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Peter Kuthan / AZFA
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« on: July 04 2013 »

Open access initiatives help African countries to face development challenges.
by Lucy Browse, Sioux Cumming, Susan Murray

Initiatives in Africa to open up access to research results are helping countries there face development challenges and bridge the knowledge gap with industrialised countries.

The ability to access relevant research results is essential for countries to solve the many development challenges they face. This is particularly true in the South, where the need for sustainable agriculture to feed a growing population and other development challenges require policies and action designed for local situations and needs. Initiatives such as the Journals Online project, African Journals Online and Research4Life, and conscious efforts to develop open access policies, as the University of Nairobi in Kenya has done, are the first steps in bridging the knowledge gap between industrialised and developing countries.

Two-way street

Developing countries will only fully integrate into the knowledge economy if they also become producers of research and not just receivers of international ‘knowledge’. This belief is what prompted the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) to set up a pilot project called African Journals Online in 1998 to promote the awareness and digital use of African scientific articles. Africa Journals Online has grown into a platform, both subscription-based and open access, for over 400 journals published in Africa. These journals represent vital channels for sharing locally generated research, and exploring their role and prospects for survival is crucial.

Building on the success of Africa Journals Online, INASP then established the Journals Online project that broadened the scope to include journals from Latin America and countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Mongolia. The project helps journals in developing countries, which are often only available in print, to get online to increase their visibility and accessibility. By the end of 2012, the INASP project counted 240 journals with almost 20,000 articles, of which 88% were open access. There have been over 12.6 million downloads since 2007.

The online journals managed by INASP are multi-disciplinary. However, a key focus is agriculture and related issues such as food security, ecology, and agricultural by-products like foods, fibres, fuels and raw materials. Modern developments in agricultural chemistry and engineering, together with urbanisation, are affecting the kind of research being undertaken in this area. A strong domestic and regional publishing community in developing countries would cover issues that journalists from the North might tend to overlook – strategies to deal with the impact of climate change on subsistence agriculture in resource-poor, rural areas is an obvious example.

Freely accessible information on research results for a wide readership without the obstacle of a paywall makes it possible to achieve practical improvements in the field. Clearly, for developing countries research results in agricultural matters are crucial for development (see box, which shows the percentage of open access journals in the Journals Online system).

The Kenyan example

The availability of open access resources will undoubtedly result in many positive developments, not least the opportunity for materials to be reused and distilled into the kinds of practical reference tools that practitioners need. However, simply opening access is unlikely to generate the kind of change that can drive development on its own.

A 2010 study on access to research results in East and Southern African universities by Jonathan Harle, programmes manager at the UK-registered Association of Commonwealth Universities, showed that making research freely available does not necessarily mean that it will be used effectively. Open access is most effective when married with academic literacy training, effective signposting, a research culture that supports critical thinking and government policies that advocate the value of research in development and innovation at a national level.

The open access policy established by the University of Nairobi in Kenya is a powerful example of an effective government, organisational and institutional cross-sector approach to open access. It began when the government introduced performance contracts in the public sector in Kenya in 2005, including at the university and its library. The contract essentially set targets that would hold the public agency, in this case the university, accountable for its performance.

The university began to develop an open access strategy to draw attention to the research it produced. It had its library set up a training programme in 2009 for students and academic staff to create awareness of open access and train them how to use electronic resources to find freely available academic articles – and this became a target in the performance contract.

Two staff members of the university library then set up a digital repository at the university together with the ICT department. By December 2012, the university had adopted an official open access policy that has had a substantial impact on other institutions outside the University of Nairobi, who are now developing their own open access strategies. The Kenyan government has even declared access to information a universal human right.

Other initiatives

Many other initiatives have been established to help address research information needs and give researchers and academics in developing countries access to online academic articles that formerly would have been behind expensive paywalls. These include Research4Life, which is the collective name for AGORA (agriculture), HINARI (medicine and health) OARE (environmental science) and ARDI (technology and innovation), four public–private partnerships that aim to provide the developing world with access to critical scientific research.

INASP runs a suite of programmes designed to strengthen research capacity in developing countries. This includes enabling them to purchase cost-effective subscriptions to international scholarly journals and supporting efforts to develop the skills of librarians, researchers, ICT staff and journal editors. In fact, the resources made available via these access initiatives have been joined by a growing number of open access resources in recent years, which have full texts available online at no cost to the reader. These include those listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals, the Directory of Open Access Repositories, the Directory of Open Access Books and in 2013 the launch of Open Access Theses and Dissertations.

Africa Journals Online will be conducting a survey in 2013 on the current state of scholarly publishing in sub-Saharan Africa to evaluate whether it should remain partly subscription-based or join open access, online journals from other countries around the world. The survey also aims to increase awareness of the realities and complexities of being a publisher in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the future, perhaps the most important way of ensuring that open access developments can truly benefit people in developing countries is by fully including them in global discussions so they can voice their own needs– for example exploring the impact that article processing charges might have and the potentially different needs of humanities and social science research compared to science, technical and medical. Open access developments are positive on the whole. There are more and more examples of the constructive impact open access can have – so the next step is to build on these and keep up the momentum.


Lucy Browse is programme manager of publisher relations, negotiation and licensing at INASP (www.inasp.info) in Oxford, UK, and director of Publishers for Development, a forum in the United Kingdom on the importance of access to information for development.
Sioux Cumming is programme officer in the publishing support department at INASP.
Susan Murray is managing director of African Journals Online (www.ajol.info) in Grahamstown, South Africa.


Related links

Research4Life: www.research4life.org

INASP: www.inasp.info

Directory of Open Access Journals: www.doaj.org

Directory of Open Access Repositories: www.opendoar.org

Directory of Open Access Books: www.doabooks.org

Open Access Theses and Dissertations: www.oatd.org
27 June 2013
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