Open access in Africa - changes and challenges

Elsevier’s Director of Access Relations writes about his work with the African Academy of Science in Kenya

As a publisher, I have never seen such a big change in how journals are published as in the last five years. When I joined Elsevier 17 years ago, the discussion was about a transition from print to electronic journals; in 2013 print journals continue to circulate, especially in Africa.

However, with open access, the changes have accelerated rapidly, and almost every journal now offers authors choices on how to publish through open access mechanisms. In this article, I talk about how things have changed, the challenges this raises and what this means for research in Africa.

Open access involves making journal articles available to all, either through a paid route where authors pay to publish (Gold open access) or through making manuscript versions of the article available on websites and repositories (Green open access).

These approaches enable wider dissemination of research, especially to researchers and institutions that cannot afford subscriptions. But while this access is good for enabling research and improving productivity, it also brings challenges to the various stakeholders involved in the process. For example:

  • Many funding organizations and governments that provide research grants to investigators wish to have this research published open access, especially since much of this funding comes from public sources.
  • Universities also want to ensure that the research they produce is showcased to the world and their researchers are promoted so they will bring in new funding contracts, build their expertise and ultimately enhance the institution's reputation.
  • Publishers want to maximize the visibility of their journals and ensure the widest readership possible, but need this to happen in an economically sustainable way to ensure their journals survive.
  • Librarians are now managing both subscription and open access content and are a vital point for other stakeholders to consult on the developing journal landscape. Often this involves the challenge of administering policy and approach to open access across their institution.
  • Finally, and most importantly the researchers themselves want their research to be available to others and to enable the widest recognition of their work, but they also need to consider all of the policies that the other stakeholders have developed.

Understandably, researchers are finding this difficult, and it is the responsibility of the other stakeholders to make this easier. At Elsevier, we work with these stakeholders to build agreements for open access and develop workflows that enable authors to comply with the wishes of their employers  and funders. This also ensures that open access is delivered in a sustainable way.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to host a conference in Kenya in cooperation with the African Academy of Sciences.

The African Academy of Sciences and Elsevier hosted a workshop to discuss "Open Access in Africa" on April 30 at the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi, Kenya. David Tempest is on the front row surrounded by Professor Berhanu Abegaz, Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences (left) and Professor Joseph Massaquoi, Member of the AAS Governing Council (right), who passed away on May 25. Elsevier sends its condolences to family, friends and colleagues.

This event brought together members of key research organizations from across Africa to discuss the open access. This was a fantastic opportunity to hear the experiences and approach of stakeholders in Africa towards open access and to learn more about how publishers can assist in the process enhancing  access to African research.

Professor Berhanu Abegaz

I was not surprised to hear that many of the adjustments that we are all facing in an open access world are just as prevalent within Africa and that there is still a lot to be done to meet our objective of sustainable access to research content. However, there were some additional considerations for  Africa that are important to consider when finding ways to broaden access:

The infrastructure to enable access to research needs to be assessed

I was extremely impressed with the levels of cellphone coverage and wireless availability within Kenya. And Professor Berhanu Abegaz, Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences, referred to a study by iHub, an "innovation hub" for the technology community in Kenya, which showed that this trend was replicated across most of the continent. This study was featured by   The Economist     . This is good news and shows that access levels to the technology are available. There now needs to be wider availability of research content engineered to be read on cellphones if this is to be exploited. As an example, Elsevier has developed applications to enable our products, such as ScienceDirect    and Scopus to be used on cellphones. This development needs to continue to ensure that access is enhanced.

Many African researchers continue to rely on paper format articles to read their journals

Belinda Tudin This means the transition from print to electronic needs to be assessed on a local basis. My colleague Belinda Tudin, Health Sciences Business Director for the East Mediterranean, Central Asia and Africa, spoke at the conference and described several new Elsevier journals in Africa (including African Journal of Emergency  Medicine International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences and the developing African Cancer Journal which will all provide print versions. Of course, open access by its nature promotes an electronic format and it needs to be assessed how the models can take this into consideration in such a local environment.

The cost of open access (in its Gold form) is too high for many in Africa, so publishers need to consider alternative arrangements

Elsevier has a range of prices for authors to publish open access with us, which depend upon the journal, the research field, funding levels and other important factors. However, in the majority of cases, African authors do not have the funding to enable open access in this way and need a solution.  In response, many publishers, including Elsevier, offer alternative pricing options to developing countries throughout the world. Indeed countries that are part of the Research4Life program can benefit from free to low-cost access to subscription journals and in many cases reduced or free open access publishing. Philanthropic program are a good way to initiate access to journals, but ultimately market-based models  (whether gold OA or subscriptions) will be most effective in ensuring that services from publishers are tailored to fit the local needs of funders, institutions and researchers.

Organizations such as the African Academy of Sciences and the African Union Commission have a goal to enhance the profiles of researchers and their outputs and can work alongside other stakeholders to maximize their efforts

A key element of this is the education and support of the research community. At Elsevier, we're happy to work with these organizations to enable it to happen. We run author workshops to help researchers understand how to publish in journals, the ethical dimensions of publishing, and the emergence of  new publishing possibilities, such as open access. In the conference, I made a commitment to work with the African Academy of Science to make this happen, and I see this as an important relationship to develop.

Conference delegates continue the conversation over dinner at a local restaurant in Nairobi.
As you can see, we covered a wide range of topics in our conference and have developed a number of different routes to facilitate access to research content in Africa. However, what about the position of Africa in the global research community?

As conference delegates in Kenya – and previously at the 2012 Berlin 10 Open Access Conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa — indicated, it is vital that Africa continues to grow its research output and collaborates with international researchers. Open access is one way to assist in this goal, but it  is crucial that these efforts are accompanied by a focus on the quality of research, not just the quantity.

Africa has some outstanding researchers, and the quality of their work is improving, but there needs to be a concerted effort to work together and create excellence on a local level. Delegates at these conferences all indicated that the barriers that exist between African countries need to be removed  if Africa is to emerge as a new powerhouse of research.

My conversations tell me there are already signs this is happening both on a political and research level. This will only continue to enhance the access of the African community to each other, and hopefully, the collaboration of the continent's researchers can be widened. If that is not "Open Science"  then I don't know what is.

To close, I want to add that publishers are committed to making a difference by providing the access levels that researchers need throughout the world, and I hope that my initial discussions within Africa will now develop into a long and supportive relationship with the researchers and stakeholders  throughout the continent.

Author biography

David TempestDavid Tempest is Director of Access Relations at Elsevier, based in the UK. His role involves working with funding organizations  and academic institutes on the development of agreements and relationships surrounding access initiatives. In addition, he also works on strategy and implementation of Elsevier's Universal Access program. He has worked at Elsevier for over 16 years, previously in editorial, marketing and market research  positions.

Tempest is a frequent presenter at events around the world. His main subject is speaking about the development of new universal access initiatives and technologies, as well as publishing matters in general – the publishing industry, the development of journals and future technologies. He has a  BSc in pharmacology from the University of Sunderland and an MBA with distinction from Oxford Brookes University.

This article was originally published on Elsevier Connect.

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