Category Archives: Research

Inaguration day

On Obama’s inauguration day, I thought I was going to be in the wrong place.

I was banking on seeing the speech live. But instead I was at a celebration for  a very good policy research organisation – one of the many in South Africa that take it for granted that what research is about is making a difference and that their research publications should be made available free online for everybody. It is one of those very South African research organisations that have became a source of high quality research interventions to inform development in a democratic South Africa.

The occasion was the launch as  an Institute  of  PLAAS – the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.  The acronym is wonderful – for non-South Africans, you need to know that ‘plaas’ is ‘farm’ in Afrikaans and that is the language of the rural workers in the Western Cape who are a primary focus of  PLAAS’s research. The venue was the pool terrace of a hotel near the sea, at a spot where Robben Island is just a short way across the bay, a reminder perhaps of the Mandela inheritance that Obama might draw on.

I arrived at the venue with the Inauguration very much in mind, thinking through how things might change for us with a new US President. Obama’s is a very different face in the now gloriously inappositely-named White House, with special meaning for Africa. In the background, the sound effect is the thundering crunch of falling masonry as the mad world of global business falls apart. From the southern tip of Africa, the question is not only how Obama will do as President, particularly in relation to Africa, but also whether the economic crash is going to be hard enough to give him space to help usher in a different and less exploitative world order.

In his interview at Google, while still a candidate, Obama had given us a glimpse of  his vision for a more open way of government, a world in which access to knowledge and information is a guarantee of democratic participation and good governance. ‘If you give people good information,’ he said, ‘they will make good decisions’. Giving good information and making it accessible to the people who need it is what  PLAAS and other research groupings like it do pretty well.

In my naïve way, I believe that this kind of research is in truth the globally competitive cutting edge strength of the South African research endeavour, rather than the journal indexes, journal article counts and the tallying up of citation counts that is used as the metric for valuing South African research. The engaged research carried out by organisations like PLAAS features the combination of high quality and cutting edge basic research with real engagement with the community. As Subbiah Arunachalam would say, scholarly communications need to flow from scholar to scholar, from scholar to farmer, from farmer to farmer and from farmer to scholar. That is one of the things that makes for really good research.

But organisations like PLAAS do face problems in our current research policy environment. This   emerged in the speech of Ben Cousins, the Director of PLAAS He said two things that struck me particularly on US inauguration night. One was that, although the Institute publishes a high volume of quality research in print and on its website and makes sure that this reaches government policy-makers and other stakeholders, PLAAS’s researchers are under relentless pressure from the university to publish more and more journal articles in ‘accredited’ (i.e. indexed) journals in order to attract government publication subsidies. Policy research papers and research reports on development-focused research don’t count.

The other piece of information Ben gave us was that the government appears to have taken a strangely wrong-headed direction – as he sees it – in its land rights reform policy and is planning  an empowerment programme that aims to create black empowerment through the sponsoring of large-scale corporate farmers who could operate in a globally competitive market.

In both of these cases, the values at play are those of  the world that seems to be failing, of the large corporations, with profits and competitiveness as the driving forces. That is all too clear in the land rights reform proposals. However, not all academics recognise that it is this very same global business world that owns and directs the hallowed traditions of journal publication and citation counts that dominate how scholarship is disseminated and how it is valued in South Africa.  After all,  the journals that are most highly rated tend to be those in the hands of large commercial publishers. And the way these are indexed – and hence valued – is in the hands of a single US conglomerate. Thomson Reuters owns the ISI journal indexing system that is treated with such reverence in South African academe and it is Thomson Reuters and no-one else that decides who wins and who loses in this particular game, which journals make the cut and which don’t.

What is happening in South African research therefore is that the commercially-driven values of global competitivenesss in exactly the world order that Obama is challenging dominate the academic reward system, marginalising the value-driven research that aims to make a difference, contributing to  national development in precisely the way government says it wants its research investment to deliver.

It turned out that there was a television screen in the venue, so it was with the supporters of PLAAS that I listened to the inauguration speech. There was less of relevance than in his interview at Google, where he talked of the need to provide open access to all aspects of policy making, making medical policy through a consultative process, but ‘not letting the pharmaceutical companies buy the table’ and expressing the perspective he has as the grandson of a woman living without running water or electricity in rural Kenya. But in the inaugural speech, he did talk of the restoration of ‘those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.’ These things are also the values of research centres like PLAAS and not of the global journal publishing system that has grown up in the last 60 years, giving us s remarkably inequitable knowledge regime, where far too much of the really important research that we do is consigned to the margins.

World university rankings – UCT web presence

UCT, as a good research university, likes to compete in world rankings, endorsing its  high international profile. Well, we have creamed another competition, in relative terms, but In ever the less have some unsolicited advice on how we can improve our ranking even further to power our way into the ‘PremierLeague‘ top 200 of this particular competition.

We are talking about the Webometrics world ranking of university websites, which has just released its2008 rankings (thanks to PeterSuber’s Open Access News for bringing this to my attention). UCT comes in at number 385 out of over 14,000 universities. Not bad at all – it puts us at the topof Africa and gets us in ahead of all but two Latin American universities and all Indian universities (where Bangalore comes in at 605). Not unexpectedly, the top 8 African universities are from South Africa, with Stellenbosch second at 654 and Rhodes third at 722. UNISA, surprisingly comes in quite low – 8th, at 1,499. DUT is the lowest rated South African university at 8,735.

So, congratulations to UCT and its web developers. But can I begrudging and suggest that we should do better? We need to get into the world top 200 – the Premier League, among the big Asian, US and European players (and yes, that is the order). After all, UCT prides itself on its far-sightedness in ICT development and has created the Centre for Educational Technology for the development of ICT use for teaching and learning – something that turned out in a recent online discussion forum in the eMerge2008 online conference to be the envy of many of our colleagues in other universities.

To get a hint on how to do better, one needs to look at the criteria for evaluation. This is what the Webometrics site says about its criteria:

The original aim of the Ranking was to promote Web publication, not to rank institutions. Supporting Open Access initiatives, electronic access to scientific publications and to other academic material are our primary targets. However web indicators are very useful for ranking purposes too as they are not based on number of visits or page design but global performance and visibility of the universities.

As other rankings focused only on a few relevant aspects, specially research results, web indicators based ranking reflects better the whole picture, as many other activities of professors and researchers are showed by their web presence.

The Web covers not only  formal (e-journals, repositories) but also informal scholarly communication. Web publication is cheaper, maintaining the high standards of quality of peer review processes. It could also reach much larger potential audiences, offering access to scientific knowledge to researchers and institutions located in developing countries and also to third parties (economic, industrial, politicalor cultural stakeholders) in their own community.

The Webometrics ranking has a larger coverage than other similar rankings. The ranking is notonly focused on research results but also in other indicators which may reflect better the global quality of the scholar and research institutions worldwide.

The site includes a very useful ten-pointlist of good web practice for university sites. But it is clear what UCT needs to do to improve its rankings, and that is to put its scholars’ research output online, to make it accessible and searchable and increase the ‘global performance and visibility of its research’. Note that the ranking includes not only formal journals and repositories, but also ‘informal scholarly communication’. The Social Responsiveness programme in the UCT Planning Office is demonstrating that we produce a lot of that, too, although we do notr ecord it properly. Putting the not inconsiderable output of UCT’s student and staff community programmes would serve a dual purpose of increasing the reach and impact of these vital resource sand increasing the university’s research profile.

So how about a drive to put UCT’s considerable research output online(including its very substantial contribution to community development) and see if we can shine even better in another international ranking? And yes, this does apply also to all those S&T departments North of Jammie steps.

UCT signs the Cape Town Declaration

Our final area of growing partnership is knowledge sharing. Of course, everything we have discussed with university leaders this week involves the exchange of ideas and concepts. This specific initiative combines the dissemination of knowledge with the immediacy and accessibility of global communication.  Medical education and research is so critical in today’s world, and we want to collaborate with South African institutions to develop and provide open Internet access to educational materials in medicine, public health and the health sciences.The soul of scholarship is research. From the current to the ancient,universities must make all information accessible to faculty,students, and the public.

