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#scholarAfrica – Consolidating the African open agenda

Open Access has officially gone mainstream. It is now embraced by governments, funders and researchers, and is widely acknowledged as an enabler of knowledge societies. Recent months have seen an increasing tide of national and funder-driven initiatives aimed at consolidating delivery mechanisms for greater and more equitable access to research, and the current revolution in internet-driven scholarly communication has been underpinned by a radical change in the way in which academics conduct and share their work.

The arguments for open access are obvious in their merits.

Increased accountability, greater return on investment and improved mechanisms for conducting better research are just some of the principle benefits. As Alma Swan (2014) points out, open access has also been shown to increase the impact of research in the small business, education and health sectors.

Higher education currently operates in a paradigm of unprecedented sharing. While the practice may be a return to age-old ways of knowledge sharing as they existed before 20th century publication systems commodified the publishing process, the rise of the internet has meant that data is now being generated and shared on a scale few would have projected.

Other than a rapid increase in the extent of our knowledge sharing, we are also seeing a rise in the channels through which this can be achieved. Open science, open data, open code, and open educational resources are all emerging disciplines of their own, each playing a role in the manifestation of a transformed scholarly communication ecosystem that is better suited to meeting the needs of 21st century society.

Balancing sharing with competition

Other than operating in a period of unprecedented demand for open access, higher education institutions are also operating in a period of unprecedented competition.

The question of how to balance the open agenda with the demands that come from competing for students, top researchers and citations is a central challenge. What appears to be taking place is that openness itself is being hegemonised by the system and becoming a locus for competition.

Within this context it is widely acknowledged that there are some principle differences and disparities playing out between the Global South and the dominating North, with many researchers and institutions in developing countries constantly becoming trapped in playing a game of catch-up in order to participate in new research paradigms.

Participation in dynamic, technologically-driven scholarship requires an increasingly sophisticated (and expensive) infrastructure in which a host of technological, legal, policy and community issues converge. The terrain appears to be moving a rate of knots.

Where do we as African researchers and institutions fit into the picture?

Setting an African open access agenda

Austerity measures in global research funding and the challenges of establishing mechanisms and infrastructure for more open approaches to scholarship are not confined to researchers and institutions in developing countries.

It’s tough out there for everybody. It is also important to remember that, as Altbach (2014) points out, publications and rankings games are limited to a small part of the academic system in any country.

Given this overall context and the acknowledgement that there are multiple centres and peripheries within the overall global power dynamics, it does however still feel like there are important questions to be asked in terms of the African open access agenda.

What is the African open access agenda? Is there an African open access agenda? Perhaps principle is the question: do we need an open access agenda?

In the course of my work in Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme and the OpenUCT Initiative over the last few years I have engaged with many African academics and institutional managers around open scholarship.

There lately appears to be an increasing sentiment that we need to engage more actively in agenda-setting around open access from an African standpoint, focusing on the areas which are imperative in our context, developing our own folksonomies.

Many issues surface within this local conversation, but the two principle ideas which seem to constantly recur are integration of the educational agenda with other open enterprises, and the imperative to better collaborate with our neighbours.

Integrating the educational agenda and other open enterprises

A recent article in University World News on open and distance education quoted University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor George Magoha: “The increasing demand for access to higher education in East African countries has opened opportunities for universities to develop robust distance education programmes.” (Kigotho 2013)

He goes on to say that open and distance learning has great potential as an effective tool for provision of education in developing countries.

For many African countries, and certainly for many institutions, the imperative to provide quality education far outweighs the imperative to conduct research. Many would argue that meeting the demand for quality education is the single biggest challenge this continent faces in order to address all other ills.

This constitutes an opportunity to advance and consolidate the open agenda locally, organising ourselves around initiatives that seek to promote the curation and sharing of knowledge in a wide range of content types to a wide range of audiences.

The need to extract our knowledge sharing processes from the strictures of academic silos and traditional publishing conventions surfaces consistently in local conversation.

Openness and sharing of knowledge needs to be recognised and promoted more as a societal issue, bringing a wider range of stakeholders on board to promote the open knowledge agenda.

It is compelling to think how this approach might enable us to bypass aspects of the traditional open access paradigm – centred largely around journal publication – and move directly towards a more integrated, object-driven open scholarship framework.

The imperative for collaboration

Research work undertaken in the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme (Trotter et al 2014) revealed a dynamic relationship between skills, capacity and scalability at national and regional level.

There are immense resources available across the continent, but the situation so often appears to be typified by competition rather than cooperation, leading to situations of intense disparity.

We constantly see scenarios in which small, resource-strapped institutions undertake extremely ambitious infrastructure development initiatives that are not sustainable or scalable in the long term because they are trying to do this on their own.

The African continent is in desperate need of national and regional initiatives to advance the open scholarship agenda.

While inherent competition between institutions is inevitable, and in some cases even desirable, we need to find some middle ground in which we can collaborate in establishing infrastructure, address intellectual property and licensing concerns, and work together to reinvigorate libraries and other partner entities in the delivery of open knowledge.

Lack of coordination is one of the biggest obstacles in obtaining a sustainable open higher education framework in Africa.

Africa is an enormous continent, beautiful in its diversity, its problems legion.

We do not have control over political realities, but as members of the local open movement we have agency in terms of becoming more active about collaborating with each other and facilitating more local conversation.

It is hoped that channels such as this blog will help enable this conversation, spur us on to action, and get more and more people excited about the prospects of openness as a means of improving the lives of all African citizens.

* Michelle Willmers has a background in academic and scholarly publishing and works as a consultant and institutional project manager in scholarly communication. She has experience as an academic journal editor and publishing manager and has worked in the field of open access and open educational resources – OER – since 2008. Willmers was a senior team member in the Shuttleworth Foundation OER UCT initiative and was programme manager of the IDRC Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme, a four-country research and publishing initiative aimed at increasing the visibility of African research. She is currently project manager of the OpenUCT initiative.


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