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 The gains may be highly professional journals – this time with African content, unlike the historical content profile of commercial journals.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