Category Archives: African Scholarship

The policy gap – research communication in limbo in South Africa’s new Green Paper

South Africa has a shiny new Green Paper on Post-School Education. However policy weary we might be, this is, refreshingly, a good document, with the right ambitions for the overdue overhaul of the higher and further education sector.  It quite rightly identifies the country’s huge deficit in further education and the failure to provide sufficient training for employment to meet the overwhelming need in this sector. This policy document does not appear to fall into the trap of trying to turn universities into human resource factories, but rather seeks to leverage the strengths of the most functional institutions to help upgrade the under-developed further education sector.

If the Green Paper is implemented as its stands, the universities are facing a considerable upward trend in the number of postgraduate degrees to support sector growth; greater research differentiation between institutions; enhanced attention to teaching and learning effectiveness; effective use of ICT for increased efficiencies in distance and face to face learning; expansion in the number of academics to meet increased teaching and learning and research targets; and the encouragement and nurturing of young academics. Extra funding is proposed to meet these needs. The driving ethos is that of collaboration, cooperation and intra-institutional synergy to ensure that the stronger institutions can contribute to the upgrading of the weaker ones. The Green Paper places itself firmly in the 21st century as it proposes the adoption of flexible and innovative models of teaching and learning delivery, building on the affordances of information technologies. This is articulated as a way of improving access and increasing economies of scale.

This is an enlightened view of university education that includes, gratifyingly, the endorsement of collaboratively developed open educational resources, the idea of collaborative learning networks, online student support, and the suggestion that government might support the production of open textbooks. The support of UNESCO for OER, as part of  ‘a growing international movement’ (p. 59), is clearly an important motivating force behind this radical move. Indeed, as I write, the SA government is co-hosting a UNESCO Forum on OER Policy in Africa.  The Green Paper mentions UNESCO’s work on open education resources as a motivation for these provisions, but does not respond to the more recent development in UNESCO of an Open Access programme, launched in late 2011 at the UNESCO Open Access Forum.

The UNESCO OA initiative provides some guidelines on what would constitute a more expansive vision of what needs to be done by way of national policy for the creation of a comprehensive approach to research publications and communications. The initiative focuses explicitly on Africa, saying that in spite of improvements in ICT availability, awareness of OA remains low on the continent and in other developing countries. The brochure produced to launch this initiative summarises the advantages of OA thus:

 Through Open Access, researchers and
 students from around the world gain increased
 access to knowledge, publications receive greater
 visibility and readership, and the potential impact
 of research is heightened. Increased access to and
 sharing of knowledge leads to opportunities for equitable economic and social development, intercultural dialogue, and has the potential to spark innovation.

 In other words, OA is perceived in the UNESCO programme as a driver for the development impact from research that the SA government has persistently asked for. It is also the capacity builder that the Green Paper seeks, a space in which research processes and findings can be shared and these findings made available for the creation of learning and training materials and ‘translated’ for use by businesses, social entrepreneurs, and communities. As I set out in an earlier blog on the UNESCO OA Forum ,  UNESCO follows in this initiative behind a number of other organisations and countries that are investigating and adopting new regional and national frameworks for research communication, based on rapidly-changing digital research practices.

The research communications gap in the SA Green Paper

Disappointingly, this is not reflected in the SA Green Paper – a big hole at the centre of its 21st century vision – with no attention paid to the need for national policy to address access to knowledge through the communication and publication of research. All that we get is the statement that the government wants to ‘increase the number of patents and products developed by our universities and research institutions’ (p. 44).  It looks as if we are back in the 20th century industrial economy vision of research ‘outputs’ (patents and journal articles) driving national economic development, a very limited view of the potential of research in a digital world.

It is not that our government is not aware of the advantages of OA. It has undertaken investigation of research publication in the last decade. The Department of Science and Technology commissioned evidence-based research from the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa  (2006) and as a result supports the ASSAF Scielo South Africa programme for the creation of an open access platform for accredited local journals. The Department of Higher Education and Training has accepted and is implementing an ASSAF report on scholarly books, which includes open access proposals.

These initiatives – as valuable as they are – impact relatively little on the institutions and the ways in which they do or do not support the communication of research. Without the development of more comprehensive national research communication policy, there is room for the persistence of a free-rider syndrome that has the universities and their academics perceive publication as something that someone else does. There is no policy pressure for universities to support the communication and publication efforts of their academics nor to ensure that research investment results in access to the knowledge that has been produced. Where there have been open access initiatives, for the creation of research repositories and, in the case of Stellenbosch University, investment in the creation of an open access journal publishing programme, these have been the result of the hard work of individual champions and forward-looking administrators and so they risk remaining isolated examples in a fragmented system.

