Open access repositories begin to reap benefits for South African science as CSIR research goes global

There are interestingsigns of an increase in the momentum of change in researchcommunications in South Africa. And equally interesting reflectionsto be made on who is not in this game – for example where are UCT and Wits in all this? 

The latestmove has been the announcement in Seoul, Korea of the creation of aglobal science gateway, (Thanks to PeterSuber's Blog and Denise Nicholson's Newsletter for alerting meto this news.) The good news is that this time there is a good SouthAfrican presence through the participation of the CSIR's ResearchSpace repository and the African journals from 24 countries thatappear as a result of AfricanJournals Online (AJOL).

WorldWideScience is,according to its website, 'a global science gateway connecting you tonational and international scientific databases. It hopes to'accelerate scientific discovery and progress by providing one-stopsearching of global science sources'. This project is managed by theWorldWideScienceAlliance backed by a bilateral agreement between the USDepartment of Energy's Office ofScientific and Technical Information (OSTI) and the BritishLibrary and run through the Paris-based InternationalCouncil for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI), Ablogon the OSTI site provides some background:

Thedilemma is that no single scientist can be expected to be aware ofthe hundreds of high-quality STI sources on the web. Moreover, evenif a person were aware of all of these sources, he or she simplywouldn’t have the time to search them one-by-one to find thescientific knowledge that will help accelerate his or her ownefforts. And, finally, this scientist will not be able to find thelarge majority of these resources through typical search engines(such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc.) because most scientific databasesare only accessible in the “deep web.”

The answer proved to bethe creation of federated searching and precision relevance rankingtechnology to provide a single gateway to a number of nationalscience databases.

The CSIR putsSouth Africa on the map with its participation and its presence onthe Executive Board of the Alliance, while the 24 African countriesthat have journals in the AJOL service give Africa a much strongerpresence than it would have otherwise. Although up until recentlyAJOL has provided abstracts from its member journals, there are now39 open access journals available (including the SouthAfrican Journal of Medicine) and AJOL is in the process ofupgrading its website to provide full text to all journals. It is tobe hoped that there will be more open journals to come.

The story of the CSIR'sestablishment of its repository is an interesting one, described insome detail in anarticle in Ariadne by Martie van Deventer and Heila Pienaar in April2008. As Martie and Heila describe it, the process of creatinginstitutional repositories at the University of Pretoria and the CSIRwas an uphill slog, but one that has proved very worthwhile. Thestory is telling: the initiatives originality started out with a 2002national strategy for a framework for e-research, which resulted in2004 in the plan for a framework, SARIS. As it was planned, it wouldhave provided a national portal, Open Access standards and OAinstitutional repositories, and a digital curation service, all thislinked to the national innovation plan. However, as the authors putit, 'it soon became evident that there would be no nationalco-ordination of these efforts in the near future, and thatindividual institutions would have to start their own initiatives.Fortunately organisations such as eIFL and the Mellon Foundation havebeen playing an important role in the development of the SouthAfrican information industry and with their assistance severalinitiatives were kick- started.'

After a fairly fragmentedstart, things came together in 2007 and there is now a morecollaborative approach to creating institutional repositoriesn inSouth Africa, the article reports. There are now 10 South Africanrepositories listed in Open Doar. (UCT, by the way, does not have an institutional repository,although there are departmental repositories in ComputerScience and UCT Lawspacein the Faculty of Law, which is not listed in Open Doar).

As for the CSIR's ResearchSpace, which is now getting worldwide exposure (which can only begood for the institution and its reputation) the story is a familiarone of personal commitment by a group of dedicated advocates, helpedby collaboration and information-sharing with the University ofPretoria (UP) and its team. UP, with support from a strategiccommitment by senior management, in the wake of SARIS, created firstan institutional thesis and dissertations repository, UPeTD(with mandated deposit) and then a research repository, UPSpace.With growing support from academic staff, as the benefits ofincreased exposure became clear, and top-level commitment to thevalue of open access repositories, UP is considering a mandate fordeposit of academic articles.

At the CSIR, althoughthere was support for the idea of bringing the science council's bodyof research online in open access, barriers were created when theorganisation centralised its ICT management, so that the repositoryhad to queue for services. The situation was salvaged bycollaboration with the University of Pretoria and a more gradualapproach. From there the open access effect took over, as Googlesearches started to find the content that was being uploaded:

CSIRIS staff members werestill in the process of uploading documents when the IT departmentbecame aware of additional activity on their server. By the end ofApril 2007 just fewer than 6,000 copies of documents had beendownloaded… By the end of June, this figure had become more than28,000 documents. After several presentations and discussions it wasas if the organisation suddenly saw the potential of the initiativeand a formal decision was taken to make the repository part of theintegral design of the organisation’s new Internet site…Obviouslythe key stakeholders, government departments, are also pleasedbecause, in support of the CSIR’s core mandate (to improve thequality of lives of ordinary South Africans), publicly fundedresearch has become more accessible to a wider community.

The moral of the story – championship atinstitutional level is a necessary component if institutionalrepositories are to really fly, but this would go nowhere withoutdedication and commitment from the people driving this initiatives –from library and information services. The benefits become clearvery quickly and the added exposure for institutional (and national)research then becomes hard to ignore. A core problem in theinstitutions that are not following this path would appear to be afailure, that is all too common in South Africa, to recognise thestrategic importance of taking advantage of the opportunitiesoffered by digital technologies and the internet, not only forrepositories, but for its publishing activities more broadly . Mostuniversities in South Africa do not differ from their US colleagues,as the IthakaReport into University Publishing in a Digital Age, describes it:

Publishing generallyreceives little attention from senior leadership at universities andthe result has been a scholarly publishing industry that many in theuniversity community find to be increasingly out of step with theimportant values of the academy. As information transforms thelandscape of scholarly publishing, it is critical that universitiesdeploy the full range of their resources – faculty research andteaching activity, library collections, information technologycapacity, and publishing expertise – in ways that best serve bothlocal interests and the broader public interest. We will argue that arenewed commitment to publishing in its broadest sense can enableuniversities to more fully realize the potential global impact oftheir academic programs, enhance the reputations of their specificinstitutions, maintain a strong voice in determining what constitutesimportant scholarship and which scholars deserve recognition, and insome cases reduce costs. There seems to us to be a pressing andurgent need to revitalize the university’s publishing role andcapabilities in this digital age.

It is telling that both UCT and Wits, which claim thetop research spot in South Africa, do not appear to be taking this onboard at senior level. Why is this?