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The Swamp Beneath the Sand – Cape Town’s Water Crisis and the Question of Open Data

One thinks of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Cape Town is a city surrounded by water: a peninsula at the southernmost tip of Africa, all around are vast expanses of clear blue and turquoise sea – scenically one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its most striking physical feature is an imposing mountain range rising in the centre of the city, with numerous mountain streams running down it, to eventually drain into the sea. It is associated with water – that is why the Khoisan, the first people of this lovely peninsula called it //Hui !Gaeb,”, the place where clouds gather. Another phrase associated with the early city is its Khoisan description as the ‘place of sweet waters’, hence its choice as a watering place for ships sailing from the East to Europe, the premise for the first colonial settlements.
It is therefore startling to find the city now in a position in which it is threatened with becoming the first major city in the world to completely run out of water. Using disaster rhetoric, the city council has coined the phrase ‘Day Zero’ for the day on which the piped water supply to the city will be turned off, as the catchment areas run out of water, and citizens will be obliged to queue for water at water dispensing sites, each dealing with tens of thousands of people per day, to claim their limit of 25 litres per person per day.
A striking feature of the way this crisis has played out is the extent to which the citizens of the city, who could have expected their elected government, at the different levels – city, provincial and national- to have taken care to ensure that they had adequate water supplies, instead found themselves, as consumers, cast as the villains. The citizens of the city were subjected to a sustained rhetoric of vilification for reckless consumption of water, a startling reversal of the usual order. The problem was, the city government announced, that the wealthy end of the urban community was using too much water, in the prosperous suburban areas which, they said, were responsible for 60% of water use. And in general the wealthy end of the urban population was careless with water, consuming it recklessly. This from a city that has never, for example, encouraged, or provided subsidies for water-saving interventions, like boreholes and well points, or for the installation of rainwater tanks to reduce reliance on potable water use; rather, for a long time it prohibited them.
The residents were by no means blameless in their water consumption habits – it is overdue for much more attention to be paid to the use of what is now a scarce resource and for more attention to water use, first of all through more rational water consumption behaviour, paying attention to its scarcity, but also to more rational water supply systems, for example through the recycling of waste water for non-potable uses. The citizenry has become much more water aware and water consumption had dropped radically, something that will have to be maintained in the water-scarce environment that will now be a permanent feature of life in the city.
The next city tactic was scare language- ‘Day Zero”, with its dystopian vision of a city semi-paralysed by queues of tens of thousands having to queue to lug home a dead weight of water every day in order to stay alive, with major disruption in business and the normal running of the city. Then there was the language of apocalypse: the ‘worst drought in 30 years’ became ‘the worst drought in 50 years’ finally landing up as ‘the worst drought in 1,000 years’ (even though the there are certainly not weather records to be able to make that claim).

So what went wrong? And where does the truth lie?

There were a number of factors that contributed to this dire situation. One was certainly the massive expansion of the city’s population that has taken place over the last decades. But most critical seems to have been the disconnect between the different levels of government, with their different responsibilities for management and distribution of water; an over-optimistic reliance on continuing good rains in spite of repeated warnings to the contrary; the failure to take seriously enough the impact of global warming on the normal weather patterns of a vulnerable region. And an over-reliance on a single form of water source: dams in the mountain range that lies inland of the city and reliance in planning their replenishment on a single source of weather information – the commercial weather reports managed by national government.

One aspect of this disaster that has not been discussed that much by laypeople is the question of weather information and climate data made available for analysis and how this is presented, in order to reduce the level of unexpected crisis. This is critical, as Groundup set out in a Daily Maverick article:

There is nothing better to create trust than availability of data and information, and transparency of how that information is used in the process of planning and decision-making. Importantly, that information has to be understood and internalised. Cognitive psychology and journalistic experience shows that to effectively achieve such a goal, information has to be suitably packaged. It should ideally be visual, interactive, contextualised, and accompanied by a narrative referring to our experiences.

