Home » Blog, Featured

Open Access for the other 85%

12 December 2011 7 Comments
A Landsat image of Cape Town overlaid on SRTM ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things you notice as a visitor from the UK in South Africa is how clean the toilets are. In restaurants, at the University, in public places. Sometimes a bit worn down but always clean. And then you start to notice how clear and clean the pavements are and your first response, well at least my first response, is that this is a sign of things going right. One element of the whole is working well. But of course one of the main reasons for this is that labour is cheap and plentiful.

And suddenly it seemed less positive. The temptation is to offer advice, experience of first world development programs, but it became clear very quickly how little of the context I was aware. The problems on the ground are often not the obvious ones – the solutions rarely easy visible from the privileged perspective of the global north. The thing I learnt was to offer advice that was tactical, not strategic, routes towards the desired goal, not the direction of travel.

So Heather Morrison’s post on the use of Creative Commons for open access, arriving as it did in the middle of my visit to Cape Town, troubled me.  Those who read here will know I am a strong partisan of the OA = CC-BY view and indeed tend to the view that we should just place things in the public domain. So my first response was a rejection. But there is an argument in there that non-commercial and share-alike terms are appropriate for the developing world, because they can protect access to the results of text mining of relevant research. These arguments are always worth taking apart because they help to illuminate the practicalities of how we take scholarly communication and make it valuable to people. It helps to pull apart the issues and raise important use cases, and the effective use of research to aid development is a key use case. Heather is also, as someone who has thought deeply about these issues, a person I will always disagree with with caution.

But here I do have to disagree. And I disagree on two levels. I gave a presentation at UCT where I talked in part about some of our open science work and a question was asked “have you thought about how accessible this is in rural Africa”. My lame answer was that we have thought about it and worried about it but not actually done anything. But the better answer for me was that it is far better for the people on the ground who really know the infrastructure, and the need, to decide what is required and do the appropriate format conversion, the printing and distribution than for us in the UK or the US to presume to know what it is of most value. This, after all is the principle of open access, allowing others to re-use as appropriate for their context precisely because we don’t know what those uses may be.

And NC terms will break this in the developing world. Right where that research is needed the communications infrastructure is patchy and in many cases non-existent. Getting that research to people, whether the raw communication, or processed or text mined material can require paper, and trucks to transport. It may require translation in format or in language or in form. All of these things cost money and in choosing NC terms we would be condemning those who could use this material to relying on charity, or which is in some cases worse, governments. A service industry that charges someone, somewhere, for production, translation, and transport is ruled out as a possible business model. Exploitation is a value-laden term, particularly in the context of Africa but in its pure and ideal sense it is neutral. We want to see research exploited for good but in choosing NC terms we are dictating the way that exploitation can occur. The risks of exploitation in the bad sense are also there. But I don’t think licences are the way to deal with it. By using legal instruments we take those key choices out of the hands of those best placed to make them.

And this is the more insidious issue from my perspective. The thing I learned in a week in Cape Town was that the last thing scholars in the developing world need is for us to make decisions for them. What we need to do, as a community, is to ensure that people can make the widest possible range of choices. Don’t get me wrong, using CC-BY has some risks in that regard, and ccZero perhaps some more, but if we act to preserve the principle of giving people the space to make their own decisisons based on local knowledge and local needs, then that is the biggest contribution we can make.

It’s not just licensing. One of the biggest holes in the entire fabric of the OA movement, is the lack of a principled and rational stance on author payment charges. Just patting people on the head and saying “oh don’t worry we won’t make you pay” is not just patronising, it is damaging to our credibility, and damaging to our own progress. One of the other key lessons I learnt from a week listening to people in Cape Town is how far ahead of the traditional centres of scholarship they are on some issues. I spend a lot of time in the UK and the US trying to convince people that there is an issue; that we need to look at how our research matters to the wider community. In South Africa the needs are clear, and scholars want to make a difference. The question is how, and how to tell when it is working.  They are damn good at this. We could learn a lot from these people about how to balance the pursuit of prestige and “research with impact” that seems to be such a struggle for us.

