Posted on May 19, 2016 in Public Voice | No Comments
Reflections on SARUA Leadership Dialogue on Open Access

by Eve Gray

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? 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 organised by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), the UCT IP unit, UNESCO and Magna Charta Observatory. 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.

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 The gains may be highly professional journals – this time with African content, unlike the historical content profile of commercial journals.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

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