ACCESS barriers to published research "result in critical, relevant knowledge and research outputs in Africa being published in overseas journals — journals that are not affordable to African academic libraries", Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said at the Berlin 10 Open Access Conference last week.
"This means that Africa is in fact deprived of its own knowledge production, relegating the continent to the status of silent and invisible contributor to research output," he said.
South Africa is trying to position itself as a knowledge economy but it is often difficult and expensive for international researchers to access South African research, and for South Africans to access international research.
An important marker for a research article is citation. the number of times the article is cited in other researchers’ work, but Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Vuyelwa Qinga told Business Day earlier this year that "a large amount of South African research published in South African-published journals (is) not always easily available overseas".
"These journals are seldom part of large international electronic databases, meaning that the full-text research is hard to access outside of South Africa."
The Berlin 10 Open Access Conference, hosted by Stellenbosch this year — the first time it has been held on the African continent — was unequivocal: the world, and Africa, needs open access.
However, the context is greater than Africa needing to get its research out there and to be seen.
German ambassador dr Horst Freitag said: "Without open access in our publicly funded educational and research system, no nation would flourish in a sustainable way … not one nation acting alone or even several countries acting together could successfully meet the challenges we face today, such as climate change, famine, infectious diseases, depletion of natural resources….
"Science and research must be an integral part of international exchange, based on a global network of partners in a ‘knowledge-based’ global community."
The ministerial review of the science, technology and innovation landscape makes two recommendations about access to international academic journals: South Africa needs to expand its Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) collaboration, and the government needs to subsidise national licensing of e-access to high-impact core commercial journals.
SciELO was developed in Brazil but a South African arm, which includes research from South African scholarly journals, was recently added. "SciELO publishes about 40,000 new articles every year from over 900 open-access journals from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Venezuela," says the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf).
Mr Hanekom said his department had instructed Assaf to investigate the academic information needs of South Africa’s academic staff, postgraduate students and researchers within universities and research councils. It was also collaborating with the Department of Higher Education on the National Digital Library, proposed in the 2011 Green Paper for Post School Education and Training.
"The question has moved on from whether or not open access will be introduced, to how it should be introduced," Mr Hanekom says.