SPARC Africa: Building on a Sharing Culture

This post is part of a series on highlights and key takeaways from the 2016 SPARC MORE Meeting.

As advocates work to advance the open agenda for scholarly publishing in Africa, they have a strong force in their favor: Sharing is part of the culture. That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles – lack of funding and reliable infrastructure are real issues. Yet, despite those challenges, efforts are underway to bring librarians, and others from across the continent together to promote open access, open data, and open education. And organizers are hopeful the natural tendency of Africans to collaborate will lead to action.

The first-ever SPARC Africa conference is scheduled to convene in December 2016, according to a Reggie Raju, Deputy Director of Research and Learning at the University of Cape Town Libraries, who has been leading the organization efforts.

Unlike many librarians who talk about their early love of reading and books, Raju’s experience was quite different. He never intended to be a librarian. Raju grew up in South Africa during apartheid, with the public library 15 kilometers from his home, and a family that couldn’t afford to buy even a newspaper.

Raju said he never read a book in his life until he was assigned a job as a messenger at the University of Natal Library in South Africa in 1984. “I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” said Raju, now 55. Working at the university opened doors, and he started to read. As an employee of an academic institution, tuition was free. So, Raju enrolled and earned a bachelor’s of arts degree. Eventually, he received his master’s and PhD in library science.

In 2009, Raju was first introduced to the concept of Open Access while working at Stellenbosch University. The university began to put its theses in a repository – more out of necessity because of limited space – and the institution voted to only accept digital submissions. “We soon learned that having them online was a major benefit to the people. There was immediate visibility of the research that was being conducted at Stellenbosch University” said Raju. “That started to drive the whole open-access agenda.”

In 2009, Raju attended the Berlin 9 Conference in Washington and helped organize and host the Berlin 10 Conference in South Africa. That event triggered a broader discussion of openness in Africa and Raju said that was a turning point at Stellenbosch University. Since that event, Stellenbosch University introduced a number of new openness services. In addition to its institutional repository, the university began publishing open-access journals.

When Raju moved to the University of Cape Town in 2013, the university began to experiment with open monographs. The University Libraries provides the platform and technical expertise, the content is peer reviewed and is the responsibility of the academics or researchers. Thus far the Library has published three monograph titles. While the first book was traditional, the university is now experimenting with embedding video in the electronic books to show, for example, how surgery is done.

In Africa, advocates for the open agenda encounter barriers, with regards to the issue of promotion. (There is tradition of no tenure in South Africa.) Faculty members get publications rewards from the government and that money goes into the authors’ research fund or central pot to support research. There are no incentives for researchers to publish in an OA journals because professors often assume others will have access to their work, says Raju.

Still, there is some momentum to share scholarly work and for higher education in the continent to collaborate. For instance, Raju’s university’s strategic plan includes a push to be “Afropolitan” – to share work with other African counties – and the OA movement is a good vehicle to bring academics together.

When the SPARC Africa conference convenes later this year, those in South Africa who are passionate about Open Access hope that others will form working groups to go back to their countries and start to robustly implementing OA policies.

The challenges in Africa are unlike the “first-world” challenges that many SPARC members face. “In many places in Africa, if you have electricity or water for seven days a week, you must be grateful,” said Raju. “On the east coast of Africa, we have a very strong Internet backbone, but it means nothing if there is no electricity.” Lack of expertise and infrastructure in Africa also presents significant obstacles for the open agenda.

Still, Raju is hoping to get a critical mass together, particularly young people, to drive the process forward in Africa in creative ways since funding is limited. What gives Raju hope, he says, is that Africans are very community based: “Sharing is not an issue. In fact, sharing is an absolute imperative. Sharing what they’ve not is unnatural – it is a way of life, but how do we share is the big question.”

Raju is aiming high with SPARC Africa. He envisions many institutions in Africa adopting OA practices and becoming more interested in open publishing. Making African research and institutions more visible can help recruit students and better serve those within the institutions. Openness is a powerful agent of change, added Raju: “Access to information is the way out of poverty.”

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