We need to think of the global scholarly community, not as made up of “us” and “those who are catching up”, but as made up of different groups with different priorities and different needs, and crucially with different experiences and value to bring to a global endeavour. The creation of a “special OA” for the developing world runs the risk of perpetuating a view in which 85% of the world will always be catching up. Yes we need to try and build systems that ensure access to all scholarship, primary and derived. How to do that is an important debate, and one I hope will be at the centre of the Berlin10 conference to be held in Stellenbosch in South Africa next year. To not use that meeting to address the issues and challenges of business models and safeguards that help preserve access and optimise impact for the developing world would be a terrible loss.

OA is about enabling people, enabling business, and enabling development. There is a global community of scholars who get that, who want to be part of the wider community, and have their own skills and expertise to bring. They also want to share and contribute to the resource needs of scholarly communication in an appropriate and equitable way. We need to enable them to do that and get out of their way. After all, we might learn something.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  • Koltzenburg said:

    agree, Cameron, well-argued, but Iam still at step zero and trying to unlearn thinking in “us” and “them” 

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    I think we all are. Like all forms of discrimination it’s something you have to remind yourself actively not to do all the time.

  • Mikael Elbaek said:

    thanks, Cameron, for a highly relevant article! Especially in the research management and university management levels in the DK –  I think there is a lot to be learned from SA on how to make research matter to the wider community – or maybe it is unlearning/rethinking the whole notion of what impact is. ISI and citation stats is unfortunately so easy to use/misuse in management reports and when comparing researchers and institutions. 

    Is there any research looking at the correlation between research published in high impact journals or not and there impact on society? 

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    Mikael, thanks for the comment. I have views on what impact should be, or at least how to approach talking about it but I don’t think there’s a need to complete throw out the notion of citation counting. Certainly we shouldn’t be using impact factors to judge people but everyone agrees on that.
    In terms of whether this has been looked at in detail, I’m not aware of any work like that but it would be very difficult. As you not we don’t have any rigorous definition of impact do you’d be asking whether some qualitative and difficult to manage variable was correlating with journal IF or something along those lines. For all it’s faults the IF is definitely a number so I’m not sure how you’d even approach that kind of quantitative/qualitative measure. What we do know is that for a given author the number of citations received by papers correlates very poorly with impact factor of journal of publication. So if you accept citations as a measure of impact, which I the they are, just not the measure, then that correlation is already poor. But it’s interesting to think about how you might address that question.

  • Alternative metrics in Africa: Interview with Cameron Neylon - Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme said:

    […] *** Postscript: See Cameron Neylon’s reflections on his recent visit and the dynamics around open access in the developing world in his blog post ‘Open Access for the other 85%‘. […]

  • Ed Rybicki said:

    Cameron, thanks for a most illuminating talk at the University of Cape Town: I think you especially opened people’s minds to a new way of publishing, and of assessing impact. 

    Author payment charges, by the way, are possibly the single biggest block to publishing Open Access articles: if as often happens in SA the journals refuse to waive charges because “we are too developed”, you will find folk will default to a no-charge journal – because the charge (often >USD1000) can represent a significant fraction of teh research grant that funded the study being published.

    And on the other side, articles from Africa and other developing regions get far better exposure in Open Access journals, and articles from developed country authors are more easily read by their “southern” counterparts.

    So – yes to Open Access, no to author charges!!

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    Thanks for the comment and good to meet you in Cape Town.

    The issue with APCs is that the money has to come from somewhere. In some ways I’d argue that your actually better placed to pay APCs in SA given you (or at least the institution) gets a cash bonus for each paper. I understand that this really goes back into research in most cases (or worse, administration) but the fact of having that kind of budget line, independent of the funding that supported the work reported in the paper is something even those of us in the privileged north only dream of. All too often the grant has run out and there is no obvious source of the money.
    That said I remain a proponent of APCs as a model precisely because they make the cost of the publication process concrete and help to introduce a functioning market. But I agree that the question of how to equitably divide those costs up particularly with developing world researchers in a way that isn’t just the current somewhat patronising “oh we’ll waive the fees” but is sensible given the realities on the ground. I don’t have an answer to that but I very much feel that we need one badly.
    And finally of course, one quick plug. Don’t forget that the PLoS policy on APC waivers is no questions asked. If you ask for a waiver you’ll get one. This clearly doesn’t scale and it will eventually get broken by free-loaders. That’s why we need a proper solution. But in the meantime if it makes PLoS the destination for developing world authors I can’t see that as a bad thing.