Opinion and Analysis

Open access publishing way to bridge the knowledge gap in higher education

Graduands during the 33rd Graduation Ceremony of Kenyatta University on December 14 2012. Open access publishing is set to give students in developing countries free access to local and global academic journals and research to boost their studies. Photo/File
Graduands during the 33rd Graduation Ceremony of Kenyatta University on December 14 2012. Open access publishing is set to give students in developing countries free access to local and global academic journals and research to boost their studies. Photo/File 

Good science should have no boundaries. That was the strong message from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European commissioner for research, last month at the Berlin 10 Open Access Conference at Stellenbosch University.

The significance of open access for Africa cannot be overstated. Recent available data reveals that only about 27,000 articles are published from the continent per annum—an equivalent to the Kingdom of Norway.

Similarly, Africa’s research output has declined by more than 30 per cent from its peak in the late 80s to less than one per cent of total global research at the start of this decade. To put it plainly, research output from Africa is negligible.

There is a confluence of factors behind such a marked decrease in research output, not least being the low wages paid to professors, the increasingly large number of students per classroom in public universities, and the general neglect of the tertiary sector by policy makers.

As a result, while Africa might be “rising,” a failure to improve research, promote and encourage publishing at its institutions of higher learning could place a ceiling to its level of development.

Poorly paid professors, when not engaged in other income generating activities are overwhelmed by the large sizes of their lecture halls, making it difficult to provide mentorship or encourage students to think beyond the classroom.

Since 1970, student population in institutions of higher learning has grown from about 200,000 to more than four million in 2007 — a growth rate of more than eight per cent per year, and twice the global average. This trend is likely to continue given Africa’s demographic pattern.

With marginal support from national governments, external financing accounts for more than 70 per cent of research funding. These donors inevitably determine what knowledge is generated in Africa and (most importantly) where it is published or disseminated.

Further, because of the nature of academic publishing, African researchers fortunate enough to secure funding for their programmes would rather publish in international journals as they have better reputations and generally higher impact factors.

The resulting effect is a virtual brain drain. African professors, struggling for earnings, have little time to conduct research, and the little research that is done gets sent overseas for publishing where — because of prohibitive access costs — it remains, enhancing foreign scholarly communities.

Local research output remains low and African students remain uninformed.

It does not have to be this way. Over the last decade the Open Access movement has gained a lot of momentum. Recent adoption of open access at large international institutions (the World Bank Group, UNESCO and the FAO), governments (UK, European Commission) as well as major research funders (Wellcome Trust) gives hope to hungry minds.

Through open access publishing students in developing countries — particularly those in Africa — can gain free unlimited access to research produced locally and internationally; academic publishers can publish articles at a much cheaper cost; African researchers can get published in local journals and the quality and accessibility of regional journals can improve.

Perhaps the most subtle benefit of open access publishing for African students is that it gives credence to a profession that is undervalued and ignored. A year ago while deciding whether or not to further my studies to the post-doctorate level, I searched for African professors working for our national universities and publishing locally — a space I sought to join.

It was not until I moved back to the continent and engaged with several academics that I understood why so few professors are able to conduct academic research.

Over the last two decades, development policy has (rightfully) focused on improving enrolment and completion rates in primary and secondary education.

Programmes such as the free primary education for all or conditional cash transfers for education are widespread across Africa.

Unfortunately, the planning of these programmes, did not foresee the large numbers of students at university level and investments in the tertiary sector have stagnated as a result.

The outcome is an anaemic university system where students are replicas of their professors and not encouraged to read and innovate.

While it is still not clear how the transition to open access will occur (green or gold) or who will foot the bill (authors, their institutions or both), this discussion should include developing countries — especially African — as they stand to gain the most if open access is implemented properly.

In anticipation of this transition, I have founded Hadithi — an online open access research library for African students. At Hadithi, we curate and aggregate open access research from institutional repositories worldwide.

Through our library, scholars can search and download research material in one place at no cost. Hadithi seeks to maximise the impact of academic research while engaging communities of learning and making societies critically conscious through increased access to quality academic information.

It is the responsibility of everyone, from parents to teachers, to ensure that our future generations have the right tools to remain relevant. Only then can the true force of innovation and creativity be harnessed.

Ms Angwafo is the founder and director of Hadithi and served as core staff at the chief economist for Africa’s office at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC.