Tag Archives: DST

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.

Draft Bill for IPR in Publicly Funded Research (still open for comment) – a publishing perspective

Those academics and researchers who have been away on vacation might not know that a Draft Bill on IPR in Publicly Funded Research was released for comment
a few weeks ago. The deadline for comment was very short – some ten days in the middle of the holidays. The contents of the Bill are dire – I have not spoken to anyone who is happy with what it says. For those newly returned to the treadmill, I posted blogs on the Bill on the 5
and 13th of July. The blog of 12 July describes some of the provisions of the Bill. Basically, it sets up a system in which any research that has patent potential must be submitted to the university IPR Office and all intellectual property rights (including all copyrights connected with the invention) are ceded to the university. If the university does not want to take a patent on the
research, then the rights go to the government. Worse, the Bill requires any research that might conceivably at some stage, be patentable, to be treated the same way. More, it requires all publications (which, the lawyers tell me, could include blogs and websites as well as formal publications) to be screened by the university IPR office before they can be published, just i case they might reveal something patentable. And then, if an employee of the university fails to report a piece of research that is patentable, she is subject to disciplinary procedures (and employees include students) But there is even more than this – go and read it.

At the very last moment, on the closing day for comment on this Bill, the deadline for comment was extended until 20 August. Not much consolation for colleagues who has worked through the night and lost two weekends working on replies, but a good thing nevertheless. The Bill has very serious implications for any South African researchers so, now that the university term has started, I hope that a greater number of you will become aware of it and let your universities – and the DST – know how this might affect your research.

As a publisher, I am concerned that this Bill, if enacted, could impact very negatively on scholarly publication. I find it hard to imagine how any university could cope with screening every publication before it can be submitted to a publisher or conference organiser. And, knowing how we all work to tight deadlines, I think that the need to write in several weeks of extra time before being able to submit any journal or conference paper could be a nightmare. Then, if the lawyers are right and the definition of ‘publication’ includes blogs and discussion forums, then even informal research communications would have to be screened. The potential costs are substantial – every publication would have to be read by an expert who would be able to discern if there is a potential patent hidden in the publication concerned. And screening would include not only the publications that are ultimately accepted, but also the very large number that are rejected. The university would have to become, at great expense, a very Big Brother, and all spontaneity in communication between researchers would be stifled. In a world in which collaborative research has become a necessity, this would be a serious backward drag on the very publication output that we are trying to expand.

Here is a comment from Dr Alma Swan, of Key Perspectives, a highly regarded consultancy in scholarly communications with a long list of very prominent clients, from the UK government and the European Union to the Public Library of Science and the Nature Publishing Group. She holds posts at Warwick Business School, and in the School of Electronics & Computer Science and the School of Management at the University of Southampton. Her comments are acerbic – she says that she was
having an irritable day, but I think she was entitled to this, given the content of this Bill:

Far from helping SA science and technology this Bill has the potential to slow it to walking pace while every article is checked for patent potential. How truly bizarre. Still, good news for South Africa’s competitors.

If I were an (international) funder I would steer clear of funding any SA research under this set of conditions. It will be a slowdown for OA, though presumably just a slowdown: it will hold up deposit and publication while each article is cleared. .The primary losers will be SA’s scientists, whose work gets held up when it is ready for publication – could mean the difference between being the first to publish on something or losing the race to someone else. At the very least, delaying publication means delayed impact, which is important to individuals (perhaps seeking jobs, tenure, etc) and certainly for the country. It seems a very odd development.

Given Alma’s status in the international world of scholarly communication, I would take this comment seriously.

The State of the Nation 2: Clashing paradigms in South African research publication policy

When I set out to explore the policy framework for scholarly publishing in South Africa, I did so with a burning question that I have carried over from my publishing career.Given the scenario that I sketched in my last posting, in which African voices are largely silenced by the conventions of global scholarly publication, what I would be looking for would be national policies that would grow the output and effective dissemination of African research in and from Africa, for African development, in the most appropriate media and formats. A publisher’s approach would be to look at the goals articulated in national higher education and research policy and then ask whether policy for research dissemination is encouraging publications that support those goals.

