Well-maintained digital repositories can bolster research

Universities in Africa should establish digital research data repositories to archive important information gathered over time for posterity purposes, an important tool that can serve as an alternative to and complement open-access publishing.

Digital repositories would store critical data gathered by different researchers who are doing different research work over time, enriching archives already maintained by universities but, even more importantly, boosting the visibility of academics and their institutions.

The move would also help to avoid the duplication of research, since data gathered in previous exercises would be readily available, meaning that available resources would be spent in gathering new information, those taking part in a webinar on research data management for agriculture heard. The event was hosted by the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) on 7 March.

A robust research data management and storage plan, during and after research, and premised on the principles of open data, allows easy access, findability of information, as well as enhancing the re-use and sharing of the same data, librarians and data managers said.

In addition, data repositories allow for completing the research cycle, from data collection to analysis, while also facilitating the traceability of the information.

Data management

Data management, by default, ensures there is quality control, that the same data is accurate, precise, complete and understandable, noted Samuel Simango, the manager of research data services at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

“While open data is different from open-access publishing, both follow the principles of open access and eventually lead to open science,” he told the webinar on ‘Understanding Open Science and Research Data Management’.

Well-maintained digital data repositories, whether on a cloud or online-hosted, allows researchers to subscribe to their services, meaning that they are able to access fresh information any time it is updated, and whenever they need it, said Olatunbosun Obileye, the institutional data manager at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a research organisation with its headquarters in Nigeria.

Researchers should worry about what happens to their data after use and analysis, necessitating the need for an archiving system to ensure that the data can be rediscovered for reuse, he told the event.

“Part of the reason for low visibility of African research is due to a lack of evidential data, and this lack of data also hinders the scaling up of research,” he said.

Where an institution does not have an institutional repository, researchers can store their data with a trusted repository, and so long as it was stored in an open format, it would be both discoverable and reusable, saving on money that would be used to go out on a field mission to gather similar information.

When it is stored in a reputable portal, the same data cannot be stolen or be used without a licence, but can be cited with relevant attribution and references, in adherence to the rules of ethical conduct, he observed.

While it had been in operation since 1967, the IITA has lost a lot of data over time, but with its own repository currently it is maintaining more than 3,000 datasets.

‘Reform academic publishing’

Other than saving on costs of research by ensuring that previously gathered data is readily available, a repository system ensures that research work is not duplicated, said Dr Josiline Chigwada, a librarian and lecturer at Zimbabwe’s Chinhoyi University of Technology.

According to Daniel Albertsson, a librarian at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, open repositories also make innovations based on research easy, while boosting opportunities for research collaborations.

The calls for making education resources freely available were growing globally, spearheaded by international organisations such as UNESCO, the European Union and various governments, all in recognition of the importance of making knowledge widely accessible.

Sweden’s government had made a resolution to make all scientific data and publications open access, and while the objective has not yet been fully achieved, it had been attained with 75% success, he observed.

“The more data becomes freely available, the more research collaborations grow and the more societal benefits are realised from science,” he explained.

The European country (Sweden) was making ‘transformative’ agreements with different publishers around the world to ensure that research work is, at the very least, published in hybrid formats – in both open-access and in restricted formats – so that those who cannot afford to pay for access are allowed to access articles free while those who can afford it, pay for it.

While open-access publishing comes at a cost, sharing research with the government made this possible, while freely sharing it became difficult in instances where universities collaborated with private companies.

The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences has engaged in research on soil, water and the environment for over 50 years, and ensured that the research was open access, in realisation that the same data was critical in attaining food security around the world, he added.

“The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDGs) on zero hunger cannot be achieved without open-access science. If we cannot share everything openly between us in agriculture research then it is not going to be easy to attain the goal,” he noted.

The United Nations’ third Open Science Conference in February called for accelerated efforts in attaining SDGs, noting that, for this to happen, open science had a critical role to play.

The conference further called for measures to be taken to achieve equity and inclusion, and to “reform academic publishing and strengthen the science-policy-society interface”.

Participants also appealed for more support for journals from the Global South, in addition calling on UNESCO and governments to work together to “improve support for freely accessible repositories”.