Tag Archives: open research

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.