What has probably been most strikingly absent from the discussion of the water crisis between the city and its residents, is this kind of reliable and detailed information, managed and presented in such a way as to encompass constant change. Rather, there have been a series of articles by various commentators and climate and water specialists expressing, as Piotr Wolski does in the Daily Maverick article mentioned above, deep frustration with the failure of information – weather forecasting, rainfall records for different regions over different periods, comparative historical data, or weather data for the appropriate geographical locations that affected water supply. In many cases, it sounds as if the information really needed is scattered all over the place and that the historical records do not cover the same periods from one set of data to the next. Climatic and rainfall data is a national responsibility and one blockage that comes in for strong criticism – for example by the consultant Tian CLaassens – is the fact that the provision of weather data has been outsourced by the national weather department to a commercial unit – WeatherSA – that charges very high fees for the provision of such information. It seems extraordinary that a national weather service should, in a digital age, see something as critical as weather information as something that needs to be a closed IP model used as a profit-making exercise.
The politicians at provincial and local levels responsible for water policy have repeatedly complained that the 2017 long-range weather forecast was for good winter rains, so that they did not think they needed to make contingency plans, assuming the best. In reality, long range forecasts are these days unstable and unreliable and the 2017 forecast was in any event updated not long after the official government forecast in January 2017, with its prediction of good rains. A month or so later, forecasts from other services came in, saying that changing conditions in winds and tides in the Pacific Ocean meant that the pattern of fronts pushing rain along the Cape coast had changed and would pass too far south, bypassing Cape Town, to disgorge rain further up the East Cape Coast. Why did the city and provincial authorities miss this vitally important update, which came in early enough to allow for remedial action? Probably because, if one pays (expensively) for information, the presumption is that this is definitive and reliable. On the other hand, information that is openly available is much more likely to be updated when needed.The question of open information raised by Groundup is therefore critical. Faced with the fluidity and unpredictability of climate change, rigidity is the wrong answer.
Having failed to recognise the instability of weather forecasting, the city faced what came to be called ‘Day Zero’. the day on which the water supply fell so low that the taps would have to be turned off and citizens would have to queue up on a daily basis to collect a minimal water allowance that would be their daily water ration. City managers were scrambling to try to conceptualize this system, but also – on the back foot – to identify and implement alternative methods of water supply to stave off Day Zero. These included drilling into aquifers, of which there are many, but also with many potential ecological issues; wastewater treatment and small desalination plants, also with their risks. However, it is very late in the day to have to start such ventures, against a ticking clock and with the added complication of a national water department that should be providing the financing and capacity to do all this, but which has apparently radically overspent its budget and has no funds to offer. Thus there is a compound failure at different levels of government to fully understand that climate is now about unreliability and change, needing flexible approaches involving open collaboration between multiple partners, powerful openly licensed data systems, with care taken in the provision of uniform protocols and effective metadata for the sharing of information.

It would be interesting to compare this situation in South Africa with the efforts now being made in Canada, which faces floods rather than droughts, to build a wide-ranging collaboration between universities for open approaches to managing the threat that faces them, on the other side of the world. Something for another blog.

A Neo-Colonial Enterprise – Robert Maxwell and the Rise of the 20th Century Scholarly Journal

4980421657_5278242c15_zHow to become a Professor

In one of the many discussion forums on the decolonization of the university held between academics and students in South Africa over the last months, a report of the following – apparently trivial – exchange struck me forcibly. The context was a discussion about the persistence of neo-colonial concepts of  university curriculum and research, and the sense of alienation experienced by many students in the face of distortions caused by this bias in institutional culture.

The exchange went like this: a student asked university staff members how, post-doctorate, a lecturer comes to be promoted to professor. There was a short silence, then the replies came in: ‘It takes time’ … ‘You publish journal articles’ …. “articles in international journals’. Murmurs of approbation. Then another voice concurred and yet another, after a pause, said, “You also need to get a high rating from the National Research Foundation” (which of course also depends to a good extent on the volume of journal articles produced by the candidate and the ranking of the journals concerned). Only then did someone talk about more complex issues of performance in the exercise of teaching and learning and public engagement, as well as administrative and managerial duties. And then the discussion moved on.

It would thus appear that the default perception, in the eyes of South African academics at one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities, is that academic promotions depend primarily – or almost entirely – on publication in [international] journals. In other words, promotion, prestige and publication are intimately linked and only one form of publication output really appears to count – the journal article. In addition, the hierarchy of values places ‘international’ over ‘local’, relegating issues of national concern, however urgent, to a secondary position, behind the lofty aspirations of becoming ‘international’.

The question is how something as esoteric and obscure (in the eyes of outsiders) as publishing journal articles could play such a central role in promotions and in university rankings and prestige. And also how the emphasis on international publication (meaning publication in journals in the US and UK/Europe) lines up with the development imperatives that provide such challenges for South Africa in its local context.

