Open science drive gets buy-in from university leaders

A greater understanding of open science appears to be taking root among university leaders in North and East Africa, with many of them keen to take proactive steps to support efforts for the adoption thereof within their institutions.

This was the outcome of an advocacy campaign rolled out by the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Public Library of Science (PLOS), and the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa) and published earlier in March.

As part of the campaign, two regional workshops were organised at the British University in Egypt and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, respectively for North African and East Africa’s presidents, vice-chancellors, rectors and deputy vice-chancellors, as well as directors of research and libraries at higher education institutions.

The workshops, including speakers from UNESCO, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the National Research Foundation in South Africa and the African Open Science Platform, aimed to increase awareness about the benefits of open science, to support the development and implementation of open-science policies in higher education in Africa.

Survey results

Surveys, following the workshops, showed that 85.98% of North African workshop participants had a better understanding of open science after the event and 12.33% a moderate comprehension, whereas 97.53% of the East African participants had a good understanding of open science, and 2.47% a moderate understanding.

Participants of both the workshops indicated that they would work with institutional leaders to support open science.

Steps they can take include collaborating with library services to promote awareness about open science, encouraging the integration of open-access journals in the university’s journal selection strategy, encouraging research directorates to adopt open data and evaluation in academic writing processes, working on the adoption of professional incentives for academics who employ open science-based outputs and working with the vice-chancellors’ offices to support the process of the adoption of open science in universities, which may support institutions in some of the rankings.

Concerns about open access

Joy Owango, TCC’s executive director, and Roheena Anand, the executive director of global publishing development at PLOS, told University World News the workshops showed there is an “appetite and enthusiasm to continue to learn about open science, but more must be done to increase education and awareness of its benefits for research, researchers and institutions”.

There are understandable concerns regarding the credibility of open-access publication venues (because of predatory journals), publication cost (article processing charges or APCs) and intellectual property rights, coupled with a lack of incentives to embrace open-science principles and practice, they added.

To increase the adoption of open-science principles and practice, it needs to feature at regional, national and institutional policy levels so as to truly embed this within research cultures, research assessments and career progression, Owango and Anand suggested.

According to them, workshops will also be presented in West and Southern Africa in future and all workshop outcomes will be presented at the AAU biennial conference of rectors and vice-chancellors that will take place in Namibia in July.

A wider dialogue is needed

Dr Lara Skelly, an open research manager for data and methods at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and a research fellow at Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa, told University World News that, whereas university leaders’ discussions of open science are encouraging, the open science ecosystem has many more stakeholders including publishers, funders, government agencies and the researchers themselves.

“A wider dialogue is needed. Building on their current networks, university leaders should engage with these stakeholders to ensure a sustainable policy alignment that will support the continent in further open-science practices,” Skelly pointed out.

Dr Tshiamo Motshegwa, the high-performance computing, data science research cluster coordinator at the University of Botswana, told University World News the development of open science policies at a national and institutional level and associated roadmaps to implement UNESCO’s open science recommendations, is critical – and institutions must play their role.

“It also critical to assess our universities, educational systems and enabling environments and interrogate if these are configured appropriately; and consider very closely criteria for evaluation of scientific excellence, [aspects such as] reward systems and incentives, and address the quality and quantity issues including through requisite investments in science enterprise,” Motshegwa said.

“Institutions should also work with other stakeholders to collectively advance the dialogue regarding ‘science as a commodity versus science as a public good’ and, consequently, the matter of democratising access to scientific literature and how this can be best advanced,” Motshegwa added.

“Institutions, in unpacking their open-science policies, must look to advance and exploit FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) research data, effect institutional data sovereignty through data repositories, seek advancement development of data capacity and data skills and embark on joint collaborative programmes – and to leverage these to advance open science,” he said.