Around 65 delegates met in a mild and sunny Leiden in early September, as guests of the African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden, to
discuss the the North-South divide and scholarly communication in Africa in the digital era. This was a follow-up to an initial conference on the topic in Dakar two years ago. The differences between the two conferences were telling: while the 2004 event consisted largely of informative and explanatory papers, laying the ground for an understanding of the terrain, this time there was a much more confident interrogation of the assumptions that underlie international scholarly communications systems and the power relations at play in the scholarly community. The papers were of a very high standard and the conference teased out many key issues facing African scholarly publishing, bringing delegates up short against of the major challenges that face the continent, yet not descending into the abyss of Afro-pessimism that so often characterises meetings of this kind.
Appropriately, given the venue, collaboration and partnership were very much on the agenda. As Adebayo Olukoshi said in his opening speech, global knowledge dissemination is characterised by asymmetries from previous systems of knowledge production. The conference was designed to
address these asymmetries, he said, with the aim of developing strategies for using CODESRIA’s CODICE documentation centre to help
leapfrog institutional practice across the continent. In this context, CODICE is seen as a pioneer centre on the African continent
for the development of digital media and online resources in the social sciences. The main lines of discussions that emerged at the conference were cogently summarised in this opening speech – the inequalities inherent in the scholarly system and the marginalisation of African knowledge in that system; the problematic yet ultimately liberatory role of technology; the need for leapfrogging disadvantage; and the vital importance of collaboration and resource sharing.
Open Access publication seemed to have ready acceptance across the board as the most enabling dissemination model for African scholarship, offering greater citation impact, greater efficiency and, most important, more democratic access to knowledge. Given that a number of speakers identified distribution problems as the major barrier to research dissemination, the potential for Open Access digital distribution was doubly attractive, leading to an increase in impact factor of between 56% and 227%, according to Marlon Domingues of the ASC.
The conference agreed that Codesria should propose the creation of an African citation index as a way of addressing the inequalitites that characterise the marginalisation of African publication. The particular occasion for this event was the launch of Connecting Africa, an ASC initiative to harvest African Studies data by building links to repositories across the world. As an example of North-South collaboration, this initiative builds on existing resources to leverage access to a body of African Studies content, fostering partnerships between institutions in the North and in Africa. The resultant collaboration aims to redress the knowledge divide by balancing access to research content produced in Africa and that
generated in the global North.
Providing a perspective from the global South, Subbiah Arunachalam gave an eye-opening account of the ways in which Open Access knowledge dissemination to rural knowledge centres in India had contributed to poverty reduction and the delivery of development goals – as well as saving the lives of coastal fishermen through the provision of weather and tidal information. These networks translate knowledge from the research environment to local communities – ‘lab-to-land’ as Arun described it – using digital, print, and broadcast media to get the message across in projects in some 40,000 villages. Although researchers in developing countries face severe disadvantages, it was clear that technology could help
bridge the gap between rich and poor. Given the challenges that face us, such as SARS, avian flu, and tsunamis, he argued, the improvement of ICT access and the building of research networks must be seen not as a luxury but a necessity.
A number of speakers, however, asked the question ‘Open Access to what, for whom?’ In a closely argued paper, Paul Wouters of the Virtual Studio in the Royal Netherlands Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, challenged delegates to interrogate many of the assumptions behind Open Access, including its seemingly uncontroversial value as a public good. OA also has a history, he argued, based mainly in the library and information sciences and is based on assumptions about the scientific systems, knowledge produced in the systems, and practices in the system. Scientific knowledge is closely connected to local circumstances, he argued, not valid universally. Universality is the result of a lot of work, not only in dissemination but in an active act of translation. There are, moreover, under-recognised difficulties in sharing data, he argued including emotional differences between, for example, physicists working with less personal data and social scientists. The question therefore is how to
turn the humanities and social sciences to more collaborative methods.
This tension between ‘international’ and ‘local’ knowledge was interrogated by a number of speakers, along with the implicit hierarchies that underlie such a concept. Arguing that many development consultants do not understand the knowledge of their subjects very well, development consultant Mike Powell pleaded for an understanding of the multiplicity of knowledges in the environment and for applied research in navigating this diversity. He challenged the easy assumption that African knowledge is ‘indigenous knowledge’ and US and European scholarship ‘global knowledge’. African scholars were encouraged to resist the devaluation of African knowledge – for example, depending on circumstances, Mike argued, a doctor trained in Maputo could be more valuable than one with a more prestigious Harvard qualification.
Williams Nwagwu of the University of Ibadan tackled the local/international issue from another perspective, making the case for the creation of an African citation index, arguing that African research is for the most part, ‘unavailable and inaccessible’ as a result of the selection criteria imposed by the mainstream Northern citation indexes. These exclude most research done in Africa and, in particular, deny the importance of locally or nationally-focused research, which tends to be applied research, understandably enough, given African circumstances. Peter Lor, a former National Librarian in South Africa and a keynote speaker, concurred, arguing that the South African system places excessive emphasis on the USA ISI citation index and disadvantages local journal output as a result.
Marlon Domingues cited the “;Matthew effect” in citation – “for every one that hath, to them shall it be given”’. The South American example of the SCIELO database was cited by a number of speakers as a valuable coordinated cross-national policy initiative that has substantially increased the exposure of research from the participating countries – and if Cuba can do it, so can African countries.
The proposal for an African Citation Index was taken up enthusiastically by the delegates and a proposal was accepted for Williams to prepare a model for CODESRIA, for the idea to be taken up with the AAU and NEPAD. Terms of Reference should be ready by October-November 2006.
There was broad agreement on the ways out of the impasse faced by African research dissemination. Common themes were the need for the recognition of grey literature, – the inclusion of content (as is the case in SCIELO) that is not peer reviewed, as a means of evaluating social impact. Garry Rosenberg provided a clearly articulated account of the case study of the HSRC Press, arguing that Africa’s future cannot be found in the glbal North’s past, but that Africa needs new publishing models that honour the social purpose of publishing. It is an ethical responsibility to make research findings available, he argued. it was possible to buck global trends, he said – for example, 22% of the citations from the President’s
office were from HSRC publications.
Interventions suggested were : training in info-literacy and information management; education in copyright (from the perspective of educational institutions rather than that of publishers); the creation of much greater awareness of scholarly communication issues; the building of collaborative networks; the fostering of a new role for African libraries; and the creation of Africa’s own electronic publication and dissemination tools, policies and practices.
In the final keynote address, Olivier Sagna, from Cheik Anta Diop University in Dakar, but recently appointed to a strategic position in CODICE at CODESRIA, pulled together a number of these themes. Africa had been outside most developments he said, but now research knowledge had to come from out of Africa. The continent was disadvantaged by global institutions like the WTO and WIPO; libraries had non-existent budgets, there was a digital divide and a scientific divide. Most of all, he said, there was a lack of public policies and no civil society movement for higher education. What was happening in Africa, he said, was the growth of FOSS, the localisation debate, the establishment of repositories and research archives, Creative Commons SA, with Nigeria to follow, NRENs. What needed to be done was awareness-raising; policy creation (Open Access, FOSS, etc.); training programmes in electronic dissemination; customised and innovative information products and services; information management leading to knowledge management and from STM dissemination to knowledge and communication strategies. The challenge, then, would be to move from national to regional programmes. Most important, African universities needed to create communication links and collaborative networks so that efforts are no longer fragmented. Perhaps, he said, in 2007 there should be a Timbuktu Declaration on African Open Access.