Initiative promises stronger open-science ecosystem in Africa

The African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) in cooperation with the online open-access repository Figshare has launched a new initiative to support awareness of open-science and data repositories as well as support the research and education communities in Africa.

The AfLIA-Figshare initiative was announced in a statement on 16 February 2023. The new initiative aims at contributing to building a stronger open-science ecosystem in Africa for the benefit of its communities, and the world.

To achieve that, it will focus on raising awareness of open-science and open-data principles and practices in the African context, including effective data management in data repositories, intellectual property rights, the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data principles and data sovereignty.

The initiative will also contribute to developing and leveraging the professional skills and understanding of stakeholders in African higher education and at research institutions.

Africa needs to understand benefits

Dr Helena Asamoah-Hassan, executive director of AfLIA in Ghana, told University World News: “AfLIA’s decision to partner Figshare, a leading open-access turnkey software-as-a-service repository solution that supports open science, is strategic on two fronts: leadership and facilitating infrastructural capacity for open science.”

The concept of openness and its participation has yet to make an impact in Africa, despite its potential to drive innovation, economic growth and social development by enabling individuals and organisations to make more informed decisions, Asamoah-Hassan said.

“This partnership, in addition to similar existing partnerships, seeks to confront the lack of awareness and understanding of open science potential benefits,” she said.

Other existing partnerships include one between the Technology and Social Change Group of the University of Washington in the USA and the Global Libraries Programme of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership resulted in the launch of an integrated digital platform known as the African Library Sites on 30 January 2023. It is aimed at making datasets of libraries in Africa more visible to stakeholders, potential partners and their users.

At present, the African Library Sites platform has datasets from 1,881 libraries located in 55 African countries, including 11 libraries of institutions of higher education and general research libraries, 1,854 public libraries, 206 community libraries, 24 national libraries, six school libraries, and 11 special libraries such as law libraries, medical libraries, and industrial and commercial libraries.

Greater access for authors, researchers

“As a continental organisation, AfLIA’s show of leadership will serve as a springboard to directly influence its member associations, the majority of which are academic and research institutions, to embrace open science and FAIR data principles,” Asamoah-Hassan said.

“The development of an open-access repository portal meant to host AfLIA’s conference proceedings, data and research outputs will provide authors and researchers with improved archiving and increase access to all resources and outputs.”

The open-access repository portal will include papers, presentations, posters, and videos for the 5th AfLIA Conference & 7th African Library Summit with the theme, ‘Future of learning, libraries and sustainable development in Africa’. It takes place from 22-26 May 2023 in Accra, Ghana.

“More importantly, these outputs and resources will be uploaded to the repository by the authors and researchers themselves,” Asamoah-Hassan emphasised.

She said, as part of the implementation framework, AfLIA is actively promoting the replication of the partnership model for its member institutions within the African academic and research space. “And, of course, we envisage that the snowball effect will attract other non-member institutions and researchers.”

The initiative will ultimately increase Africa’s voice in the global research ecosystem and foster, not only openness and collaboration, but also diversity, Asamoah-Hassan said.

A space for stakeholders to dialogue

Dr Lara Skelly, open research manager for data and methods at Loughborough University in the UK and a research fellow at Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa, told University World News that “one of the main challenges facing the open-science ecosystems in Africa is the lack of policy synergies”.

“With so many stakeholders involved – funders, publishers, institutions, ranking agencies and researchers, to name a few – collaboration is essential to achieve the goals espoused in open science initiatives,” she said. “The AfLIA-Figshare initiative creates a convening space for stakeholders to dialogue on these issues and move forward together.”

Skelly said the AfLIA-Figshare initiative must also focus on skills development and capacity-building that would further the open-science agenda in the African continent.

Changing researchers’ attitudes

Dr Heila Pienaar, former deputy director for strategic innovation at the department of library services of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said to University World News that “the AfLIA-Figshare initiative is a good beginning to help tackle the cost problem of the infrastructure and researchers’ attitude towards open access and open science which is one of the biggest challenges facing Africa”.

The AfLIA-Figshare initiative can be broadened to include the research data, journal articles, and electronic theses and dissertations of individual African universities, Pienaar said. “South African universities have a very good relationship with Figshare. Several South African university libraries are using Figshare as a research data repository with positive results.”

‘Africanised’ open science

Dr Sherif Kamel Shaheen, professor of library and information and dean of the faculty of arts at Cairo University, told University World News that “the AfLIA-Figshare strategic partnership is a vital step in strengthening the African open-science ecosystem for enhancing collaboration and partnerships among Africans to tackle the challenges that they face and accelerate innovation and development”.

This will help African universities, through their libraries and library professionals, to participate in the global research data repository, Shaheen said. “The AfLIA-Figshare initiative will also enhance digital infrastructures which power the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

He pointed out that the initiative must also focus on developing “Africanised” open science that is adapted to and mainstreamed in African national and institutional research systems to accommodate indigenous knowledge systems expressed in multilingual formats and make it accessible to millions of Africans for use in developing an innovation-based economy.

Ina Smith, former manager of the African Open Science Platform pilot project managed by the Academy of Science of South Africa, said that Figshare can be one of many solutions to address challenges faced in terms of the sharing and preservation of research data.

“I think the possible collaboration between Figshare and NRENs [national research and education networks] might open the way to get scientists who struggle with infrastructure to manage and share their data in trusted ways,” Smith said.

“A stable and secure information and communication technologies [ICT] infrastructure – currently provided by NRENs – is key to advancing collaboration in science.”

Smith noted that the South African National Research Foundation called for regional nodes coordinators as part of the future Pan-African Open Science Platform (AOSP) in five African regional and economic communities.

The purpose of the AOSP regional nodes is to support and promote efforts aligned with the implementation of open-science programmes at a regional level, strengthen knowledge networks and infrastructure access, and enhance cooperation between regions and globally in support of the AOSP’s vision.

“The time is now, for governments in Africa to acknowledge the important role of science in general, but specifically open science and open data, through developing and aligning the relevant policies, investing in an ICT infrastructure conducive for data sharing through committing funding to make NRENs financially sustainable, incentivising open-research practices by scientists, and creating opportunities for more scientists and stakeholders across all disciplines to be trained in data management,” according to the AOSP landscape report.