! Volunteering is a popular holiday and weekend occupation of Capetonians and visitors alike. There is an organization and activity to suit any volunteer’s interests.

If you are interested in marine life, the Two Ocean’s Aquarium, by the V&A Waterfront, takes volunteer applications all year round, provided you are at least 18 years of age. As marine life requires a certain skill set and knowledge base, an educational training course is required to be completed by all volunteers at a cost of R100 per person. The training received is invaluable and provides a great skill set to put on your CV, making it worth the price.

African Sunrise, run by Carina Roper, runs a very special volunteer South Africa program that assists with placing people in the best projects suited to their studies or aptitudes.

For all the animal lovers, The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are great organizations to reach out to cats and dogs in need. TEARS is based in Sunnydale, while the SPCA is based in Grassy Park. These two non-profit organizations are known across Cape Town for the fantastic work they do with sick and abandoned animals. If you volunteer with them, you know you’re going to brighten a furry heart.

Caring for animals is not for everyone. There are plenty of great ways to better fellow people’s lives. Companies like African Sunrise provide the opportunity to volunteer in South Africa with outreach to the poorer, more dilapidated areas of the Mother City. If you are from out of Cape Town, African Sunrise have a great track record of working with foreign volunteers, helping them adapt and navigate the city as well as provide ample volunteering opportunities. Volunteering is encouraged all year round but it if you are able to, it is better to volunteer in Cape Town’s winter months. In summer Cape Town is filled with volunteering tourists escaping their country’s winter but in winter, when the disadvantaged are cold and hungry, volunteer numbers are low. If you are interested in social work programs, visit African Sunrise’s website.

The youth are the future leaders of a nation. Nurturing them and easing their struggles is essential in helping South Africa prosper. If you are good with children, there are many places in South Africa for you to ply your skills. Youth volunteering is broken down into 3 categories. First we have youth development programs, a sub-category of social work programs, which seeks to teach children valuable life skills and improve their general living conditions. Secondly we have educational programs, where volunteers are required to tutor children and help them through their school work. Lastly we have youth sports development which seeks to bring children together through team sports and keep children off of the streets. Whatever your aptitude, there is some way you can help the youth of Cape Town and brighten the future of our country.

If you love mother nature and don’t mind rolling up your sleeves for some hard manual labour, there are great environmental volunteer programs. Activities include planting trees, tackling alien vegetation, hiking trail conservation, beach clean ups and advocating for alternative energy sources among others. Cape Town is a green city and requires a lot of maintenance to stay as such, volunteers are required throughout the year to keep the city as beautiful as it is.

Making the world a better place starts with you and your actions. It takes nothing but a little bit of your time to give back to this beautiful city, Cape Town. With activities running whole year round and with such variety, there’s no excuse not to pay it forward.