In all the issues that have arisen around questions of the decolonization of universities, this is probably the most ignored in public discussion. Yet I would argue that this competitive race for publication in prestigious overseas journals that is evident in South African academic promotions is a very powerful factor in entrenching the dominance of the research concerns of the North Atlantic powers and of the English language as the medium of communication for scholarly publication worldwide. Through the conjuncture of these two driving forces – the dominant power and its language – the persistence of neo-colonial hierarchies and values is entrenched, in a very familiar paradigm.

This blog – the first in a series exploring the role of scholarly publication – seeks to provide some insight into the historical origins of this rather extraordinary publication and ranking system by looking first of all at the genesis of the current journal system, a 20th century post-war development that – anachronistically – lingers on to this day. It is in political aspirations and the business models that emerged in the wake of the Second World War that one finds the mechanisms that tied journal development to the English speaking North Atlantic allies and turned journals into big business, entrenching neo-liberal economic thinking into the supposedly esoteric sphere of scholarly publication.

The rise of the 20th century journal system and the origins of its values

This situation can be most readily understood by looking at the genesis of the current journal system, in mid-20th century post-war developments – and not, as many would like to think, in a proud collaborative yet competitive scholarly tradition forged in 17th century London, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, first published in 1665 [1] . Scholars often hark back, when they justify the preeminence of journals, to the idealised and disinterested aims of this original establishment of what became the journal system in the English-speaking world. As the Introduction to the first issue of Transactions expressed it, this was an exercise in collaborative knowledge sharing for the sake of the growth of scientific knowledge, admittedly with an element of national aggrandizement included. The aim was ‘All for the Glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind’.

The tradition of Transactions, so often invoked in relation to the modern journal corporations, identifying the business as an altruistic contribution to knowledge. However, there have turned out to be at least two traps in these aspirations that are at odds with the realities of the current journal regime and render any comparison with current journals largely false.

One finds the motivation for the new publishing business models that emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s in national aspirations for strategic control of the fruits of new scientific knowledge for the purposes of national dominance and economic development.  This link with national aspirations embedded a commercial ethos in this supposedly esoteric sphere, entrenched the English language as the language of science, and the English-speaking North Atlantic allies as the leading powers.

The modern journal system is built upon the expansion, in the wake of World War I, of  research that fed into national-level coordination of scientific research for strategic and business purposes. Telecommunications, military technology, aeronautics and transport, nuclear physics, early emerging digital technology, had grown and contributed to nationwide big business between the wars, expanded even further during World War II, and were key in ensuring the victory of the Allies. These intellectual developments had become the focus of considerable debate about research and commercialization and the role of intellectual property in driving big business. They promised substantial economic growth in peacetime but also – critically – the enhancement of national and international strategic political and military power and status.

The commercialization of the journal publishing industry postwar was a direct outcome of these developments, increasing the ability of the victorious allies to exploit the expanded role of scientific research and its strategic and commercial potential and to harness this to their national interests and regional ambitions.

A matter of language dominance and regional power

The world of modern journals is thus built on the scientific-military-economic power of the victorious Allies in World War II.  It is in their postwar political aspirations emerging in the late 1940s and the 1950s that one finds the mechanisms that embedded a big-business ethos in the supposedly esoteric sphere of journal publishing. This entrenched the dominance of the English language as the language of science, and the English-speaking North Atlantic allies as the leading powers in this scientific world. In the universities, this has also translated into a highly competitive culture, in which scholars’ prestige and status and that of their universities depends upon publication of high-impact findings in the right journals. It is backed by an ethos that draws on postwar English language nationalism and North Atlantic commercial power, with the role of research publication being to forge a link between the two.

In this period, African countries were of course still colonies and their research interests – if there were any in a continent in which many countries in this period did not have any universities – would have been subsumed into those of the dominant powers rather than having any identity of their own. The imposition of the English language and the prioritization of the interests of the major powers are at the heart of the colonial enterprise.While there has been discussion of the English language as a vehicle of colonial dominance in university education in the course of debates about the decolonisation of South African universities, there has not been much recognition of the key role that journals have played in this regard.

The result of these postwar developments has been to effectively sideline research from the developing world, to this day. It is research from the North Atlantic that merits the label of ‘international’, or ‘global’, the interests of developing country research relegated to the status of ‘local’. ‘Visibility’ means being published in an ‘international’ journal, as does promotional potential.

