The high cost of college textbooks and scholarly journals puts many students and institutions at a disadvantage. In under-resourced parts of the world, including countries in Africa, it can be especially challenging to afford educational materials.
Without the access to the latest research results, academics cannot efficiently build on existing knowledge. Cost-prohibitive publishing fees keep many authors from contributing solutions to pressing problems facing the world today.
And, for students, not having textbooks designed with them in mind, can impede success in school. Access to education is a human right, yet often based on location, not everyone is afforded the same opportunity to complete a degree.
In 2016, the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa launched the Continental Platform to enable the African research community to take ownership of creating and sharing its own scholarly content. The service provides a free outlet for African researchers to publish their scholarly work and provide access to knowledge for all without restriction.
“At the University of Cape Town, we are very committed to social justice principles of open access,” said Reggie Raju, director of research and learning at the University of Cape Town Libraries, who led the digital publishing initiative. “We created the platform to break down structures that hinder active participation in the sharing of scholarship.”
While the platform is completely funded by UCT and supported by the IT department, Raju said the model encourages each country to modify the platform to have its institutions’ own look and feel. This community-based alternative model returns the control of publishing back to the researcher community.
“In Africa, we wanted to engender this idea of ownership and to bask in the glory of what has been achieved,” Raju said. “That is why we developed a ‘tenant model,’ to allow each of these institutions to have that individualistic character to come through.”
Today, there are more than two dozen open access textbooks/monographs and eighteen open access journals available for free through the Continental Platform from multiple institutions including a French title from Cameroon. UCT Press, recently relocated into the library, has been publishing back titles on the continental platform and now has added 63 open monographs here.
Interest in the Continental Platform took off faster than anticipated. Academic institutions in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have been trained or are already active publishers on the platform. “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” Raju said.
“For me, this started off as a small project with purely philanthropic principles,” Raju said. “I wanted to share our learnings with whomever wanted to learn. I had absolutely no aspiration that it would cut across the continent.”
There has not yet been any formal survey on the impact of the free, digital textbooks. However, downloads of the textbooks have eclipsed expectations, picking up substantially around 2020, as the innovative delivery of material (including audio and video) resonated with users.
The most popular title has been a textbook for constitutional law, considered among the most difficult courses in the legal field, with high failure rates. Constitutional Law for Students averages about 6,000 downloads a month and 16,000 during exam periods.
The print book was not only expensive, but the dense text was challenging to read — especially for students whose first language was not English, Raju said. The open access textbook, created in collaboration with law students, professors and reviewed by judges, included a practice workbook and an audio version so users could listen to the book first to improve comprehension.
Another open innovative textbook, Appendicitis and Appendectomy: A novel dramatised teaching video, is designed as a tool for medical professionals. The resource has allowed surgeons to download the video clips on their phones for reference as they travel into rural areas and perform medical procedures, Raju said.
In one South African high school, an Indigenous language course had no supporting literature in that language. A play published as an open textbook in Sesotho filled that void—downloadable and free.
Also, readership of local open access journals has expanded, Raju said, allowing local African scientists to share their findings on issues such as climate change with a broader audience.
The platform use has grown organically, spread mainly by word of mouth among researchers, students and others. It has prompted interest in the U.S. and U.K. among researchers interested in mimicking the infrastructure and process.
Raju’s advice: “Don’t wait for a perfect solution. If you wait for a perfect solution, it never happens. There will always be challenges. Put your head down, get it done. I found there were lots of people willing to help.”