Open Access is the way to go for high-level research
To bridge the knowledge chasm and support high-level research academics or researchers need to have access to high-level research from across the world, writes Ellen Tise in the Sunday Independenton Sunday, 30 September.
However, due to a variety of factors, including political instability and a poor technological infrastructure, research advancement in Africa has been relegated to very low priority. In some African countries academics at tertiary institutions do not even have access to computers on which to work – South Africa is not exempt from this scenario. This gulf between those that have and those that don’t is proof that South Africa still has some way to go with regards to the equal distribution of resources.
This comparatively poor state of academic libraries in South Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. Deep below the water line is the dire state of school and public libraries. Research has shown that more than sixty percent of public schools do not have any form of a library. The under-resourced public libraries have to serve the dual role of school library and public library. South Africa has been described as having one of the weakest educational systems and much of this must be attributed to poor access to information. I fear that until children are empowered to access information via adequately equipped libraries, the education system in South Africa will remain problematic.
The educational systems in Africa are severely challenged with poor library systems to support foundation educational processes. These challenges are carried over to primary and secondary level education. Therefore, success at tertiary education demands greater access to information to fill the void created by a poor primary and secondary education system – access to information is imperative for tertiary education and research production.
Although one will find internet cafés in even remote destinations across Africa, these are not the places where researchers can be expected to do high level research. The rollout of fibre optic infrastructure and the Seacom-connection has made internet access much easier and more stable than before – improving the scope of access to information.
Dovetailing this fibre optic infrastructure is the mass roll-out of cellphone technology which has gone some way in empowering people including those from the poorest areas. The amalgamation of these technologies has vastly improved access to information. If one takes the example of the small farmer in the most inaccessible areas of Kenya, the farmer can have access to the latest market prices using cellphone technology. Indeed, huge progress has been made to empower the small business person, but it has not always been to the benefit of the researcher and the academic.
Bandwidth expansion and easy access to electronic media, has given millions of people access to information. However, this improved access via the many internet search engines, does not mean that the information is trusted and authoritative. Therefore, it is imperative that trusted and authoritative information be made available in forums that will breed new research.
This is why Open Access – which offers an alternative to the traditional publications process – is a viable option supporting improved research production in Africa.
Open Access makes use of the internet to provide unhindered access to scientific information. Open Access removes the financial barriers that have dogged access to end users. Stellenbosch University’s Library and Information Services is proud to be at the forefront of the open access movement in Africa. The University has lead the way in terms of its repository and having some of its research output published directly in forums that is accessible to anybody that has access to the internet. The University is also demonstrating its leadership role by hosting the Berlin 10 Open Access Conference in November this year – the first time that this prestigious event will be held on the African continent.
Further demonstration of the leadership role is the signing of the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities on October 2010. Stellenbosch University (SU) was the first institution in sub-Sahara Africa to sign the Declaration. This Declaration has its roots in the first gathering convened by the Max Planck Institute of Germany in 2003. The aim of the Institute and the European Cultural Heritage Online was to implement a new internet-based research environment through the application of open access principles. The meeting was attended by international experts in the field of research. The outcome of the meeting was the Berlin declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities.
Since then till now, a number of leading organisations have signed the the Declaration – including the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Chinese Academy of Science, Harvard University and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). For SU, signing the Declaration fitted in snugly with the HOPE Project through which societal challenges are addressed.
From the meeting of minds and experiences at the Berlin 10 conference, it is hoped that new strides can be taken to overcoming access challenges.
With improved access to information via Open Access platforms come concomitant challenges such as information technology literacy and ethical use of information. Libraries need to embrace Open Access and the challenges through equipping the researcher with the necessary skills to manipulate search strategies for the appropriate content. Given this possible glut of information, it is imperative that the user is educated in the ethical use of knowledge generated by another party. This means that the user has to credit the source text and the original researchers, and to understand the issues surrounding copyright and licensing.
One of the significant barriers to research production in Africa is the lack of access to trusted and authoritative information. Open Access has the capacity to bridge that void and to ensure the sharing of information between and among the North and the South. As much as Open Access is a conduit to bridge the void, it poses new challenges to libraries and researchers. There has to be a holistic view and all of the challenges must be viewed against the backdrop of Open Access being for the public good.
- Ellen Tise is Senior Director of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Library and Information Service. SU will in November host the 10th Annual Berlin Open Access Conference – the first time it will be held in Africa. Registration is already open at www.berlin10.org.