During the first week of November, South Africa was host to two major Open Access meetings: Open Access Africa (#OAAfrica2012), an event sponsored by BioMed Central and hosted by the University of Cape Town from November 4-5, and Berlin 10 (#Berlin10SA), hosted by Stellenbosch University from November 6-8, 2012. Approximately 150 delegates attended the Open Access Africa meeting, and nearly 270 delegates participated in Berlin 10. Collectively, the two meetings covered Open Access issues in great depth, breadth, and scope. This article is the first in a series and focuses on issues of OA publishing that were raised during both meetings. Part 2 is available here, Part 3 of the series is available here.
Open Access Publishing: Implications and Challenges for Africa
One of the themes highlighted in various ways at both meetings was that of Open Access publishing, particularly in terms of implications and challenges for African researchers, authors, and publishers. During Open Access Africa, Susan Murray from African Journals Online (AJOL) discussed the journal publishing environment in Africa. Murray started with a 2005 quote from Francoise Salager-Meyer: “Science, technology and publication form a triad which is essential for the survival of developing nations,” leading to her point that it is imperative for developing nations to be able to support and sustain their own, locally-produced journals.
Murray explained that within Africa, there is a wide range of types of journals — the environment is anything but homogeneous – and so it is difficult to make generalizations. However, one of the major categories of journal publishers includes “scholar journals,” i.e., academics who publish a journal in their field on top of their primary professional responsibilities. Most often, these are not professional publishers. Rather, they are academics who are trying to run a journal in their spare time, without professional training.
Murray noted that considering the challenges, these scholar journals are doing an outstanding job, however the challenges are tremendous. She mentioned the perceived importance among many academics of the need for publications to have a “finessed” appearance – but most of these journal publishers lack skills in formatting, layout, and typesetting. Many lack technical skills that are necessary to make journal platforms interoperable with current technical standards. Furthermore, many authors write in English, although it is their second or third language, yet few of these journals have language editors or editing services. The result, Murray explained, is that the journals themselves as well as authors go overseas for publishing services, which is a missed opportunity for the continent.
Murray presented several action items that collectively would promote and advance the African publishing ecosystem, or as she explained, could “unleash an African publishing lion.” Within the publishing industry, she argued for establishing indicators to determine journal quality. SURF is looking at establishing what these journal quality indicators could be – for instance, transparency of journal mastheads and the peer-review process. Once the quality criteria is established, journal editors will then need to be made aware of these criteria. Authors, editors, and reviewers need skills development and training in general for various aspects of publishing in today’s networked environment, for instance, training in selecting and applying Creative Commons licenses. Publishing aggregators need to support small journals by providing additional service layers – aggregating journals to improve visibility, provide support for altmetrics, support interoperability, provide usage data, etc. All of this work will require tremendous cooperation, collaboration, and partnerships, particularly throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
In a separate presentation also at Open Access Africa, Marcel Hommel shared some insights and lessons learned from his experiences serving as Editor-in-Chief of Malaria Journal, an OA journal published by BioMed Central. Malaria Journal was created in 2001 as an electronic-only, entirely open journal. The journal publishes articles from across various disciplines all related to a single disease.
Much of Hommel’s talk focused on implications of OA publishing for local African journals. He noted that in 2009, over 90% of mortality due to malaria occurs in Africa, yet only 52 articles – or 2% of the 2586 articles published that year about malaria – were published in African journals, raising the question of whether this paradox has negative implications for African journals. He suggested that young scientists or doctors wanting to publish their first papers or case studies often send their papers to professional specialist journals, regional journals that are often not published in English, and national journals – and that it is important that Open Access not destroy these types of publications.
Hommel continued to talk about the need for national and regional journals, explaining that they contribute to the overall framework of academic life. In addition, “authors are often more interested in their work being seen by colleagues nationally, in their own language, than in international journals.” Finally, “all data do not necessarily justify publication in an international journal, but they may be of quality and local interest.” He ended by suggesting that instead of destroying these local journals, Open Access publishing has the potential to encourage their development.
