The University of Namibia, through its Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is one of four universities in Southern Africa participating in the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme (SCAP), a three-year project aimed at increasing the publication of African research through harnessing the potential for scholarly communication in the digital age. The other universities are from Botswana, Cape Town and Mauritius. MOSES MAGADZA (MM) interviews HENRY TROTTER (HT), a researcher with SCAP at the University of Cape Town about the initiative.
MM: What is Open Access scholarly communication?
HT: “The formal exchange of research findings across the world takes place predominantly through scholarly journals. In the course of the 20th century, these journals were increasingly taken over by large commercial corporations. There have been very steep price increases in the cost of journal subscriptions, putting pressure on library budgets. African universities and African countries are placed at a particular disadvantage by these developments in two major ways.
One is that, given the financial problems of African universities, they cannot afford access to the major records of scholarship, and so fall behind their Northern counterparts. The other is that it is very difficult for African researchers to get published in a system that has a bias towards the interests of North America and Europe and so very little African scholarship gets published in the global literature. This disadvantage is further entrenched by the fact that scholars are rewarded and promoted and universities are recognised to a large extent, according to their levels of publication in this system, so it is deeply entrenched.
“Open Access scholarly publishing arose in reaction to this situation and also as a positive response to what the internet could offer in transforming collaboration and communication between scholars.
“Open Access publishing and communication has as its principle that the results of publicly funded research in particular and scholarship in general, should be made available free of charge and with minimum restriction on its use and reuse.”
MM: Where has Open Access scholarly communication taken root and what benefits has it brought about?
HT: “Open Access scholarly publishing first took root in a number of universities in the USA, the UK, Latin America and elsewhere, with universities setting up institutional open access repositories in which their scholars’ work could be posted and profiled. Other initiatives saw the creation of Open Access journals, both not-for-profit and commercial. This has meant a substantial increase in the amount of world scholarship freely available in African countries for scholars to build upon and share. In the last few years, OA has started to be taken up by governments and international organisations, from UNESCO, to the European Union, the UK and US governments, Argentina and others. Major universities like Harvard and Stanford have adopted OA policies. In the US, 25,000 people over the last few weeks have signed a petition to the White House asking for all government-funded research to be made OA.”
MM: What is the status of OA scholarly communication in Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular?
HT: “OA publishing has also created the potential for more African research to be made accessible across the world. In Africa, notable examples are in South Africa, where the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch are leading the way in Open Access institutional repositories and Open Access journal publishing. The Human Science Research Council set up an Open Access scholarly press that produced books on the social sciences that are available as free Open Access downloads or can be bought as printed books. These are being read in just about every country in the world. A number of African universities have set up OA repositories and African Journals Online is growing the number of African journals that are available. The advantages are much wider readership than can be achieved in print and subscription publications, higher impact and increased reputation for the scholars and universities concerned, and enhanced research collaboration, leading to less wastage and greater efficiencies.”
MM: What is being done, where and by whom to popularise OA scholarly communication in Southern Africa?
HT: “The Academy of Science of South Africa is involved in government-funded projects to advance Open Access journal and scholarly book publishing. Science councils like the HSRC and the CSIR in South Africa have adopted OA policies. A number of research units in our universities have long-standing informal policies and practices that involve popularising research communication for use by local communities and have built up considerable skills in this regard, with a tradition of open distribution of these outputs.”
MM: What are the barriers to Open Access scholarly communication and how can they be overcome?
HT: “The major barrier to OA is conservatism in our institutions and adherence to a system of recognition and reward that depends upon the big commercial publishers in the global North. Another, less recognised barrier, is the reluctance of universities and governments to give financial support to research communication, although this is slowly changing.”
MM: What difference would it make if all higher institutions of education embraced Open Access scholarly communication?
HT: “The first result would be that we would at last find out what research is really being done in Africa. Then the national and regional investment in research would be able to contribute to the resolution of the serious problems that we face, through availability of reliable information and the enhanced potential for collaboration leading to research advances and greater efficiency. Open Access to research findings has also been demonstrated to contribute to greater innovation and hence economic and employment growth. The ability to build the profile of African universities and their research would be considerably enhanced.”
MM: Recently you held a workshop at the University of Namibia. What would you say were the major outcomes of that workshop? Was it successful and what is the measurement of that success?
HT: “The University of Namibia workshop that we recently held lasted for one week, but was part of a three-year programme for the enhancement of African research communications. The Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme (SCAP), funded by the IDRC (of Canada) and run through the University of Cape Town led it. This workshop was the third to be held at Unam and it has had very positive outcomes. In a collaborative process, Unam has formulated a publishing and communication programme to be led by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences which could lead the way in profiling a university-wide scholarly communications strategy, supported by institutional policies.”