Robert Maxwell and the 20th century commercial journal system

I will track the development of this system through the story of Robert Maxwell’s career in building up journal publication as a large-scale and ultimately very profitable business after his death.  He was not the only new-minted journal publishing magnate in the period, but certainly one of the more colourful.  Best known as the media mogul owner of the UK Daily Mirror, a member of Parliament, a larger than life character, rumoured by some to have been an international double (or treble) agent, he died after falling off his yacht in obscure circumstances, a mystery not resolved to this day, although the dominant theory is that it was suicide in the wake of serious accumulated debts.

Maxwell was not the only player in the postwar regeneration of scholarly publishing, but he was central, his links with British government are telling, and his strategic thinking carried weight and his story is illustrative. What this side of Robert Maxwell’s turbulent history does reveal very vividly is how the development of the political economy of this publishing sector post-war, driven by the British as a strategic national enterprise, entrenched the English language as the dominant medium and the principal English-speaking Allies who won the war as the dominant powers whose views and ideologies would inform the sector. Their potential national advantage was built into the journal system as a central target at a time of intense language nationalism.

Before the war German was a dominant language in global science and the country was a major force in scientific discovery. When Robert Maxwell emerged on the scene, immediately post-war, German publishers, who had been hit hard by the war, saw their content scattered, their publications expropriated and reproduced outside of the country without payment (Henderson 68-9). At the same time the war had consolidated the prewar understanding that research knowledge, and particularly technological research, was an economic force that would be of vital strategic importance in the reconstruction of postwar commerce and political power.

Maxwell, from a background of poverty what is now Czechoslovakia, fought for the Allies in Europe,  and after the war – by then a decorated war hero – landed up working in the British Zone in Germany for the British Information Services. The British recognized the value of German scientific publications in the prevailing context, given that prewar German was probably the dominant language of scholarship. They saw the opportunity that this could offer the UK, with German science on its knees, content scattered and publishing materials difficult to access and lacking distribution networks.

The British government had in 1946 established a committee to review the creation of a scientific publishing house in the UK and Butterworth was chosen for this role, implementing it in 1949 in collaboration with Springer and with a former Springer editor joining this new venture (Miranda, p.79). At the same time, Maxwell, recognising the potential of German information,  approached Springer Verlag with an offer to market their publications outside of Germany. Given his connection with the British Information Services, he was in a position to help the company with essential supplies and find ways through bureaucratic obstructions in complicated times.

From this base, Maxwell moved to the UK with the scholarly resources that he had secured from Springer and other German publishers, to set up an international marketing company for scientific publications. The content that Maxwell was able to release, after the blockages caused by the war, was voluminous. This led to Maxwell joining the newly created Butterworth-Springer venture as a manager in 1949 and then in 1951 buying the company out as a joint venture and renaming it Pergamon Press, with its headquarters in an historic estate on the outskirts of Oxford, Headington Hall (Cox 1998; p.135 Henderson 2004, p.67, Miranda, p.79), a visual embodiment of his new-found respectability and the ambitions of his journal business.

What is also clear from the history of this venture is the extent to which it was connected, directly and indirectly, to British national strategic ambitions.

Maxwell, with his shrewd business brain and mercurial temperament, was able to leverage the business and marketing skills that he had acquired in the course of his wartime career and build them into a commercial enterprise that was a long way from the gentlemen publishers in learned society journals that dominated the British academic publishing scene at that stage. In this process, Maxwell moved on from what was a conservative focus on traditional subject areas in the current journal businesses, an unwillingness to embrace emerging research areas, and a reliance on society membership as readers (Cox, Henderson). Instead, he collared papers on the emerging field of atomic energy, bought up translation rights in Soviet and Chinese journals, and, most important, supported the creation of large numbers of new journals in emerging subject areas. Many of the journals that were created were called ‘The International Journal of….”, signaling the expansive global ambitions of the enterprise[2].

What had happened was that journal publishing had been professionalized and made more business-focused and more responsive to the needs of editors and authors, as well as the needs of the market in the university sector and at the national level. Maxwell had created a commercial publishing model with strong marketing and production values, responsiveness to technological developments, recognition of the importance of data management and a strong vision of strategic directions in scholarship. It was also a business that he had made very responsive to the needs and aspirations of its editors and authors, unlike many of its scholarly society predecessors (Henderson).

Most importantly, with its new-found efficiency and commercial status, this rapidly growing journal business could become a strategic tool for the enhancement of the economic power of knowledge and prestige in the two dominant English-speaking allies in the aftermath of the war. Knowledge in this post-war world was power – represented symbolically in the dramatic pictures of the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima – and that power was ‘metropolitan’ and built on the economic potential of research as a driving force of 20th century capitalism, with copyright protection and patenting an important component of national and international business growth.