An Open Access Agenda for the African Context?
During the second day of Open Access Africa, Omonhinmin A. Conrad, who coordinates the Open Access Nigeria program from Covenant University (Nigeria), started the day by raising several provocative questions and issues related to Open Access in Africa. He noted his concern that Africa is being left out and suggested that Open Access advocates work to eliminate barriers including:
- Poor funding: are there funds for OA in the African context? Should funds be spent to promote and support OA or to promote and support research in general?
- Inaccessibility and poor dissemination of information: what truly is access? Are the means there to achieve accessibility? Does availability imply accessibility? How do we improve access and awareness?
- Poor understanding of OA by governments: Where is the support for OA by African governments and by regional bodies such as the African Union? How do we get our governments to embrace OA in a productive way? How do we foster productive partnerships? What concrete actions are being taken by African governments to handle the OA issues?
Conrad continued to reiterate comments raised by earlier presenters including Murray and Hommel about how OA might affect African journals. He asked, “Will [Open Access] escalate an already worrisome dependency on non-African journals by Africans? If the visibility of poorer journals in African that are already starved of funds decreases, will it not mean closure for these journals?” Furthermore, will OA widen the international vs. local journal divide? He asked, “How will African journals and institutions catch up, as OA becomes a major index in impact factor and webliometric rankings?”
He ended by encouraging delegates to consider defining an African agenda for OA. He asked, “What is the African agenda? How committed is everyone here to OA goals? How do we go from this conference to concrete ways of improving OA interactions?”
Leveraging OA to Support Science
While not specific to the African context, Matthew Cockerill from BioMed Central presented at Berlin 10 ways in which publishers have been able to leverage Open Access to eliminate barriers between disciplines. He noted that “under Open Access, research benefits from cross-fertilization with ideas from other areas.” In addition to malaria research, Cockerill explained that other fields of science such as veterinary research, sports science, biotechnology, and flavour research all have been badly served by traditional models of publishing. Open Access publishing has made it possible for cross-disciplinary subjects to develop and launch their own OA publications or to reinvigorate small, highly-specialized technical journals.
Furthermore, Open Access makes it possible to develop new ways to curate research. For example, BioMed Central is in the process of launching a new product, CasesDatabase – a database that will bring together thousands of cases from all medical disciplines. “Text mining enables convenient filtering by diagnosis, treatment, patient age” – which will enable researchers and medical doctors to search for and review relevant cases that meet a certain set of criteria. The database will include case reports published in BioMed Central journals and from other publishers where allowable under Creative Commons licensing schemes.
Throughout both meetings, malaria was a popular example. Tom Olijhoek, a scientific advisor for tropical disease research, presented at Open Access Africa and discussed how MalariaWorld, a community of researchers studying malaria, was able to capitalize on the growing body of Open Access literature. He explained that “access to information is not enough; we need to organize information and make it usable.” He encouraged the OA community to look at MalariaWorld as a potential model for what kinds of services the OA community could provide. Members of the MalariaWorld community work together to collect, curate, and organize data related to malaria and develop new tools to support research. One such tool, BibSoup, allows researchers to collect citations to articles on a particular topic and provide links to full-text articles when available. But in addition to serving as a bibliographic management tool, it also allows researchers to analyze and create visualizations from the body of literature. For example, members of the MalariaWorld community have used BibSoup to answer the question “how open is malaria research?” Examples of visualizations are included in Olijhoek’s presentation.
This is the first post in a series highlighting some of the major issues and themes raised during the 2012 Open Access Africa and Berlin 10 meetings. Additional posts will highlight the policy environment, the changing university environment, and students and Open Access. Slides from both meetings have been posted to their respective websites — click on session titles from within each meeting’s programme. Click here for the Open Access Africa programme or the Berlin 10 programme. Podcasts from several Berlin 10 sessions are also available.