A point of pride for us is the creation of Sakai, the first global consortium of higher education institutions using the concepts and technologies of Open Educational Resources. Open Educational Resources encompass arange of information – such as textbooks, course materials,software and more – that can be accessed and re-used at no charge,and already, more than 150 universities around the world draw upon Sakai’s resources.

We want to create the same level of exchange between the University of Michigan’s health sciences schools – medicine, nursing, public health and dentistry – and medical students and faculty throughout Africa, so they can access materials to supplement their medical educations.

Speaking at the signing of the Declaration, Martin Hall said that the freedoms of the internet must be protected, or else knowledge will become a heavily-priced commodity. ‘Universities are not Mickey Mouse’, he said, expanding on the role of big corporates in the extension of copyright protection.’The commercialisation of intellectual property presents difficult challenges for a university’, he argued. ‘Universities thrive on making knowledge freely available and the Cape Town Open Education Declaration establishes important principles for ensuring that this happens.’

The function was a useful moment to step back and take stockof how far open approaches are taking hold at UCT. A gratifying number of senior academics and administrators expressed support;attendance from the academic staff included a number of new faces,rather than only the usual suspects; and most gratifying, there was enthusiastic support from the students. SHAWCO,the long-established student-run NGO, that offers health,educational  and welfare services, signed as an organisation and SHAWCO leaders want to engage further with the potential offered by the Declaration.

Given this impetus, it will be interesting to see where open education will beat UCT in another year’s time.

Making connections – Open learning Southern African style

On the second day of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Open Access conference last week, the penny suddenly dropped. From the start, the signs were good – the conference, which followed on from the SARUA Vice-Chancellors’ triennial congress, was, after all, focused on open access. The Chair of SARUA, Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University of Cape Town, the Botswana Minister of Education, J D Nkate and the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha, opened the conference with strong statements on the value of Open Access in their respective constituencies. This is echoed on the SARUA website which, unusually for a university association site, acknowledges the importance of dissemination as a core value and makes a clear statement of its commitment to Open Access both as one of its programme areas and as a core principle, as well as its policy for its own communications. The central statement is perhaps this:

Promoting Open Access for increased quality research, enhanced collaboration, and the sharing and dissemination of knowledge, is a central principle for SARUA’s work. The Association is already engaging with groups and networks of expertise and good practice locally and globally in order to support the development of Open Access benefits for HE.

At the conference, the comments of these opening speakers did not therefore appear to be glib statements of openness as a worthy value, but seemed firmly embedded in a recognition of the need to create equity for the developing world in its contribution to global knowledge. What emerged, particularly from Piyushi Kotecha, was a vision which could move SARUA universities on from the current post-colonial reliance on the North for standards for research competence, to a situation in which they could promote their own competence as knowledge producers. As Alma Swan commented later in the proceedings, she thought that, with hindsight, the Open Access movement should perhaps have named itself Open Dissemination, to get away from the implicit dependence on access to knowledge from the North-West that can sometimes emerge in development-speak. And it goes further than Open Access alone. Universities in the southern African region, Piyushi Kotecha went on to say, need to explore open research and open science in order to become research intensive in the next 10-20 years, making a contribution not only to global scholarly communications, but also creating links between research, teaching and learning, and ensuring the contribution of universities to socio-economic development in the region.

This is an enlightened view and if it does indeed underpin future policy initiatives by universities and governments in the region, it could well help move the SARUA constituency on from the contradictions and blockages that currently undermine the effectiveness of South African research dissemination policy, to a more effective role in achieving research impact. This could go some way to giving the region a leadership role on the continent.

This was great, but something continued to nag at the back of my mind. In the Minister’s speech and in some of the questions and comments from the Vice-Chancellors attending the conference, there seemed to be a slippage between Open Access as I would understand it – dissemination and publication systems that, as Alma Swan summed it up, are ‘freely available, publicly available and permanently online’ – and another vision that was only obliquely alluded to, of Open Access as access to universities for students. This question continued to hover as Amanda Barratt, of the UCT Law Library (which, incidentally, hosts Lawspace, the UCT law department repository) talked illuminatingly on open access and human rights and the failure of proprietary IP systems to deliver necessary development goals, particularly in an African context. Something began to crystallise as Andrew Rens, of the Shuttleworth Foundation spoke about Text, Hypertext and Rent Seeking, charting the differences between the linear and contained world of printed text and the fluidity of the read-write web, a clash, as he vividly put it, between ‘the fundamental concept of the web and copyright as a series of little buckets’.

More connections emerged as Johannes Britz, echoing what Amanda Barrett had said, spoke of the importance of education as a human freedom, citing the unhappy statistics of education and research on the continent. He charted the difference between the old information world in which richness had to be sacrificed for the sake of wide reach and the new digital paradigms in which we can combine reach and richness. However, 80% of the world lives, he said, where infrastructure is lacking for unbundled,digital information and education is therefore dependent on physical objects such as books. He brought this down to a moral issue – the bread principle, as he called it. If we can make information and distribute it for a very marginal cost, then we have a new economic model that could serve those deprived of access to education. This is a moral imperative, but IP gets in the way. What also gets in the way is the excessively high cost of telecommunications in countries like South Africa and many other African countries. This means, he said, that the moral agenda becomes a money agenda. The bottom line, he argued, is that access to information is a basic human right and information infrastructure is fundamental to making access work.

It all came together just after Derek Keats, of the University of the Western Cape, had talked about the ways in which web 3.0 could break out of the narrower confines on university walls and the covers of books, offering abundance rather than the limitations of a physical environment. In addition, social networking environments allow students to become producers as well as consumers of knowledge. This, he said, is a ‘rip-mix-burn’ environment that allows for the creation of cross-institutional or even non-institutional learning environments. The Vice-Chancellor of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique responded to this with considerable excitement. ‘I was in a dark tunnel’, he said ‘and now I can see a light.’ He explained that his perception of the scarcity/abundance argument was that in Africa we have an abundance of students and an abundance of thinly populated land. However there is scarcity of lecturers and physical infrastructure. Having listened to the earlier speeches and then bringing to bear what Derek had said, he could now see the potential for ICTs and Open Access to help a country like his. ‘We should go where the students are living, take the money that we would have used for infrastructure and reach them where they are.’ He could see, he said, how Open Access and social networking tools can fundamentally change attitudes towards teaching and learning.

This linked back to some of the things that Christina Lloyd, of the Open University, had talked about. She described the steps that the OU had had to take over the years to accommodate students who came to university courses without formal entry requirements. This needs very careful curriculum design, introductory courses front-loaded in terms of support – and with continuing high levels of support to meet student needs. Provision needs to be modular and very high levels of assessment are built in. When it comes to technology gaps, she said that she thought that Africa did not have to be held back by infrastructure limitations as it had already leapfrogged in its use of mobile technologies as part of its blend. What she said about the curriculum also resonated for Africa – that we need to maximise the potential of learning online through the use of social networking as part of student support.

This all suggests that in the context of higher education in southern Africa, open access, combined with innovative use of mobile
technology and a recognition of the transfomative potential of social networking, offers considerable potential to move research and teaching away from anachronistic hierarchical and locked-in models inherited from the colonial era. Open access can therefore mean not only improved research communications and a greater global contribution by African research, but the use of open education and social networking might offer great potential in under-resourced countries to provide access for greater numbers of students to a well-supported, relevant and effective higher education system.