What I found was that there is strange clash of paradigms within the different policy documents and, more starkly, between the policies of different government departments.Before I get too critical of these illogicalities, I need to stress that South African policy is not unusual in this regard. Worldwide,discussion of research dissemination is a blind spot. As the authors of an Australian government report on research communication costs put it:’despite billions of dollars being spent by governments on R&D every year, relatively little policy attention has yet been paid to the dissemination of the results of that research through scientific and scholarly publishing’.

Effective dissemination of higher education research and the availability of that research knowledge to the country that funds it – particularly in Africa – can be quite literally of life and death importance. Just think of the need for rapid responses to the AIDS pandemic, continually informed by the latest research findings. Yet when the question of publication and effective dissemination arises in the policy documents, it tends to be in terms of a generally unchallenged set of presumptions about what constitutes effective research dissemination – articles in accredited scholarly journals and registered patents. And, while universities might spend large sums of money registering patents,there is a tacit assumption that publication is not something that universities pay for. This is, in part, what Joseph J Esposito in a recent article on university presses in LOGOS and the Journal of Electronic Publishing calls ‘ the free rider syndrome. A university must provide for students and faculty and will actively encourage faculty to publish, but a press can be stinted because because it is always possible that a particular book will be published somewhere else.’

The major policy framework for higher education research in South Africa is the research and innovation policy developed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).Starting with a background report commissioned from the IDRC in 1995, the department consolidated these findings in a White Paper on Science and Technology in 1996 and then updated this in South Africa’s Research and Development Strategy in 2002. To summarise somewhat brutally; the common theme across these policies is that South African research must address national development needs and contribute to employment and economic growth. The emphasis is on the value of collaborative and inter-disciplinary research in a rapidly-changing technological environment. While attention is paid to the need to build the international reputation of South African research, this is balanced out by a developmental focus that insists on a responsiveness to national need

As far as intellectual property is concerned, the Research and Development Strategy articulates the need to address the challenges posed by new technologies, and the question of biotechnology and indigenous knowledge. ‘International thinking on legislation is as fluid and fast-moving as the new technologies themselves’, there port comments. ‘We need to develop competencies as a matter of urgency or face exploitation and marginalisation with respect to our own resources. A clear approach to intellectual property that arises from publicly funded research is required’ (DACST 2002:22). However, the subsequent discussion of IP issues is far from clear,veering between recognition of the importance of public access and ‘appreciation of the value of intellectual property as an instrument of wealth creation in South Africa’ (68). These contradictions are not resolved in the strategy document and indeed legislative reform and policy formation concerning access and copyright have been in suspension in South Africa for some time.

If I were to hypothesise the outcome of these recommendations, as a publisher, I would look for a research dissemination policy that addressed the real needs of a country in a state of radical transformation, that incorporated the potential offered by new methods of knowledge dissemination, and that made provision for arange of publishing outputs to meet the needs of different audiences and constituencies. I would look for a focus on national, rather than international, dissemination in the first instance, to ensure that research findings could have the required impact. I would also look for funding mechanisms to support knowledge dissemination and for policies for public access. Lastly, I would look for an awareness of the potential for new dissemination models based on the advantages offered by new communication technologies to deliver effective research dissemination in the service of radically increased development impact.

This is, however, far from being the case. In a generally enlightened policy environment, publication is the Cinderella that is left abandoned in a dark 20th century kitchen. The White Paper on Science and Technology stresses the importance of developments in ICT. However, read in the context of the whole document, particularly when it comes to discussion of research dissemination, one begins to wonder if the global information revolution being spoken of here is not a matter of information technology minus the information that it is designed to transmit. In other words, the generally technocratic approach of the White Paper does not grapple with the need to communicate and transmit research information in order to achieve maximum impact. It is as if a pipeline is being designed and developed without the provision of the water that will run through it. This carries through into later policy documents so that,startlingly, dissemination and research outputs appear only as a matter of mechanical counts: the number of reports, journal articles and other publications, and patents registered.

