Open science: Policy frameworks, national guidance needed

Universities and higher education institutions in Africa are starting to join the open-science movement, but they still face challenges and need to learn from global open-science policies to develop Africa-oriented practices.

“As open science (OS) is being promoted as the best avenue to share and drive scientific discoveries at much lower costs and in transparent and credible ways, it is imperative that African governments and institutions take advantage of the momentum and build research infrastructures that are responsive to this movement,” stated a study, ‘Open Science in Africa: What policy-makers should consider’ published in Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics (FRMA) on 13 October.

The study was authored by Dr Elisha Chiware from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and Lara Skelly from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

The FRMA study used a systematic review approach to analyse existing literature and global open-science policy development documents to examine international and national open-science policy frameworks that can guide African governments and institutions for future developments in open-science practices on the continent.

Outcomes of the study

Using keywords such as open research, open science and policies, the systematic review revealed that there are 387 literature contributions that have been published in the period 2015-22 in databases, including the Web of Science, Scopus and Google Scholar, among others.

Most of the literature studies were in the form of journal articles with a good representation of conference papers. All the continents were represented, including Africa – which has three journal articles originating from it – except South America and Australia.

The literature focused on the importance of open-research policies and the problematic issues that open science brings regarding power, values and ethics along with several frameworks that could assist policy-makers in framing policies and regulations.

Besides indicating that open-science policies must be based on key principles that include open access, open data, citizenship science, collaboration and stakeholder engagements, including society, business, policy-makers, governments, communities and citizens as knowledge partners, the literature pointed out that open-science policy focused on achieving the end goals of openness, integrity, and FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) data-sharing within the African and global research systems, according to the study.

Measures for open-science policy development

“The African research environment’s participation in the global open-science movement rests on solid policy frameworks,” according to the study. Therefore, “[t]he systematic review of literature highlighted what African policy-makers should consider in terms of open-science policy development in government and in academic and research institutions”.

“Open-science environments should be seen as more than technical problems and infrastructure development; they should also be seen as tools and mechanisms to solve broader societal problems.

“Policy-makers should consider the readiness for the OS policy, which would include awareness, practices, and the perceived benefits,” the study emphasised.

The researchers suggest that existing OS frameworks could be useful to allow policy-makers in Africa to add new issues into “their frame of thinking”.

Also, the literature indicated a list of emergent areas of OS – including open collaborative tools, open physical labs, and crowdsource practices – which “serves as a reminder to policy-makers that the field of open science is by no means complete and that there will always be new areas and new issues to consider”.

But, to strengthen existing frameworks, “technical considerations and responses to them must go hand in hand with ethical, legal and social ones”.

The study listed 14 examples of OS policies that emerged through the systematic review process at international (four) and regional levels including Africa (one) and Europe (one) along with national levels (eight) including Albania, Botswana, Canada, China (two), Finland, Hong Kong and the US.

“Policy-makers who are disheartened in the challenging process can find solidarity in the cases outlined in these examples,” the study pointed out.

“For more examples of policies, without narratives, the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) is a treasured resource,” the study suggested.

ROARMAP is a searchable international registry charting the growth of open-access mandates adopted by universities, research institutions and research funders that require their researchers to provide open access to their peer-reviewed research article output by depositing it in an open-access repository.

So far, ROARMAP has 1,113 mandates and policies which originated from Africa (36), the Americas (242), Asia (84), Europe (709) and Oceania (42).

“Future policy-makers can use the findings of this review to engage with policy stakeholders in a manner that will, hopefully, allow them to enact their values meaningfully. It can be used to examine policy failure and plot a path to the future,” according to the research.

Pursuing Africa’s best interests

Lead author Chiware, the director of CPUT Libraries, told University World News: “Overall open science is about the advancement of scientific discoveries and levelling the field in accessing information and knowledge by all without any restrictions.

“The African environment is complex and at times dominated by narratives and counter-narratives that seem not to address the needs of the continent,” Chiware said.

“It is important that policy-makers, in responding to the OS movement, remain resolute in addressing Africa’s unique needs and roadmaps that will contribute towards the overall socio-economic development of the people on the continent.

“In formulating new open-science policies, African governments and institutions should consider a host of factors which include, among others, the values of the policies, whom they will be empowering, and if they will be taking away power from any groups,” he suggested.

“In developing these policies, governments and institutions should also consider the synergies with existing national development policies, the global Sustainable Development Goals, existing research ecosystems, research funding and collaborations between public and private entities.

“At institutional level, it is imperative to consider institutional strategic goals in teaching, learning, research and community engagement, and that is how the policies will provide new levels of leverage towards scientific discoveries and the fair distribution and access to locally produced research outputs,” Chiware pointed out.

National policy frameworks needed

Chiware said universities in Africa often face challenges in developing open-science practices emanating from a lack of national guidance in developing own institutional policies.

“OS policies at institutional level are best developed within national policy frameworks and these are often missing.

“The situation is further compounded by the lack of synergy with other national legal frameworks that create barriers for open science,” said Chiware.

“The other challenge relates to the lack of adequate funding for research and limited research infrastructure to properly respond to the needs of open knowledge-sharing.

“Like the challenges that institutions are facing with open access that has been taken over by commercial interests, the response to building an African open-science landscape will be slow, but will happen as African researchers and the research outputs remain an important part of the global research enterprise,” he said.