Access barriers relegating Africa to invisible research contributor

8th November 2012 By: Jean McKenzie - Creamer Media Feature Reporter

The growth of research in Africa and the ability to find solutions to the continent’s problems will remain limited if African academic libraries continued to have restricted access to official research information, Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said on Wednesday.

The expense of many academic journals, particularly in science and medicine, limited countries’ access to essential research information.

“Access barriers sometimes even result in critical, relevant knowledge and research outputs generated in Africa being published in journals overseas, journals that are not affordable to African academic libraries,” he said at the Berlin 10 Open Access Conference, in Stellenbosch.

Recent examples of this were the publication of the discovery of the Australopithecus sediba fossil in the journal Science and the recent breakthrough in HIV research by the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

“This means that Africa is, in fact, deprived of its own knowledge production, relegating the continent to the status of silent and invisible contributor to research output,” Hanekom lamented.

But he believed that the adoption of open access principles to allow scientific information to be more freely available on the Internet and by removing the financial barriers to accessing scientific information “is one of the most progressive ways of growing and showcasing African research”.

The Berlin 10 Open Access conference being held in Stellenbosch was based on a concept initiated in 2003 by the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science to actively promote the Internet as a medium for disseminating research findings and global knowledge through the application of open access principles.

The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was subsequently signed by many scientific, research and cultural institutions internationally pledging them to make scientific knowledge and cultural heritage freely accessible. Stellenbosch University was the first African institution to sign the declaration and with its institutional repository, SUNscholar, provided one of the leading open access academic platforms internationally. It was thus fitting that Stellenbosch University was also the first African institution to the host the conference.

However, Hanekom warned that open access platforms should not mean a reduction in the quality and value of scientific publications.

“Associated with the established commercial publications process is a systematic peer review system, whose essential contribution to quality assurance of scientific output must be maintained as a cornerstone of the global science system. The move to open access publishing will need to ensure that this highly systematised and valued function is not undermined, especially in light of the vast volumes of completely unvetted claims and reports that are awash on the Internet,” he said.

“So, I think it’s finding the appropriate balance in creating a policy framework that gets the best but protects the users from what could be the worst.”

With growth in Internet and broadband accelerating in Africa, Hanekom said he believed that it was the right time to be having this dialogue about open access in South Africa. “Over the last decade Internet use on the continent has grown at a staggering 2 000%, well over the global average of 480%. But while the wave of Africa’s development in terms of economy, growth and other social indicators moves forward, we need to ensure that education and science do not get left behind,” he said.

South Africa would also need to be a strong proponent of the concept of open access in order to ensure the success specifically of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. “Through the SKA, scientists from all over the world will collaborate in trying to unravel the mysteries of our universe. Information will need to be shared around the clock between Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas [and] open-access literature will be key to the success of this project,” he said.