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Open Access Comes To Africa

South Africa Hosts Berlin 10 Conference

by Britt E. Erickson
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51


Open Access Comes To Africa

Hundreds of scholars gathered in Stellenbosch, South Africa, last month to build a stronger case for making the results of scientific research freely accessible worldwide. Calling scientific knowledge the motor of economic development, delegates to the international gathering, the Berlin 10 Conference on Open Access, urged scientists to radically change how they evaluate and communicate their work.

The Berlin conference, an annual event first held in 2003 in Berlin, aims to raise momentum for increased access to the scholarly literature. This year’s meeting, Berlin 10, was held for the first time in Africa. It attracted more than 265 participants from 37 countries, including 16 African countries.

Berlin 10 focused on removing financial barriers that limit access to the scholarly literature, particularly for academic institutions in Africa. Open-access advocates encouraged African higher education institutions to develop institutional repositories and become independent digital academic publishers so they can distribute the work of their own scholars without the limits imposed by commercial publishers.

“Academic libraries, especially those in Africa, have limited access to critical research information. This stifles the growth of African research and its capacity to find solutions to the plethora of problems confronting the continent,” Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s minister of science and technology, told attendees at the conference gala dinner. “The adoption of open-access principles, which can help to remove these financial barriers to access to information, is one of the most progressive ways of growing and showcasing African research.”

Although Hanekom supports open access, his department has not made it a requirement for grantees to make the results of their research freely accessible after a certain period of time. The U.K.’s seven government-funded grant agencies, known collectively as Research Councils U.K., will begin implementing such a policy in April 2013 for research that it funds, and the European Union will begin implementing a similar policy starting with research it funds in 2014. The German government is also working to implement an open-access policy.

The publishing landscape is changing, Russel Botman, rector and vice chancellor of Stellenbosch University, said as he opened the meeting. “In this time of flux, there is a window of opportunity for us to improve two things, particularly for the developing world—access and visibility.” Open access will allow people to participate more fully in the knowledge community, Botman stressed. “At the same time it increases the visibility of research coming from the developing world. And thereby, greater equity is achieved.”

Berlin 10 was organized around the theme of networked scholarship and the production of knowledge. Conversations focused on the need for a free and open Internet to disseminate research information to large audiences. Several participants stressed the importance of becoming engaged in ongoing deliberations related to who controls the infrastructure of the Internet.

Some speakers urged researchers to ignore journal impact factors and instead evaluate research by the impact it has on innovation, health, and the wealth of societies. Participants considered various article-level metrics for assessing research, including the number of citations, downloads, or how often a paper is highlighted in blogs, wikis, or RSS feeds.

A few participants argued that journal impact factors are an obstacle to open access. A journal’s impact factor reflects the average number of citations per paper published in that journal during the two preceding years.

The impact factor correlates well with the perceived quality of a journal, said Tom Olijhoek, a scientific consultant with the SURF Foundation, a Dutch firm that promotes network and information technology services. But the impact factor of a journal says little about the quality of individual articles, he emphasized. “There is a weak correlation between individual article citation rate and the journal impact factor.”

The first seven Berlin meetings were held in Europe, with the goal of defining open access and refining various tools and strategies to make open access a reality. The arguments for open access began to change when the meeting moved away from Europe, first to China in 2010, then to the U.S. in 2011, and this year to South Africa. Next year the meeting moves back to Berlin.


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