A policy workshop on access to data

On 27 and 28 September, the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) convened a high-level two-day workshop on access to research data. The workshop was designed to address what South Africa’s response should be in relation to the OECD Declaration, Principles and Guidelines on Access to Research Data from Publicly Funded Research. A hint as to why this workshop was being convened now came from a press cutting included in the conference pack, reporting that South Africa is being considered as an additional member of the OECD, something that would be a major boost to the country if it were to come about. Another reason was mentioned by Owen Njamela, from the Chief Directorate, R&D Investments at the DST: that in the last few months the DST has announced a considerable increase in its strategic R&D targets for the next decade as a way of increasing the country’s international competitiveness. This means that the number of postgraduate degrees and the levels of research output will need to grow radically in the next decade. It was good to see these targets being linked to open approaches to knowledge and information sharing, in contrast to the restrictive and lock-down approach of the Draft Bill on IPR for Publicly Funded Research published for comment a few months ago (see my blog entry of 13 July 2007). What the workshop was after, Njamela said, was to establish what it would take to create a really effective data sharing system in South Africa.

Because I see this as an important event, I am going to blog in this post the key outcomes, decisions and forward planning that hat emerged from the workshop and then provide, here and on the OpeningScholarship project blog additional postings on the keynote speeches and the presentations from local speakers, as well as some South African case studies. Keynote speeches were by Paul Uhlir of the US National Academies of Science and CODATA, Bernard Minter, Chair of the World Data Centre System at ICSU and Professor of Geophysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California San Diego and Beatriz Torres, Programme Officer from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

The key understanding that emerged from the workshop was that, although there are a number of legitimate limitations on openness when it comes to research data – such as official secrets, personal privacy and the proprietary rights of private sector research – the default option, as spelled out by the OECD Guidelines, should be for open access and restrictions should be the exception and not the rule, only invoked with good reason. This is particularly important when data has been developed from publicly funded research. While locking up data in proprietary systems increases the fragmentation and cost and can become a barrier to the conduct of science, the keynote speakers argued that open access makes data available for use across disciplines and countries, allows for automated knowledge discovery, improves the potential for verification and accuracy and facilitates North-South and South-South transfer.

There are strategic reasons for ensuring that research data is properly disseminated and curated in South Africa. As the ASSAf Report on Scholarly Publishing in South Africa made clear, South Africa needs to increase its research visibility, needs to grow its output of high-quality publications and attract a younger cohort of scholars. And, as the ASSAf programme grows the output of local journals, I argued tin my presentation that there need to be links between scholarly publications and underlying data sets if the maximum benefits are to be gained from research investment. Looking forward, the trends are towards greater interactivity between scientific journal articles and the underlying data, for collaboratories and virtual workspaces, for the additional layers of interpretation that can be offered by semantically-rich XML documents, and for automated analysis, abstraction and correlation of data. Open Access makes this much easier.

An important issue for South Africa is the need to retain and grow the numbers of young researchers. The current system of evaluating scholars through their output of journal articles and the citation impact of these articles provides a disincentive for researchers who have grown up in a digital world, who expect rapid results in a collaborative global community of scholars and who recognise the need for high-speed supercomputing to access and analyse the vast and growing amount of data now available. Some participants felt that policy-makers are limping behind the development of new research approaches and that South Africa needed to become more forward-looking in its research policies – in fact the keynote speakers challenged South Africa to leap the technology gap to take its place at the forefront of developments.

Action plan

At the end of the workshop, Owen Njamela from the Chief Directorate, R&D Investments in the DST proposed an action plan,
based on the recommendations of a series of presentations and workshop sessions. The Department would:

  • Explore the recommendation made by the workshop participants for an audit of skills, curricula, databases, and systems.

  • Draft a narrative report from the meeting into a draft policy document/ guidelines for data management, access and reuse.

  • Undertake internal departmental consultation to ensure awareness by all departments and the executive of the DST and to identify human capital.

  • Consultation with other departments – Director-General forums and research forums within government and in the industry cluster system. (There is a framework of bilateral cooperation with other departments, Njamela said and it is also important to include government departments with their own science councils, like Mintek in the Department of Mining.)

  • Consultation with universities/science councils (concurrent)

  • Presentation of a policy to Cabinet (June 2008, when the government considers policy priorities).

  • Funding considerations proposed to National Treasury

  • Implementation (2008 financial year). There might be institutions active ahead of
    that implementation.