It is significant that the first cultural project selected for the New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD) has been the South Africa – Mali library project. This project is concerned with the neglected yet rich scholarly and literary history of Africa, focusing on the restoration of the Timbuktu manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba library and research into the scholarship that the manuscripts represent. At a fund-raising dinner in 2005, the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, asserted the symbolic importance of this project as a way for Africa to reclaim the voice of its own scholarship:
For our continent to take its rightful place in the history of humanity ... we need to undertake, with a degree of urgency, a process of reclamation and assertion. We must contest the colonial denial of our history and we must initiate our own conversations and dialogues about our past. We need our own historians and our own scholars to interpret the history of our continent.
If one looks at the current state of research publication in African countries, it is clear that what President Mbeki says here about history is true also of a broader and persistent marginalisation of African knowledge - particularly of scholarship about Africa, produced in Africa. Globally, research dissemination takes place within a system that has been in place for around the last 100 years, which has come to be dominated by increasingly commercialised (and increasingly expensive) journals and by scholarly books produced in the USA and Europe in a globally unbalanced 'publish or perish' scholarly market.
This publication takes place within a generally unquestioned value system in which quality is measured by publication impact in an international arena in which scholars and publishers from Africa are unequal players in the global research economy. For example, the leading international index in which journal publication is valued, the ISI, aims to index the limited range of journal literature that asserts a disproportionate influence, on the assumption that a relatively small group of journals -- or body of knowledge – will account for the most important and influential research in any field. The UK-based International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), while it prides itself on listing a substantial percentage of journals from outside the UK, nevertheless values them (through an Editorial Board consisting overwhelmingly of UK academics and none at all from developing countries) according to their relevance to UK scholars and libraries. These criteria tend to marginalise research knowledge from the periphery, research that does not address the mainstream interests of scholarship in the US and Europe and also work to disadvantage disciplines that have particular local relevance rather than more generalised global appeal.
Add to this the physical difficulties and the cost of distributing print materials from the developing world into dominant US and UK markets, as well as the difficulty of getting these publications accepted by the major libraries, and it becomes clear that the very criteria that the developing world uses for its traditional-model scholarly output are those that contribute also to its marginalisation in the global arena. Even more damaging is the potential for the distortion of research agendas – if scholars are to receive promotion and financial reward for publications that conform to US and UK research agendas, then research topics that might contribute vitally to local development issues risk marginalisation. Moreover, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on the assumption that overseas standards are better, in which local publications, perceived to be of poorer quality, do in fact often come to be of poorer quality, starved as they are of recognition, support and resources.
My International Policy Fellowship project is concerned with this research divide. The project aims to map the complex and often contradictory policy environment surrounding research publication in South Africa and other African countries. These policies tend to work in two directions: one for the leveraging of research to deliver national development goals – to which the South African government appears to be ready to allocate substantial resources - the other for the recognition and reward of scholarly publication. In particular, the project will research the question of whether countries like South Africa and its African neighbours can start to turn around this global knowledge divide using electronic media and the Open Access publishing approaches currently taking hold across the world. Open Access uses the reach and lower publication costs of Internet publishing through a philosophy that builds on the idea of a knowledge commons, on research as a public good, rather than on subscription based or for-sale publication. In this, Open Access aims to take scholarly publishing back to the values of collaboration and shared knowledge development that characterised the first journals, produced by the Royal Society in the 17th century.
In the words of the Budapest Initiative:
An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.
Given that conventional scholarly publishing models have been signally unsuccessful for countries in Africa, could South Africa and other African countries take up the challenge issued by Gilberto Gil at a the recent iCommons conference in Rio and leapfrog from the 19th to the 21st centuries, using new technologies and cutting edge 21st century thinking?
