Boosting African agriculture with open access

African universities should work towards establishing open access policies, to enable their research to be more accessible to the wider scientific community.

Lisbeth Levey, a consultant on information and communication technologies for development, told delegates to the 4th Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture – RUFORUM – held from 19-25 July in Maputo, Mozambique, that academics, researchers and students should be given incentives to publish openly.

RUFORUM is a regional network of more than 40 universities in 19 countries that fosters collaboration, coordination, training and research in agriculture among member universities.

“Academic resources made freely available to users worldwide, which may be distributed without requesting permission through open access publishing, have the ability to enrich African agriculture and RUFORUM could take a lead in promoting such policies,” she said.

Universities in many countries, including South Africa, encourage publication in open access journals or formats but it’s not the case for most universities in Africa.

Levey said authors should be encouraged to deposit a version of their research in their institution’s repository, if there is one and also in the RUFORUM repository. The RUFORUM repository is indexed in the AGRIS and CABI scientific indexes and databases.

Although open educational resources were increasingly understood by RUFORUM network members, open access publishing was not. She said it would be useful for RUFORUM to organise workshops for students studying under its auspices and their supervisors to explain how to make open access publishing work for them.

Research has demonstrated that open access brings increased visibility, usage and sometimes impact to the work of academics, researchers and students – but lack of appreciation and understanding were limiting its use in the developing world. Open access was compatible with copyright, peer review, prestige, quality and indexing like other journals.

“When used, open access resources must still be cited. In fact, there is even an open access search engine in order to detect plagiarism,” Levey added.

Although most African universities and research institutions can read journals in the agricultural sciences online at no charge through AGORA – Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture – or on CD-ROM at little cost through The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library or TEEAL, these services would not last forever.

“Open access is particularly important in Africa because journals are expensive,” said Levey.

Rules of the game

Understanding the rules that govern open access was essential. Many governments and donors in North America and Europe now require grantees to make the research they fund freely accessible within twelve months.

Open access requires that copyright be modified, but not replaced, with an open rather than closed policy. Creative commons licences did not replace copyright, but permitted an author or publisher to change the terms from ‘all rights reserved’ to ‘some rights reserved’.

Open access models usually shift the cost burden to authors. Readers do not pay for access but authors pay a fee for publishing – sometimes a reduced fee for developing country authors.

“Be sure to include a line item in your research budget for all anticipated publishing charges,” Levey stressed. Open access fees are as high as US$3,500 in addition to page charges that some subscription-based publications require.

Levey said critical questions to ask the publisher should include the journal’s copyright policies. If the journal is copyright protected, is there an open access option and how much does it cost?

Clarity should be provided on pre-prints and post-prints and the version allowed for sharing. Some publishers permit authors to place a pre-print or some other version of their article in an open repository. The embargo period before a journal article is made freely available should be specified.

Choosing the right journal

Researchers must think carefully about where they want to publish, and do their homework to ensure that they are selecting an appropriate journal, Levey advised.

While there are many legitimate open access publishers, there are also some who are unscrupulous and charge authors high fees to publish while peer review and editing range from being shoddy to non-existent, she said.

She recommended checking the Directory of Open Access Journals to see if the journal in which researchers may be interested is listed.

"Journals typically list the indexing and abstracting databases in which they are included. Check to ensure that this is the case,” she said. Talking to supervisors and colleagues on their familiarity with the journal could also help.

Any journal title that does not give full contact information, including address, is suspicious, Levey warned. Checking the composition of the editorial board for expertise had merits too. “You may want to write one or two of them to see whether they are really on the editorial board.”

A journal should prominently display on its website author fees and its peer review process. Reading the author guidelines does help, but if there are none, this might not be a journal in which a researcher wants to publish.

"If necessary, consider submitting your paper to a copyright protected journal, but request that the article be considered open access,” Levey said.