It is imperative to build open science capabilities in MENA

Universities and higher education institutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are starting to join the open science movement, recognising its potential to enhance the accessibility, inclusivity and sustainability of higher education systems and research communities. But there are many challenges.

An indication of interest in open science in the region was the registration of more than 1,000 delegates – in person and virtually – for the first ever Forum for Open Research in MENA (FORM) gathering held in Egypt last year.

Open science topics will be discussed again at the second FORM forum, which will be held in the United Arab Emirates in October 2023, and at the International Conference on E-Science and Open Science in Dubai from 20-21 December 2023.

University World News interviewed higher education experts to get their views on the significance of having a vision for open science, and the challenges facing open science in the MENA region along with ways to deal with it.

Open research status

Out of 22 Arab states, only 12 countries have open access publishers including Iraq (85), Egypt (70), Algeria (28), Morocco (28), Saudi Arabia (18), Qatar (12), Syria (11) United Arab Emirates (9), Oman (7), Yemen (6), Tunisia (5) and Libya (5), according to the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Nabil Ksibi is an engagement lead for ORCID – a global non-profit that connects research and researchers – specialising in the Middle East and Africa. He said: “Adopting open research good practices would help a lot in making research activities in the MENA region FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), which are also important principles to consider in order to move forward with the whole schoolroom ecosystem.

“The MENA region, however, is still very young in terms of open research adoption,” Ksibi told University World News. “We are still missing huge knowledge on how the open infrastructure is working and how institutions can work together with open calls in between systems (machine to machine connections).”

Data governance expert Dr Tosin Ekundayo, an assistant professor at Synergy University Dubai, told University World News: “Empirical evidence shows the readiness of MENA region governments to implement open research, but the region is lagging behind in actual implementation and utilisation of the impact.”

Dr Emily Choynowski, head of the publishing division at Knowledge E – an open access publisher based in the United Arab Emirates – said open research had “huge potential” in the MENA region. “Given the right resources, we have the potential to be at the forefront of the global movement towards open science in its various guises.”

Choynowski was the organiser of the first Forum for Open Research in MENA or FORM, held in Cairo in Egypt last year. The theme was “Facilitating the exchange of actionable insights and the development of practical policies to support open science across the Middle East and North Africa”.

The recordings of the forum sessions are available on the FORM website.

Nuria Sanz, director of the Cairo-based UNESCO Regional Bureau for Sciences in the Arab States, told University World News: “The Forum for Open Research in MENA is an excellent networking opportunity that UNESCO is using to support this movement in the region.

“UNESCO Cairo has used the forum to launch its Arab Science Portal, which should be an important tool for supporting open science activities in the region and beyond.”

Some challenges

According to Ekundayo of Synergy University Dubai: “Four predominant challenges facing developing open research in the MENA region include lack of open science prioritisation and contribution by MENA governments, non-availability of secondary data as an important alternative to primary data for open research, and lack of open science leadership in the region along with lack of advocacy and sensitisation.”

Professor of library and information science Sherif Kamel Shaheen, a member of the forum advisory committee and dean of the special education faculty at Misr University for Science and Technology in Egypt, told University World News: “Other challenges include copyright and open access legislations, lack of awareness of open access cultures, restrictions on the availability of research lifecycles, and ignoring the importance of academic and research libraries as a hub for all open research initiatives.”

Choynowski of Knowledge E added: “At present, despite robust government mandates and significant activities from some major research institutions, the overall appetite for open science is hampered by a number of challenges, including limited supporting resources and infrastructures, unsupportive policies, and a mistrust of open science generated by the growing problem of predatory practices in the open access publishing sector.”

Her view is supported by an online quiz for MENA researchers. The statistics showed that 26% of respondents were convinced that open access was synonymous with predatory publishing; 30% did not know what open access was; and a whopping 53% did not realise that they retained ownership of copyright.

Open science as a game changer

UNESCO’s Nuria Sanz said: “The nature of science is changing from a closed system to an open and sharing one. It affects virtually all components of doing science and research, and shifts in particular the focus of researchers from ‘publishing as fast as possible’ to ‘sharing knowledge as early as possible’.

“The open science movement is an excellent opportunity for our region to patch the current available gap in science generation and research, and all efforts should be taken region-wide not to miss it,” Sanz added.

“The 2021 UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science spells out very clearly the main and important actions on different levels to operationalise the principles of open science within the science community and the public at large. The sought strategy should have these actions as its backbone to lead,” Sanz indicated.