The Fellowship project focuses on the Social Sciences and the Humanities, for two major reasons. One is that, when it comes to research dissemination and the impact of research on development goals, the social sciences tend to have particular importance. This is articulated in the major policy documents relating to South Africa's Innovation Plan. For example, the NRF, in its 2006/07-2008/09 Business Plan, Creating a Sustainable Network of Research and Innovation, says that 'wealth-producing innovation does not occur in a vacuum. It is intimately linked to the whole of society becoming more creative, more inter-connected and exhibiting more solidarity. .. More wealth does not lead to a better society. For this, social innovation is required.' The second reason for the focus on the social sciences rather than the hard sciences is that, in spite of statements like that cited above, the policy literature -- and policy implementation plans - tend to revert very rapidly into a the discourse of science and technology innovation. The major Open Access initiatives internationally have, up until now, been largely SET-based, with South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council functioning as probably the major international case study of successful Open Access social science research publication.
For a country like South Africa, at the start of the 21st century, facing as it does a challenging transition from its apartheid past and engaging in wide-ranging political, social and economic transformation, knowledge is – even more than the norm - a vital resource for growth and development. The fact that South Africa is a 'middle developing economy', a developing country with a relatively highly developed technical and industrial infrastructure, makes this challenge potentially more rewarding, as the ability to leverage knowledge for development is that much higher than in many other poorer countries. Add to that the commitment of South African policy-makers to the importance of a regional development role in the context of NEPAD and it becomes clear that the research knowledge produced in the public universities in South Africa is potentially an extremely valuable asset indeed.
The question asked in this research project is whether policies for research dissemination and the transfer of knowledge are working effectively to ensure that the research undertaken in the country has maximum impact on national and regional development goals and on the position of the country and the region in the global knowledge economy. Could Open Access dissemination overcome the barriers that currently inhibit the effective dissemination of research knowledge and its impact on development? What would the sustainability models be, and what practical publication and dissemination strategies would work most effectively? And, finally, would these findings be transferable into other, less well resourced, African countries, to provide a sustainable model for effective and high quality research publication?
When it comes to public policy, South Africa, as a result of the challenges it has faced in the last decade, has become something of a policy factory. From the start of the new democracy, the South African government has faced an avalanche of policy demands created by the need to redress more than 40 years of apartheid. In higher education, the relevant government departments have faced the challenge not only of rebuilding university structures distorted by the impact of apartheid ideology, but also of trying to create a research framework that could help create 'a new generation of researchers able to deal with the needs of both South Africa and the African continent.' A number of policy initiatives have been undertaken in pursuit of this goal over the last decade, involving a variety of government departments and national agencies – principally the Department of Education, the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation. The higher education institutions and their national associations have in their turn responded to these policy initiatives and have formulated their own institutional policies in response to the changed environment.
The major initiatives in this regard are the Department of Education's National Plan for Higher Education , stressing redress of past inequalities as well as responsiveness and relevance to local social and economic needs, and the National Innovation System being piloted by the Department of Science and Technology as a framework for research delivery and being delivered through the NRF. Cutting across these development-based policies is the Department of Education's Policy and Procedures for the Measurement of Research Output of Public Higher Education Institutions. This policy, while articulating a developmental strategic objective: 'to sustain current research strengths and to promote research and other knowledge outputs required to meet national development needs' nevertheless bases its subsidy for research output on the conventional international value system outlined above. Given that the latter policy constitutes the main financial stream for universities, their own research publication policies tend to endorse the 'publish or perish' syndrome, while their overall research policy favours more broadly developmental goals.
Although there is little sign yet of any government-level policy approaches to Open Access for research publication and dissemination, this is increasingly being discussed at institutional level. With the adoption of Open Access publication by the Human Sciences Research Council, the start of a major review of its knowledge dissemination policies by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the publication of the report on a review of journal publishing in South Africa, Report on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa, undertaken by the Academy of Science of South Africa for the Department of Science and Technology, and recommending Open Access repositories and journals, the time seems right for this IPF project.
The Thompson Scientific Journal Selection Process, http://scientific.thomson.com/free/essays/selectionofmaterial/journalselection/ ; Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), Report on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa. Pretoria 2006.
National Research Foundation (NRF), NRF Business Plan 2006/7-2008/9: creating a sustainable network of research and innovation. Pretoria 2006.