Category Archives: Scholarly Publishing

Access to knowledge – the times they are a’changing

I am back in South Africa, after more intercontinental flights than I would like to recall, with an overwhelming sense that there is a decisive shift happening on a number of fronts in the area I work in. I have been to conferences and workshops on open access, A2K, scholarly publishing futures, and the formulation of a more balanced and just intellectual property regime. At all of them, there was a sense of urgency, but also of confidence, as a diverse community engaged with changing paradigms in all of these fields.

That on its own would not be too surprising. The broad community I work in is one that is committed to change, to equalising and democratising access to and participation in knowledge production. What feels different now is that our efforts are being accompanied by a landslide of other events – signs of shifts in national and regional policy, consolidated support for open access, acceleration in the development of alternative metrics for evaluating research effectiveness, and increased and sometimes vehement media attention.

In this blog I will try to track the broad landscape of change and will then engage with the different threads in a series of blogs, to spell out what I think the implications are for South Africa, Africa and the developing world. What I fear is that we in Africa are all too often, in our attempts to be ‘world class’, chasing last year’s – or rather last century’s – vision. As Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Saleem Badat, wrote in the UNESCO World Social Science Report 2010, there is a danger for developing country universities in ‘uncritical mimicry and ‘catching up’ with the so-called world class university in order to further socio-economic development’. With the current rate of change, this is a clear and present danger and we risk being stuck in last year’s paradigms.

So – a brief overview of what has been happening. (or brief-ish, as a lot is going on):

In scholarly publishing there has been a lively debate on alternative metrics to replace the dominant Web of Science journal impact factor as a measure of research effectiveness. This is particularly important for developing countries, marginalised by this system and by the global university rankings that go with it. The Altmetric discussion has involved the development of a range of technology tools and fostered arguments for more diversified, qualitative and nuanced ways of evaluating academic performance. A core argument is that readers of journal articles should be able to replicate the experiments described in journal articles, requiring the availability of data and information on research process provided online alongside the journal article itself.

This in turn interfaces with changes in scholarly publishing models. In the first instance, there has been a dramatic growth in open access journal publishing. The PLOSOne open access journal model is getting increased prominence and is being emulated by other journals. The features are a broad disciplinary focus rather than a narrow concept of ‘the journal of…’ The peer review model is different, with articles being reviewed for scientific rigour before publication and impact after publication, using ‘citation metrics, usage statistics, blogosphere coverage, social bookmarks, community rating and expert assessment’. PLOSOne encourages the creation of communities, and the generation of a ‘hub’ of information around a journal article.

What emerges is a view of journal publishing that sees the article as part of the research process. This in turn surely means closing the gap between open access and open science.

Commercial scholarly journal publishing has been under the lash in the media, with George Monbiot writing a scathing article in the Guardian claiming that ‘academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist’ and the New York Times charting rising levels of protest in US and UK universities to the high prices of scholarly journals, with cancelled subsciptions and increased support for open access.

The question of peer review has been taken up at government level in the UK, where a parliamentary committee is reviewing this area. It appears to broadly support the PLOSOne model; supports the idea of pre-print servers to allow for collaboration and early feedback; argues for transparency and openness rather than blind review; and expresses serious caution about the use of the journal impact factor as a proxy for individual evaluation.

Intellectual property has also been in the spotlight. A series of regional workshops culminated in the World Congress on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest held at the American University of Washington. The outcome was the Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest signed by over 700 people in the weeks after its launch. This challenges the industry-dominated IP regime that currently dominates and provides a policy agenda geared to a more balanced acknowledgement of the rights of creators and users.

This approach is echoed in the UK’s Hargreaves Report on IP, commissioned by the UK government in late 2010. The report recommends that IP policy should be based on evidence rather than on industry lobbies; that over-regulation should be resisted; argues for limits on copyright and more generous exceptions; and recommends ways of creating access to orphan works. Parliament has supported the rapid implementation of the report’s recommendation.

The European Union has also taken up the issue of orphan works and has agreed a set of principles for making out of print books and journals available, providing for the digitisation and making available of out-of-print works through a voluntary system run through a democratically-managed collecting society.

In general, there seems to be a move towards openness, rising criticism of big corporation lobbying and protectionism.


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

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?

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.