What is missing is a comprehensive, nationally-based approach to the communication of research and the infrastructure, skills and support systems  needed to support this. This could be the glue that could hold together a really forward-looking South African research effort, one that could do what it does best – operate at the cutting edge of high-technology research development, as it is doing in the Square Kilometre Array project as well as producing high-level research that impacts directly on improving people’s lives and contributes to national development.

UNESCO has outlined the different drivers that need to be addressed in a national policy of this kind – technology network infrastructure; institutional frameworks to reflect changes in scholarly communication; new business models to reflect societal expectations; collaboration within communities of researchers; and alignment with the national R&D system. These all face challenges in the existing system for institutions and governments that need to be met in comprehensive policy initiatives. I will look at these in my next blog.

* Illustration: Attribution Some rights reserved by F. Montino


Open Everything at UCT Open Education Week

The first global Open Education Week took place from 5-10 March.  One of the questions that I found myself asking when I was asked to participate in some of the UCT events was ‘What is open education?’  Is it the use of  OER – putting course materials online – or something broader? The answers that emerged from panelists at the University of Cape Town moved well beyond the narrower frame of courseware to a challenging and interesting discussion of the interconnectedness of communications for the university’s different missions in a rapidly evolving digital environment.

This is in line with the Open Education Week’s aims:

Open education is about sharing, reducing barriers and increasing access in education. It includes free and open access to platforms, tools and resources in education (such as learning materials, course materials, videos of lectures, assessment tools, research, study groups, textbooks, etc.). Open education seeks to create a world in which the desire to learn is fully met by the opportunity to do so, where everyone, everywhere is able to access affordable, educationally and culturally appropriate opportunities to gain whatever knowledge or training they desire.

At UCT, the key event was an afternoon-long Western Cape-based panel discussion on Tuesday 6 March involving speakers from UCT, the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University.  A gratifying number of people attended, filling the seminar room on what was a mid-term working afternoon. My impression was that ‘open everything’ is a much more mainstream cause that has been the case in the past and is attracting wider attention than before.  Of course, attitudes to open approaches havereceived a boost in South Africa with the Department of Higher Education’s adoption of OER policies in its new Green Paper, as I wrote in a recent blog and the Department of Basic Education’s adoption of OER resources in schools.

Dr Max Price

Dr Max Price

The UCT Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, opened the panel discussion. This was significant in itself – a Vice-Chancellor lending support to an open education event. Commenting on the mainstreaming of OER policy internationally, Price identified the challenges facing wider open education practices as not only technical, but residing principally in the attitudes of staff. There are a number of fears that have to be dealt with, he argued – IP issues, fear of loss of control, of the work required. Very usefully, Price suggested the need for the creation of incentives, a citation system for OERs and career credit awarded to participating academics.

It was good to hear such a direct message of support from the leader of a university that I have long seen as ambivalent about these issues, but which is now clearly moving steadily towards a more comprehensive institution-wide open agenda.

The panelist’s presentations revealed different approaches in the participating institutions, with Stellenbosch standing out for the strength of the open access programme it is able to implement as a result of top-level logistical and financial support. From UCT, a narrative emerged of longstanding commitment to open dissemination by individual academics and departments, often going back decades. There was also a lively introduction to citizen science initiatives taking place at UCT. There is also a sophisticated understanding of an understanding of what is now an integrated research communication. From UWC also, insight into a long tradition of open source, open education and open access and the increased capacity that this brings.

The two chief challenges appear to be the question of institutional buy-in and top-level championing, and the challenge now being posed to a silo approach to the three university missions of research, teaching and learning and community engagement.

Michelle Willmers

This emerged clearly in the presentation by Laura Czerniewicz from the Open UCT Initiative and Michelle Willmers from the Scholarly Communication in Africa project, also at UCT. They presented a dynamic vision of developments in the ways in which research is now communicated. There is a shift from from a linear model of research publication as the end point and terminus of a research programme to a dynamic networked research environment in which communication takes place at every stage of the research cycle and the distinction between different outputs is diminished. The boundaries are blurring between research outputs as formal publications, research reports and other ‘grey literature’; enhanced publications such as  ‘translations’ for policy purposes or community impact; and teaching and learning resources. This also allows for the development of alternative metrics for valuing research contributions.

