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Open access to knowledge will boost African development

Stellenbosch vice-chancellor Russel Botman on a continental opportunity

Last December The Economist published a report, ‘Africa rising’. The subhead of the story was interesting. Reversing its decision a decade before to label Africa “the hopeless continent”, the magazine now called us “the hopeful continent”.

But was that correct? Isn’t Africa still at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index? Isn’t Africa’s research output still less than 1 per cent of the global total? Yes, these things are true.

But what is also true is that Africans are doing something about it. From Addis Ababa to Cape Town, Nairobi to Lagos, Africans “Are Doin’ It for Themselves” —to adapt the title of the ‘80s hit by the Eurhythmics and Aretha Franklin.

Since October 2010, when Stellenbosch University became the first African higher education institution to sign the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, the number of signatories on the continent has grown to 28.

The Berlin Declaration dates from 2003 and was initiated by the Max Planck Society of Germany. It is regarded as a milestone of the open-access (OA) movement. It promotes unrestricted access to scientific knowledge and cultural heritage, and more than 400 institutions worldwide have signed it.

OA can help Africa address its developmental challenges by moving the continent from the periphery of knowledge production to the centre. And the growth of OA on the continent signifies that Africa is ready to lead itself and its sciences deeper into the 21st century.

Wherever one goes on the continent, there is a tremendous enthusiasm for knowledge production and full participation in the global knowledge community. In this time of flux, there is a window of opportunity for us to improve two things, particularly for Africa: access and visibility.

Clearly, Africa has aspirations to grow its share in global knowledge production. OA is an important tool to realise this aspiration. OA paves the way for those who need to participate more fully in the knowledge community. They do not have to pay subscription fees for scientific journals, which are frequently unaffordable to under-resourced institutions. At the same time OA increases the visibility of research from the developing world.

In this way, greater equity is achieved. If knowledge is the currency of our time, then OA amounts to the redistribution mechanism of that wealth. Hence it can be regarded as hope-generating.

Harnessing hope

SU has adopted hope as its guiding academic concept. This is captured in our Hope project. We follow a science-for-society approach, using knowledge production, transfer and application to address major societal challenges.

That is why OA is a perfect fit for us. We have made our research accessible to the world, particularly to the very communities where the data comes from. And this is done for the sake of promoting human development and a more sustainable environment, which are the moral imperatives of our time.

Our first step was to establish an open-access repository, SUNScholar, which can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. It is an electronic archive for the collection, preservation and distribution of a variety of research material, such as master’s and doctoral theses, research articles and conference proceedings. It was built with open source software, using open internet standards.

Secondly, SU has established a comprehensive service for hosting and publishing OA academic journals online. It is called SUNJournals, and all titles on the platform are freely available to anyone via the internet. Eighteen titles—most of which are accredited by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training—have already joined. The journals are published with the Open Journal Systems (OJS) open source software, developed by the Public Knowledge Project.

Thirdly, we have created an Open Access Fund to encourage the university’s researchers to publish in open-access journals. Author fees for publishing in open-access journals are subsidised, and researchers also receive a subsidy for publishing in regular journals when an additional fee is required to allow open access to published articles. The fund also covers the university’s membership fees with such open-access publishers as BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science.

Driving change in Africa

We also want Africa to be part of a global trend that sees libraries increasingly adopting the role of publisher. According to a Purdue University Libraries report, over the past five years US libraries have begun to expand their role in the scholarly publishing value chain by offering a greater range of pre-publication and editorial support services.

SU’s Library and Information Service has developed two new OA platforms that will help us achieve this goal: the African Open Access Repository Initiative and the African Open Access Journal Initiative.

The aim is to assist African higher education institutions to become independent digital academic publishers. For African higher education institutions that do not presently have the technological capacity to do so, Stellenbosch will host their online collections and publish their online journals. We will also train their professional staff, transferring skills in the process so that our partners can work towards building and running their own systems.

For Africa, OA allows those who have been largely silent and invisible contributors to global research production to express themselves freely. May Africa’s voice be heard loud and clear.

Professor H Russel Botman is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University and a vice-president of the Association of African Universities. This article is based on his inputs at the recently concluded Berlin 10 Open Access Conference hosted by SU—the first time that the event has been staged in Africa.