Biomed Central and Open Access Africa

Open Access Africa convened by Biomed Central, with Computer Aid International, and held at Kenyatta University in Nairobi on 10-11 November 2010, challenged me to revise my generally negative perceptions of large international journal publishing companies.Open Access is different, in other words.

My engagement with Biomed Central prior to this Conference involved questions put to us by colleagues in the biological and medical sciences at the University of Cape Town some time ago: how developing country authors can afford the article processing fees that are often charged by commercial open access journals (South Africa being too rich to qualify for a waiver). The researchers concerned were attracted by the ethos of open access and the prospect of much wider exposure, particularly in Africa – an important issue for them – and even better impact factors in these mainstream commercial, but open, journals.

While supportive of open access, these researchers asked why a university like UCT should pay high fees for open access publication, particularly at a time when it still has to commit itself to maintaining its subscription to the bulk of the mainstream international journals? To ask hard-headed questions, what would the costs be, and how would these be offset by the benefits? And who would pay? Is this a library responsibility, like a subscription, or part of the research process?

Biomed in its own blog on the conference poses its arguments for open access in Africa, including the need to address the abnormally low volume of research findings from sub-Saharan Africa and the surprisingly low representation of African open access journals worldwide, in spite of the advantages that they offer to developing countries. The conference, however, provided a wider view that. I am pleased to say, defused much of my doubts.

What I got from the outset of the conference was an immediate realization that there are important differences between the ethos of open access and subscription big commercial journal companies. The picture that emerged from Matt Cockerill’s introduction to the company was that of a publisher that did care about development issues, was conscious of the divides of privilege built into the traditional journal publishing system and was prepared to try to address them. Open Access, Matt Cockerill argued, provides a global partnership for development. Moreover, the health issues that are of vital importance to the developing world and that Biomed supports in its journal publishing are at last getting global support and funding.

Some important differences between open and closed access journals, from our African perspective, as demonstrated by Biomed in various presentations at this conference:

Copyright

Authors publishing in Biomed journals do not only get to keep their copyright, but the articles are published under a Creative Commons Share-Alike licence. This means that the author can re-version the information in the article for audiences other than fellow-scholars. The latter is very important: it emerged strongly from this conference and at the UNESCO workshop that I attended a week later, that many African researchers are concerned to get the maximum development impact out of their research and value the ability to ‘translate’ research results. This means that they are conscious of the need to write popularizations, policy papers, guidelines for health and agricultural workers, and provide local language translations, among others .My presentation, on the strategic benefits of open access for African universities, stressed the need to address the developmental goals of research in Africa, producing publications that addressed these needs, rather than focusing on journal articles alone.This was well received by the African conference participants and led to some discussion of the need for alternative research impact metrics.

Accessibility and the public good

There does not seem to be the exclusive emphasis on ‘mainstream’ or ‘international’ research that characterizes many of the large subscription journals. Accessibility is an important issue for journals in the Biomed stable, its publishers argue, and not only prestige (although its journals are performing very well in the rankings and the number of journals in the ISI rankings are growing annually). The commitment of a journal like the Malaria Journal, articulated by its Editor, Bob Snow, to medical research for the public good is a case in point and it is worth noting that this is by no means incompatible with a high-performance impact factor. This kind of publishing is more sympathetic to African authors and their concerns, while still offering the competitive advantage of a large international journal.

Open peer review experimentation

Experimentation in open review processes in some Biomed journals appears to show a commitment to more democratic systems of research evaluation – again something that resonated with the audience. These experiments include more transparent peer review processes with review reports published alongside the journal article and more experimental approaches with rapid publication accompanied by post-publication comments.

Open data and other media

An interest in the publication of supporting data as well as multimedia materials offers advantages for research sharing – important to Africa with its scarcity of resources.

A developing world focus

The focus of a number of journals and journal articles on developing world issues and its website on Open Access and the Developing World demonstrate a commitment to developing world issues and an engagement with the community of people involved. Biomed is interested in picking up what they see as expanding markets in Africa.

All this suggests that universities like UCT need to address the question of their support for open access publishing as a university-wide strategy for the preferment of open access, policies, funding and support. And in the longer run, perhaps we will be asking questions about the relationship between the local and the global in a more democratic digital world. Will there be a divide, or a continuum?

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