It has been left to the Department of Education (DoE), then – at least thus far – to articulate more detailed policy on research publication. The DoE focused on the creation of an overarching policy initiative for higher education reform in South Africa : the formation of the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in1994, which framed the discussion that ultimately led to the White Paper on Higher Education (1997) and the National Plan on Higher Education (NPHE) (2001). The policy-making process was characterised by wide-ranging discussion and debate, with an emphasis on consultation and transparency. Here, again, the framing discourse was developmental and the key issues were equity,diversity, redress and the creation of research strength.

Preliminary remarks in the NPHE on research and research dissemination sound encouraging: a strategic objective is ‘to promote the kinds of research and other knowledge outputs required to meet national development needs and which will enable the country to become competitive in a new global context’ (NPHE:60). The document complained of a lack of coherent policy on research outputs,promising policy development to address this issue. It raised the need to respond to the global transformation of knowledge dissemination through ICTs and talked of the need to build networks to fuel the growth of an innovation culture (NPHE:61). The problems identified are those of declining research publication output and the dominance of ageing white researchers as authors of publications.

When the Department of Education delivered the promised policy on research dissemination in 2003, in its Policy for Measurement of Research Output, it did pay lip service, in its preliminary comments, to the need ‘to sustain current research strengths and to promote research and other outputs required to meet national development needs’. However, the policy document then goes on to spell out a ‘publish or perish’ reward system that recognises and rewards peer reviewed publication in journals appearing in the ISI and IBSS indexes and a somewhat problematic list of locally-indexed journals, in part inherited from the apartheid era.Although peer reviewed books and conference proceedings accepted by an evaluation panel are also rewarded, they appear to have a lesser weighting in terms of financial rewards.

The wording of the policy insists on ‘originality’, rather than tackling the implications of the collaborative research approaches recommended in the research policy framework. The target audience of these publications is identified as ‘other specialists in the field’,therefore rewarding individual rather than collaborative effort and dissemination within the scholarly community rather than the wider dissemination that would be needed to deliver the development goals of the R&D and Innovation policy framework. In other words, the policies framing rewards for research publication remain firmly in a collegial tradition in which the purpose of scholarly communication is turned inwards into the academy. The system is related to personal advancement in academe and the prestige of scholars and institutions in the international rankings rather than grappling with what it might mean to couple this with gearing research dissemination towards broader social goals.

The fact that the DoE rewards the delivery of these publication targets with substantial financial grants means that the drive towards publication outputs in higher educational institutions focuses almost obsessively on the production of journal articles in accredited journals, with international journals carrying higher prestige than local journals. Given the ever-rising cost of commercial journals, over-stretched library budgets and a weak exchange rate, this can mean, particularly for the less well-resourced universities, that a good deal of South African research is not readily accessible to South African scholars, let alone the community at large.

Moreover, the long delay before publication, the outcome of the peer reviewing process and the way the journals are assembled means that journal information is all too often a matter of record – the history of an achievement rather than currently useful information.This is particularly the case in fast-changing technologies, but is no less the case in the human and social sciences, where the information being transmitted could often meet an urgent need, for example in dealing with the social impact of HIV AIDS, environmental crises, or with violence against women and children.

There are signs of hope that this impasse can be overcome. In there cent survey of scholarly publishing conducted by the Academy of Science of South Africa and commissioned by the DST, there is a clear commitment to boosting the quality and impact of local publication and to Open Access. South Africa is a signatory to the OECD Declaration on Access to Knowledge from Publicly Funded Research and this is tagged in the DST policy documentation as an area to bead dressed. I will write more on this in a subsequent posting.