Category Archives: Research

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.

Beyond the repository? The CERN Innovation in Scholarly Publishing Workshop (OAI7). June 22-24 2011

I was in a very expensive and sultry Geneva in late June to attend the CERN workshop on innovations in scholarly publishing, among a record attendance of over 260 delegates. Perhaps this level of attendance is a sign that Open Access is maturing and becoming mainstream as it moves on from an emphasis on access alone to the exploration of how openness enhances the effectiveness of science and increases the impact of the contribution that it can make. The programme also reflected a level of maturity in the system, a second-generation approach that took it for granted that we were talking about a well-established system with repositories already set up and functioning and open access journals well established (and growing fast). The focus was less the setting up and management of scholarly repositories or the creation of digital publications than the semantics of an integrated research communication system. In fact a key perception at the conference was William Nixon’s suggestion that the ‘repository’ will disappear into the wider workflow of research communication (an ironic statement from someone who is the Service Development Manager of the University of Glasgow repository).

The overall focus was therefore on how to get extra mileage from repositories, interlinking data, publishing effectively and garnering government support for Open Access and Open Science. Cameron Neylon, Senior Scientist in Bio-molecular Sciences at the ISIS Neutron Scattering Facility at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), argued in his talk on the Technical, Cultural and Legal Infrastructure to Support Open Scientific  Communication that repositories are a ‘temporary scaffolding’ awaiting the time that we have ‘reasserted the traditional values of research and built the pillars and foundations that will make openness an embedded part of what we do’. Neylon’s core argument was that, while we can resolve the technological issues to build a viable architecture for data analysis, reuse and discovery and have the legal infrastructure needed, what is not there yet is the cultural infrastructure – the commitment, the communities, the assumptions and the practices that could make open science work. The ‘real values’ that he articulated were those of reproducibility, making a difference to the community, getting process, data and narrative to relate to one another and ensuring accuracy and validity.

Related to these perceptions, there was a very useful session on advocacy. Monica Hammes from the University of Pretoria spoke on the Open Access Conversation, a cogent and detailed account of the mind-changing process that is needed and the partnerships that need to be developed to get a university to adopt and mandate open access, arguing that one has to anticipate the emotional responses of the people one is trying to persuade, recognising where their interests lie. Heather Joseph of SPARC in Washington, speaking on advocacy at the national and international level, demonstrated how the wording and the logic of arguments have to be distilled and clarified in order to reach government.  Given the powerful lobbying capacity of the big publishing companies in their push for enclosure, she argued that any advocacy initiatives have to be well argued, supported by persuasive data, be very strategic and need to be built on alliances and communities. Continue reading

Excellence or quality – metrics and values in scholarly communications

In June 2009, in the process of scoping a project to research ways of building capacity in African scholarly publishing, a workshop was held with a group of experts from a variety of perspectives and a variety of approaches to the question of scholarly communications. Supported by the IDRC and the Shuttleworth Foundation, this workshop turned out a very lively event and – we believe – provided seminal insights into the questions that need to be addressed in order to build African research communications capacity.
This workshop has now been captured on a website that hosts videos of the keynote speeches (ten minute presentations, so they work well this way). It also contains commentary on the speeches and discussions as well as the key findings that emerged from this discussion. The website was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation and provides a discussion form for these ideas to be carried forward. One lesson learned, perhaps, was the value of discussion in a a small and focused group of experts from a variety of contexts and a variety of specialisations.
In yesterday’s blog I took to task the Thomson Reuters analysis of African research developments, arguing that, by focusing only on the production of journal articles and on citations in an international journal index, they were taking too narrow a view of what constituted research development. So here, from the Scholarly Communications, is the keynote address by Jean-Claude Guédon, of the University of Montreal, who gave the opening address of the workshop.

Jean-Claude Guédon – Scholarly Communication in Africa: Project Scoping Workshop from Creative R&D on Vimeo.

Guédon starts by introducing vocabulary issues that need to be clarified on order to understand the research communications environment. In particular, the difficulty in discerning the difference between ‘quality’ and ‘excellence.’ According to Jean-Claude, quality is a matter of the minimum thresholds that are needed for functionality, a matter of what skills or levels of professionalism are needed to deliver a particular function. The concept of excellence, on the other hand, is a matter of competition, with specifically defined parameters creating the rules of the game in which this competition is played out.
He continues to the topic of scholarly publishing, which has artificially constructed competition as its basis, so that it has become all about creating excellence. Jean-Claude’s advice is to disengage from this situation, by reviewing the notion of what constitutes excellence. He also says we need to look at the whole value chain of scientific communications, as well as the data that underpins research and ensure that it is preserved and made available. He also speaks about the benefits of a collaborative knowledge environment, as well as the need to reposition knowledge and society.
The message is that we need to unpack the language of excellence and competitiveness before we subscribe too blindly to the race that that involves. Developing countries cannot ignore this side of scholarly performance and it is important that they prove their ability to achieve the accepted standards of performance in what has become, for better or for worse, a dominant measure. However, this should not be expanded to be the only, or the dominant measure of performance. Rather, there should be a balanced approach, with great emphasis placed on the need to build capacity by developing the quality standards that could ensure truly professional performance.

‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Thomson Reuters’ myopic vision of African research capacity

T S Eliot’s damning metaphor for the narrowness of social conventions came to mind when I read Thomson Reuters’ Global Research Report Africa, ostensibly a report on the state of African research, but in fact a very limited analysis based solely on the performance of African countries in the Thomson Reuters ISI journal indexes. I was alerted to this report by University World News, which has now published two totally uncritical articles on Thomson Reuters’ ‘global’ analysis of African research.
This is insidious stuff. The Global Research Report Africa is indeed measuring out the lives of African researchers in coffee spoons, basing itself on an unproblematized assumption that the number of journal articles published and citation analysis of these articles can be an adequate measure (let alone the only measure) of the state of national research systems in Africa. It uses scientific-sounding language to equate these ‘outputs’ – ISI-listed journal articles – with research capacity and then in turn equate this measure with the potential for improved global economic performance for African countries.
The intent of this this report is pretty clear. The report starts off with an explicit statement: it is designed ‘to inform policymakers and others about the landscape and dynamics of the global research base’. Although its concluding remarks have a modest disclaimer, that ‘it would be inappropriate to suggest that the preliminary analysis in this report can provide a clear direction’, nevertheless the intent is again made clear – to ‘help provide a further context to that set by the OECD’s economic reports, while also furnishing background against which to view the pertinent regional dispatches in the UNESCO Science report 2010…’ We should not forget either that the criteria and analysis for the Times Higher Education university rankings are now to be managed by Thomson Reuters. Is the company positioning itself even more strongly as the sole arbiter of scholarly excellence and the sole source of data for the measurement of research development? Continue reading