On the second day of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Open Access conference last week, the penny suddenly dropped. From the start, the signs were good – the conference...was, after all, focused on open access. The Chair of SARUA, Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University of Cape Town, the Botswana Minister of Education, J D Nkate and the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha, opened the conference with strong statements on the value of Open Access in their respective constituencies. This is echoed on the SARUA website which, unusually for a university association site, acknowledges the importance of disseminationas a core value and makes a clear statement of its commitment to Open Access both as one of its programme areas and as a core principle, as well as its policy for its own communications. The central statement is perhaps this:
Promoting Open Access for increased quality research, enhanced collaboration, and the sharing and dissemination of knowledge, is a central principle for SARUA’s work. The Association is already engaging with groups and networks of expertise and good practice locally and globally in order to support the development of Open Access benefits for HE.
At the conference, the comments of these opening speakers did not therefore appear to be glib statements of openness as a worthy value, but seemed firmly embedded in a recognition of the need to create equity for the developing world in its contribution to global knowledge. What emerged, particularly from Piyushi Kotecha, was a vision which could move SARUA universities on from the current post-colonial reliance on the North for standards for research competence, to a situation in which they could promote their own competence as knowledge producers. As Alma Swan commented later in the proceedings, she thought that, with hindsight, the Open Access movement should perhaps have named itself Open Dissemination, to get away from the implicit dependence on access to knowledge from the North-West that can sometimes emerge in development-speak. And it goes further than Open Access alone....
More connections emerged as Johannes Britz, echoing what Amanda Barrett had said, spoke of the importance of education as a human freedom, citing the unhappy statistics of education and research on the continent. He charted the difference between the old information world in which richness had to be sacrificed for the sake of wide reach and the new digital paradigms in which we can combine reach and richness. However, 80% of the world lives, he said, where infrastructure is lacking for unbundled,digital information and education is therefore dependent on physical objects such as books. He brought this down to a moral issue – the bread principle, as he called it. If we can make information and distribute it for a very marginal cost, then we have a new economic model that could serve those deprived of access to education. This is a moral imperative, but IP gets in the way. What also gets in the way is the excessively high cost of telecommunications in countries like South Africa and many other African countries. This means, he said, that the moral agenda becomes a money agenda. The bottom line, he argued, is that access to information is a basic human right and information infrastructure is fundamental to making access work.
This all suggests that in the context of higher education in southern Africa, open access, combined with innovative use of mobile technology and a recognition of the transformative potential of social networking, offers considerable potential to move research and teaching away from anachronistic hierarchical and locked-in models inherited from the colonial era. Open access can therefore mean not only improved research communications and a greater global contribution by African research, but the use of open education and social networking might offer great potential in under-resourced countries to provide access for greater numbers of students to a well-supported, relevant and effective higher education system.
The open access movement:
Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature
on the internet. Making it available free of charge and
free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Removing the barriers to serious research.