Dr Marion Jacobs, Dean of the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences, spoke, from her perspective as the Dean of a world-leading medical faculty, of a strong political and context-driven Afrocentric approach to communications in health studies. This involves recognition of excellence in research publication alongside commitment to meeting the needs of the SA health system in which access to health services is of primary importance. She provided examples of a number of online resources that contribute to public health care, ensured effective communications between health workers and patients in a multilingual country, and ensured the production of students fit for purpose in the South African context.

 Ed Rybicki , an A-rated virologist at UCT, confirmed an unacknowledged tradition – that there are a number of academics at UCT and other SA universities with a long record of putting research and teaching resources online for free access. Ed said that Africa produces just 0.7%v of global research, 66% of that from South Africa. We need to share it, he insisted. Ed says everything that he produces is and has long been open. He described a productive relationship with an Australian illustrator combining free and commercial provision of high quality scientific illustrations and the value of new developments like Apple’s iTextbook formatting tools.  The advantages that have accrued have been wide global takeup of open resources and the immediacy of web exposure of new developments.

Dr Reg Raju

Dr Reggie Raju, the Director of Library IT and Communication at Stellenbosch University  (SUN) described the impact of institutional support at Stellenbosch in creating a shared research space. The goal is to create a research footprint for the university, through an institutional repository, Sun Scholar , now ranked 165 out of 1,200  repositories internationally, and through an investment that has allowed the creation of a suite of online journals published by SUN and hosted on an OJS platform. The results of this programme, instituted in 2011 have been immediate, with rapid and substantial increases in journal readership and impact and growth in international submissions to the journals.

Mark Horner, of Siyavula told a story of a fairly common occurrence – a public interest project that emerges from a university but finds its space for expansion outside the walls of the institution, in Mark’s case with the Shuttleworth Foundation. A programme for open access science textbooks from schools has, in a 9-year trajectory, taken off from the basis of a collaborative postgraduate effort to becoming a mainstream government-supported resource now aiming for independent sustainability. The success story is that 2.5 million print copies of open access science and maths textbooks for high schools are being distributed by the Department of Education.

The afternoon ended with vivid overviews of citizen science programmes in biodiversity, presented by Tali Hoffman and Prof Les Underhill from the Avian Demography Unit in the Zoology Department and the Department of Statistical Science.

What was clear is that open education is alive and well in a number of centres in the Western Cape. However, there is fragmentation and too much dependence on often unacknowledged departmental and individual contributions. The SUN example, demonstrating the power of institution-level investment could usefully be explored in other institutions.  Institutional and government policy development to support open education in its widest sense would go a long way towards delivering the our national goals of growing participation in higher education and the enhancing university contributions to national development.

Lies, damned lies… and metrics

Two contradictory things are happening side by side in discussion of scholarly publishing right now. On the one hand, the discourse of open access – seeking to remedy the failures of the current system – bases itself overwhelmingly on the value of the journal article as the artefact to be made open, while at the same time, stronger and stronger criticisms are levelled against journals as an effective mode of scientific communication. Questions are also being asked about the appropriateness of the metrics that are used to make judgements on the quality of the articles published, determining the reputation of authors and their institutions. It is well known that this system consigns developing country research to the periphery of a ‘global’ system, marginalising very important research issues – such as ‘neglected diseases’ that apply to large percentages of the world’s population. These concerns now appear to have a strong echo in the mainstream, even if the perspective of the global South is not clearly articulated in the discussion.

In a scathing critique of the current journal system on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog, Bjorn Brembs, a neurobiologist from Freie Universitat Berlin, lays into the ineffectual communication system provided by journal publishing in its bloated state, compounded by the distortions that result from the commonly accepted journal hierarchy and its supporting metrics. Given the vast numbers of journals, this is no longer a functional space for dialogue between scholars, he argues. Trying to establish what would be worth reading is skewed further by the use of inaccurate and misleading metrics as a proxy for quality – a blind and misplaced belief in the magic of numeric measures.

The most commonly accepted metric, Thompson Reuter’s Journal Impact Factor, is demonstrated to be lacking in transparency, not reproducible and statistically unsound. Backing up this claim with a number of analytical articles, from PLOS Medicine, the BMJ and the International Mathematical Union, he comes to the conclusion that ‘[T]he dominant metric by which this journal rank is established, Thomson Reuters’ “Impact Factor” (IF) is so embarrassingly flawed, it boggles the mind that any scientist can utter these two words without blushing.’

