African Academies of Science promote access to digital knowledge resources

I have not blogged for a while – I have been drowning, not waving, as I prepared the final report for my OSI International Policy Fellowship and put in place proposals for the projects that will carry forward the work started in the Fellowship programme (more on both of these in the next week or so).

Looking back over these last months, I realise that there have been some promising indications that things are moving on the African continent as university leaders tackle the challenge of the knowledge divide. A recent event that I attended was was convened as an International Planning Meeting of the Inter-Academy Panel on International Issues (IAP). Organised by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the US National Academy of Science (NAS), it brought together delegates from the African Academies of Science in Pretoria in May for an intensive one-day workshop on ‘Promoting Access to and use of Digital Knowledge Resources in Countries with Developing and Transitional Economies: The Role of Science Academies in Africa’.

Speaking for the host academy, Professor Wieland Gevers, Chair of the Publishing Committee of ASSAf, outlined the new role that is emerging for African Academies. This is the provision of evidence-based policy advice on research and the higher education sector. The focus is to build strong academies that would be effective partners for government, providing expert advice
to governments from an independent perspective.. Many African academies focused on publishing, Gevers said. ASSAf recognized the overwhelming importance in developing countries of growing indigenous publishing. In its 5 years of existence ASSAf has conducted a major research project on scholarly publication in South Africa on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology, culminating in a set of strong recommendations for the development of open access journals and repositories. Government was indicating its willingness, he said (very soon) to ask the academy to oversee the implementation of a national system of inter-operable repositories as well as a system of journals and other scholarly publishing paid for by government – on the basis of Chile. The ASSAf proposal is that a proportion of the subsidy paid to
universities for authorship journal articles and other scholarly publications be top-sliced to support the publication of national journals. T
he Academy is raising funding to set up an editors’ forum that would help to enhance the quality of locally-produced journals and would promote the idea of open access publishing through the green and gold routes as a way of growing and strengthening high quality research output from South Africa.

Paul Uhlir, speaking for the IAP, said that the objective was to strengthen the capacity of the African academies through an initiative to enhance access to information. using digital knowledge resources. An aim is the creation of OA institutional repositories in the developing world. Proposals were being finalized for new programmes to provide higher visibility for developing country research. .This is particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa, given the concern expressed by Sospeter
Mohangu of the ICSU regional office for Africa. at the declining ratio of sub-Saharan African scholarly output on the global stage – Africa is losing ground, he said, in comparison with Latin America, North Africa, and Asia.

Delegates from across the continent provided the usual litany of connectivity problems, but, on a more optismistic note, talked of advances made in ICT policy development. These included the creation of Ministerial posts for ICT, policies providing incentives for manufacture of hardware and software, and the development of networks for sharing research, for the promotion of electronic publishing, and the preservation of electronic materials. Paul Uhlir commented , however, that the creation of ICT ministries without attention being paid to the the problems of information provision is problematic. African governments need information policies to grow African research content alongside ICT policies for the growth of the technical infrastructure. Mechanisms are needed to promote development and access in the first instance to information produced at national and regional levels and secondarily to information produced in the OECD countries.

Professor El Hadj Ibrahima Diop of the Senegalese Academy said that in Senegal, the academy (a young academy) has a commitment to the communication
of scientific research both to scientists and the general public, as well as its government advisory role. In Senegal, he said, the infrastructure is moving, the political will is there, and the academy trying to play its role. However, while, as an academy, the goal is the promotion of scientific work, it is currently limited when it comes to the promotion of publishing activities. The Senegalese academy is not yet committed to publication of scientific research; the question of access to scholarly content has been addressed, but not the .growth of national research content. This was a matter of shifting to participation in scholarly publication by African scholars.

Along with other delegates, Diop expressed concern that an over-emphasis on traditional global scholarly publishing routes was alienating young academics, given the imbalances in the journal publishing indexes, which are dominated by older researchers and favour publication from countries in the North. Diop challenged the hegemony of the academic journal, with its word counts and inequitable value systems and very slow timescales – if scholarly publishing is a matter of communication, rather than the route for personal promotion, he asked, what would the most appropriate model be for what we need to communicate in Africa? If the journal is an old-fashioned genre, he said, do Africans have the courage to say this is not the route for us?

Malik Maaza of iThemba Laboratories for Accelerator-based Science in Cape Town (a project of the National Research Foundation) concurred, saying that enhancing the visibility of high quality African journals, like the South African Journal of Science, should ensure free access to peer reviewed scholarship in Africa in a short
period. Right now, he felt that the system was not presenting the right platform for young scholars and was contributing to the brain drain. What was required was continued lobbying within the political arena to keep up the momentum.

In this context, while there was consensus that peer review was an essential component of quality assurance, there was also acknowledgment of the problems of traditional peer review systems. Both Ibrahima Diop and Paul Uhlir spoke of the need to investigate new methods on online pre- and post-publication collaborative peer review alongside the traditional systems.

In discussion, there was consensus that, in the African context, what was needed was the creation of a stable of high-quality open access journals and other publications with a regional and national focus, to raise the profile of African scholarship. In South Africa, government funding should be available to support such an initiative and this was likely to be needed in other countries. Subscriptions for paper versions of journals could also be a way of providing some sustainability. Regional journals could help provide sustainability where there was a lack of critical mass at local level.

The workshop ended with proposals for a vigorous programme for the promotion of ICT connectivity in Africa and for a forward-looking, active and open approach to the development of African research publication.

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