“To promote open science in the region there is the need for technological societies, as there is an absence of coordinated policies between countries or of scientific exchange between the different Arab universities, as well as the weakness of the societal culture of the importance of science. The latter might have improved after the region’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“By encouraging science to be more connected to societal needs and by promoting equal opportunities for all (scientists, innovators, policy-makers and citizens), open science can be a true gamechanger in fulfilling the human right to science and bridging the science, technology and innovation gaps between and within countries,” Sanz continued.

“While open science requires investment in capacity building and human capital, it is vital that such activities take place observing and respecting gender, with specific capacity building and training for youth in open science,” Sanz pointed out.

Boosting open science practices

Ekundayo said: “Besides commitment to the principles of the international open data charter of 2015, as part of MENA countries’ national data governance framework, MENA governments must contribute and participate in open research.

“Each MENA country must develop and implement a relative national data governance framework, policy and principle. This is due to the role and impact of open data in the scientific process of open science, and by extension the role and impact on economic development.”

Nabil Ksibi of ORCID said: “Work on regional policies and guidelines, that can be an inspiration to build decentralised platforms and systems where persistent identifiers are core elements to share knowledge and open research contributions, as these are now the global common standards that will support knowledge dissemination and researchers’ contributions to discovery, ensuring trustworthy and secure application of open access, open sharing and open reviews.”

Choynowski added: “The challenges facing open research in the MENA region can be overcome by sustained activities focusing on promoting awareness about the benefits of open research, generating accessible Arabic language resources concerning the implementation of open science policies and practices, and encouraging cross-regional dialogue and collaboration on these matters.

“This is where the Forum for Open Research comes in, as a non-profit event designed to foster the exchange of actionable insights and development of practical policies, and to help build a supportive regional community of research libraries and research institutions all working together to overcome the barriers to openness.

“Our event last year, the first of its kind, was hugely successful, with over 1,000 delegates in-person and online, from libraries and universities across the region, and this is a real testament to the growing interest in the open science movement amongst research communities in MENA region,” Choynowski pointed out.

Rankings – A barrier to open research

Dr Danny Kingsley, director of library services at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, told University World News: “There is a lack of awareness about open research practices amongst the academic community and the research sector in the MENA region.

“This is partly because the way researchers are trained relies on a very old-fashioned mentoring process, which assumes the supervisor is aware of the bigger issues in scholarly communication. Mostly they are not.

“Globally, we need to recognise that knowledge and skills relating to open research are themselves something that need to be formally taught,” added Kingsley, who is the author of an October 2021 study titled “A Call to Develop Standards for those Delivering ‘Research Practice’ Training”.

“The global juggernaut of commercial university rankings is a huge barrier to open research because they define types of publication practice which revert to the status quo. While universities chase the mirage of rankings they are not focused on the development of open research.”

Arabic language

Ksibi of ORCID said: “Arabic language considerations and Arabic researcher name ambiguity is still a challenge that is not widely resolved yet.”

Stephanie Dawson, CEO of Germany-based Science Open, a platform for scientific communication, told University World News: “I believe that a major challenge for the MENA region is the difficulty of creating, maintaining and sharing machine-actionable open metadata in Arabic script.

“A concerted focus on digital object identifiers (DOIs), requirements for persistent identifiers such as ORCID and the Research Organisation Registry, Extensible Markup Language (XML) standards for Arabic script, metadata curators for repositories and open APIs [also called public API] – an application programming interface made publicly available to software developers – would open up a wealth of information to the global community that is currently hidden in poorly-indexed PDF files,” she suggested.

Out of 18,429 indexed peer-reviewed open access journals covering all areas of science, technology, medicine, social sciences, arts and humanities, only 253 journals are published in the Arabic language, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Building MENA’s own infrastructure

Nabil Ksibi said: “In the MENA region, I think that funding streamlines are more focused on acquiring ‘ready-to-use’ solutions rather than investing in building our own infrastructures including common global standards and relying on relevant open access policies and guidelines.

“For example, some platforms like the Egyptian Knowledge Bank received a considerable amount of investment and funding but is still closed due to paywalls (at least from where I am connecting outside Egypt).

“On the other hand, the Jordanian Open Innovation Platform (JOIP) is a great example of an open research infrastructure that countries in the MENA region can follow,” continued Ksibi.

“JOIP is integrating with ORCID as a persistent identifier for researchers, and assigning Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for research contributions, and with that, relevant metadata will be flowing, embedding organisational identifiers like the Research Organisation Registry, Ringgold etc…

“Thus, adopting our own open research infrastructure, including persistent identifiers for people, places and things, ORCID, DOIs and organisation identifiers, will ensure that the Arabic speaking researchers’ contribution is visible and FAIR across disciplines, borders and time,” Ksibi concluded.