As Brembs quite rightly argues, there is little correlation between the impact factor of a journal, based on the number of citations in that journal, and the individual articles that might or might not have been cited in that journal. And so the extension of the journal citation count to article metrics and author evaluation constitutes a serious distortion, a blind and misplaced belief in statistics as magic.

Brembs’s critique of the current journal system – and that of the sources that he draws on – also highlights subject and language bias in the citation system and journal rankings, but does not draw attention to the way the system functions to marginalize an overwhelming proportion of the world’s scientists – those in the developing world.

This critique comes hot on the heels of another diatribe, from George Monbiot, in the Guardian on 29 August who lashed out at the paywalls and profiteering of the leading journals and their culture of greed, an article that trended on Twitter, obviously striking a nerve. Brembs endorses and reinforces Monbiot’s rejection of the profit system that drives current journal publishing.

It was therefore good to see a few hundred years of the the original English-speaking journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, made available online by the Royal Society. Going back to the first edition, one rapidly encounters what has been lost in the commercialisation of our journals in the last half century. In his Introduction, Henry Oldenburg gives us insight into the spirit of collaboration and experimentation and the openness of communication that the journal aimed for at this time.

Scientific knowledge in this early journal is seen as a conversation, so that ‘those addicted to and conversant in such matters may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts and Sciences. All for the Glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind.’

This sounds much closer to what could be an African vision of research as collaboration and participation, contributing to the public good. Modern journals are very closed-up and arcane artefacts compared to this vision. In fact this first journal looks and sounds very much like a blog – with some leading scientists like Boyle, Hook and Huygens contributing – with the serious and trivial side by side, short and longer pieces, explanations of experiments and stories of odd an ingenious things, from how to kill a rattlesnake to an anecdote of old people growing new teeth.

It would be good to see some serious discussion about the tendency for southern African universities and researchers to buy blindly into dysfunctional systems like the ISI Journal Impact Factor rather than determining what our own values are and what research publication systems would best suit our goals. Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, taking apart the university ranking system in the UNESCO World Social Science Report 2010 finds the same kind of distortions and inadequacies that Brembs complains of.  Badat warns against the ‘perverse and dangerous effects’ than can result from ‘uncritical mimicry of and ‘catching up’ with the so-called world-class university’. Instead, he suggests that the diverse goals of different institutions and countries should be reflected in a horizontal continuum that ‘makes provision for universities to pursue different missions.’

We would do well to listen – a matter of playing catch-up with the future instead of the past.

The state of the nation 2011 – government policy and open access in South Africa

The working year is just waking up in summer South Africa and I am to moderate the opening session on the topic of ‘A national perspective on A2K in South Africa’ at the Yale A2K Global Academy. This takes place at the UCT Graduate School of Business on 18 and 19 January and the session that I am moderating needs me to step back and and try to get a perspective on what this national perspective actually looks like.

When it comes to government policy and legislation, the trouble is that South Africa, as usual, does not present a coherent or unified picture, but rather embodies a number of contradictions. Perhaps I could borrow a wonderfully vivid description of the situation in the Caribbean in an Intellectual Property Watch article by Abiole Inniss on Fair Usage in the Caribbean, something that could well apply to South Africa:

A panoramic view of the IP situation in the Caribbean would present to the observer a carnival of Olympic size replete with politicians, diplomats, rights advocates, consumer groups, law enforcement, and impotent jurists, all gyrating discordantly to the WIPO band while Caribbean citizens look on, or are pulled or shoved in.

2010 has been dominated, from my perspective, by a negative force, the pending implementation, during 2011, of the IPR Act for Publicly Funded Research of 2008. While I would argue that the default position these days on publicly funded research is that it should, as far as possible, be publicly and freely available, this piece of legislation, a kind of Bayh-Dole Act on steroids, appears to regard the default as IP protection, with commercialisation through patenting as the most desired outcome. This legislation and its implementing Regulations do appear to recognise the need for research contributions that lead to social and non-commercial development. However, the default position of the implementation clauses in the Regulations is that permission has to be obtained from a national agency before any research that is capable of commercialisation and patenting can adopt open innovation or open source approaches. Continue reading

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:


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?