Universities seek united front in open access debate

Both a unified front and a paradigm shift around access to knowledge were needed in order to deal with rising journal costs and exclusionary copyright provisions imposed by the mainstream academic publishing industry, a Leadership Dialogue on open access and African research publishing heard.

Embracing open access initiatives was now critical, according to Piyushi Kotecha, chief executive officer of the Southern African Regional Universities Association or SARUA, which hosted the Leadership Dialogue in Cape Town ahead of the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference, held from 3-5 May.

Attended by vice-chancellors from a range of countries, the meeting was supported by UNESCO, the Magna Charta Observatory and the University of Cape Town’s Intellectual Property Unit.

With an emphasis on collaborative solutions, the aim was to explore open access approaches as a means to address problems of scholarship access among Southern African universities at a time when the global debate was shifting to “less dogmatic ways of interpreting open access”, according to the event invitation.

According to Kotecha, “The tipping point for African research and innovation will not be merely the ability to fully access and use the new abundance of global knowledge and ideas – but to make an active ongoing and significant contribution to its creation and open dissemination.”

Changing the discourse

Recognising the responsibility of African universities to contribute to global knowledge production, SARUA has facilitated a long-standing conversation about open access.

In 2008, it produced a Vision for Open Knowledge document which laid the groundwork for an open knowledge system in the region as a challenge to the mainstream academic publishing system.

Since then, higher education institutions in the region had come under increased financial pressures, the social effects of which could be seen in staff and student protests in several of the region’s institutions, including South Africa where there has been a strong push over the past year for scrapping tuition fees for poor students.

The marginalising effects of the expensive and “dysfunctional” academic publishing system were universal. Even relatively wealthy universities could no longer afford to subscribe to all journals demanded by users. However, developing countries bore most of the brunt.

According to Kotecha, a shift in the current academic publishing model will require action at regional, national and institutional levels in Southern Africa, while still paying due attention to initiatives already under way at international and continental levels.

University leaders could also continue discussions with national ministries of education and science and technology, on copyright and open knowledge, she said.

Coordinator for information dissemination at the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology, Bianca Amaro de Melo, shared details of a collaborative Latin and South American model of scholarship dissemination that had led to higher visibility, access and increased citations for the entire region.

Mainly government funded, the collaborative model was built on regional cooperation and currently had 3,500 journals on regional platforms, 76% of which were open access and had no article processing charges.

“We have changed the discourse that countries in the south do not do science,” she said.

Core identity and mission

Magna Charta Observatory (Bologna) President, Professor Sijbolt Noorda, reiterated the call for unity, but emphasised it was important that universities embraced their core identity and mission in relation to society.

“If we are not standing up united worldwide against the commercial publisher, we are in danger of losing the heart and soul of the university,” he said.

Open access was not a technical matter, he argued. The key issue was the role of university in society, and this should be on the agenda of all vice-chancellors and governments.

The risk of re-colonisation

The motives behind the recent overtures of major publisher Elsevier to science councils and research organisations in Africa around the creation of a major open access science journal for the continent were questioned by Eve Gray, research associate with the Intellectual Property Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Elsevier’s partners in this move include the African Academy of Sciences, African Centre for Technology Studies, South African Medical Research Council and IBM Research – Africa.

Gray, who also works for the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, said there was a danger that universities and research institutions would “give away” their knowledge to Elsevier and not be able to claim it back.

While an Elsevier Africa site was an attractive prospect, enabling researchers in the region to discuss ideas, download material and share information, it was also dangerous because there was no guarantee it would remain open access.

Gray said the Elsevier initiative had exploited a funding gap unfilled by governments and universities in the region. In addition, universities had been slow to strategise at leadership levels.

“What ought to be done by African governments, especially in Southern Africa, is now being done by Elsevier, but we are at risk of being colonised.”

In Gray’s view, the weakness of open access was that it tended to get bogged down in arguments and disputes about green (self-archiving) and gold open access (publication in journals) instead of strategy.

Another weakness, she said, was the “addiction to prestige and the impact factor”, features nurtured by the traditional publishing system. There was a need to realign publishing imperatives with strategic imperatives. Government support was also critical, she said.

Way forward

Professor Caroline Ncube of the University of Cape Town’s department of commercial law, said there was a need, going forward, to establish national policy coherence around the issue of communicating publicly funded research outputs.

She said it was worth investigating the possibility of balancing a commercialisation mandate with an open access mandate. “The key is what is in the public interest and yields public benefit? Why not use some commercialisation benefits to fund open access?” she asked.

Stressing the need for reliable ICT infrastructure in order to support open access Dr Pascal Hoba, CEO of the regional research and education networking organisation UbuntuNet Alliance, said a new business model was needed for academic publishing.

“The focus would be on access, with the content distributed online, free of charge, but copyright remains with the author,” he said. Costs would be borne through connectivity fees.

Arising out of the Leadership Dialogue, a series of national consultations was proposed in order to understand, in line with global examples, the different national and university-level access agreements in the region, from which point a unified approach could be developed.

According to Kotecha, SARUA will also be in discussion with its partners, particularly UNESCO, to draft a post-dialogue strategy.