Consolidation and capture

After considerable expansion, but a turbulent financial history, Robert Maxwell sold his journal empire to Elsevier for $770 million in 1991, probably to help fund his newspaper investments. By this time the company had launched some 700 journals and was publishing thousands of reference works and scholarly books.

After Maxwell’s death, the consolidation of large companies increased, so that now there are essentially five huge and exceedingly profitable journal companies that dominate the scholarly publishing environment – Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor and Francis and Sage – with large commercial journal publishing now one of the most profitable businesses in the world.

What remains very much in place, is the focus of the journal system the English language, and on the interests of the UK and US. The journal retains its print-based format, in spite of digitization and remains a neo-colonial business, one that has to be played by the rules of the major powers, while the interests of the countries that were still colonies when this business model was conceived remain at the margins. And yet this is the system that dominates reward and promotion systems in our universities, without much attention being paid to the disconnect with the a now much changed digital and political environment, as we shall see in discussion of Eugene Garfield’s development of metrics and citation impact systems, in the next blog.

[1] Transactions is now accessible online, with all issues available.

[2 Ironically the Open Access -hating Jeremy Beall has these days identified as the main give-away that a new Open Access  journal is ‘predatory’ the naming of a number of journals the ‘International Journal of….’ -plus the fact that the journals are based not in England but from Africa or Asia.

Photo: Barry Silver

CC Attribution 2.0



Brian Cox, The Pergamon phenomenon 1951-1991. Logos: the Journal of the World Book Community 9 (3) 1998, 135-140.

Albert Henderson, The dash and determination of Robert Maxwell, champion of dissemination.         Logos: the Journal of the World Book Community 15 (2) 2004, 65-75.

Achille Mbembe, Decolonising Knowledge and the Question of the Archive:  

Robert N Miranda, Robert Maxwell: Forty-four Years as Publisher. In E. H. Friedriksonn (Ed): A Century of Science Publishing, pp. 77-89. IOS Press 2001

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New. Basic Books, New York, 2009.

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.

Medical Journal Ghostwriting

The New York Times has published an article about the use of ghost writers from drug companies to produce journal articles that then go out under the names of academics in US universities. This is yet another example of problems in the ethical standards of the big journal publishers and the morality in pockets of the global scholarly prestige system.

Senator moves to block medical ghostwriting

A growing body of evidence suggests that doctors at some of the nation’s top medical schools have been attaching their names and lending their reputations to scientific papers that were drafted by ghostwriters working for drug companies — articles that were carefully calibrated to help the manufacturers sell more products.

Experts in medical ethics condemn this practice as a breach of the public trust. Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.

Read the rest of the article here

Fleeing the sun – and customer service airline-style

Modern travel can be disjunctive. From the rich gold of autumn Cape Town, here I am in the grey light of early spring in London. At first the leafless trees are startling, but one soon gets used to the starkness and begins to notice the signs of renewal – tulips briliant in thin sunshine at the Tate Britain, branches of blossom shining white against the grey of the terraced houses.

The transition is not made easier by lack of sleep – thanks to SAA. There is an extraordinary quirk of airline marketing that means that the more you pay for your ticket, the worse the seat that you get allocated.

I had to book at the last minute, as many business passengers do. So my ticket was not exactly cheap. I am also in that class of passenger that keeps the airline in business, as I am due to make another three intercontinental trips in the next few months. So what seat do I get allocated? An aisle seat, yes, that I grant them. But towards the back of the plane, right next to the galley, so that every five minutes throughout the night we were blinded by flashes of brilliant light as people came and went through the galley curtain.

Then there were the seats themselves. I remember the days of my youth when airline seats reclined right back, days when there was more space between the rows than there is now. Well, in this elderly Jumbo, some still did. The one in front of me did. But not mine. So I had a sardine sliver of space between my seat and the lavishly reclined seat in front of me. It was sheer torture.

Then there was the entertainment system that was so aged that the symbols on the buttons had rubbed off, making the choice of programme a matter of guess-work…

The reason I am complaining is that I had paid probably double what a lot of other passengers had paid. And they were the ones with the good seats – up front, or in the upstairs cabin. So, from a marketing point of view, what the airline does is give its lower-paying customers a double benefit. They get a substantial reduction in their ticket price and then they get to choose all the best seats.

So why pay full fare? What do you get for it? What is the airline offering its best customers, the business people who travel regularly and pay a chunk more than the once-off cut-price tourist? Can SAA explain?