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What is Open Access?

As the world continues to grapple with the uncertainties that the COVID-19 pandemic presents, the need for accessible, rigorous, unbiased knowledge has never been more urgent. However, this need stands in the wake of a barrage of misinformation, disinformation, and ‘fake news’.

In spite – or perhaps because – of this, the Open Access (OA) movement has gained even greater traction over the past 18 months, in an effort to make research on COVID-19 more widely available and to make research in other fields accessible to remote teachers and learners. But what is OA? Why is it increasingly important and how has COVID-19 advanced the OA cause?

OA is a set of principles and a range of practices through which research outputs are distributed online, free of cost or other access barriers, providing users with full re-use rights.[1] OA seeks to make research and data available for anyone, anywhere in the world to read, use, and build upon the knowledge, thus making knowledge outputs more valuable to a greater number of people.[2]

Open access can be applied to any published research output, including peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed academic journal articles, conference papers, theses, book chapters, monographs, research reports, and images. OA journals are categorized using a simple colour system.[3],[4]

Table 1         The OA publishing system

OA can, to an extent, be contrasted with ‘traditional’ publishing models for research outputs, with often exorbitant journal subscription fees that have consistently outpaced the consumer price index by a factor of four to five over the past three decades.[5] The high cost of journal subscription fees has meant that educational institutions, educators, researchers, and students may be locked out by paywalls and often cannot afford to access these articles, or are forced to buy them without knowing whether the content is relevant for their purposes. Moreover, publishing in scholarly peer reviewed journals usually involves long delays from submission to publication, which takes an average of nine months. This is partially due to the length of the peer review process, but can also be attributed to the prevailing tradition of publishing in issues – which has become less relevant because of the digitization of materials. This custom ultimately creates backlogs of manuscripts awaiting publication.[6]

 

Open Access during COVID-19

Why is OA more relevant now than ever before? The last 18 months has provided an extraordinary research context in which researchers have bypassed traditional systems to provide up-to-date research and findings about the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. As a group of United States-based patient and disease advocacy organisations recently noted, ‘information critical to health should no longer be held hostage by arcane publishing’[7].

Throughout the pandemic, researchers have embraced open publishing platforms and preprint servers to disseminate their findings as rapidly as possible. The first article related to COVID-19 was published on bioRxiv on 19 January 2020 – just 20 days after the Chinese government informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of the impending COVID-19 threat. The article was licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence.[8] Some publishers have committed to publishing scientific articles relating to the disease as OA. Others are facilitating rapid open peer review and expediting the publishing of related research. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzig refers to this convincing demonstration of the value of OA to scientific research as one of the most important positive disruptions caused by COVID-19.[9]

At a practical level, the adoption of open practices has ignited collaboration and interaction amongst the scientific community. As Heather Joseph, the executive director of SPARC explains,

One of the things that COVID is showing us is that when scientists start openly pooling their data and articles, they start to have conversations about science in real time. Instead of waiting months for key findings to be published, scientists are sharing their findings on the sorts of channels many people use every day—such as Slack and Twitter.

This demonstrates how OA is part of the evolution of research publishing and in so doing, how it has contributed to our understanding of the disease. It is easy to see how the greater availability of information has propelled more rapid progress in various areas relating to COVID-19 – freely available scientific information has never been more necessary than in this age, where misinformation from unidentifiable or unrecognised sources muddies the waters between fact and fiction. But how has the pandemic highlighted the need for more people to consider making their research and data OA?

 

What about other research?

While most COVID-19 related studies were commendably made freely available to all, much of the world’s publicly funded university research remains hidden behind paywalls. However, the tide seems to be turning. Publishers, research institutions, and funders are collaborating to deliver high-quality OA publications for free at the point of publication.[10]

Efforts to remove journal paywalls have also gained significant traction since 2018, when an influential group of research funders announced that the scientists they fund should publish their peer-reviewed papers outside journal paywalls. This initiative, named Plan S, created instantaneous speculation over its efforts to eliminate journal subscription models. After many deliberations over policy, the project officially began in 2021, with 25 funding agencies rolling out similar OA mandates.[11] This has catalysed a significant shift, as an article in Nature explains,

Despite the complexity it’s brought, Plan S has already catalysed a shift in the OA landscape, advocates say. Journals that previously offered no route to make peer-reviewed articles immediately OA now do — even if only for authors with Plan S funders — and there’s been a blossoming of experiments with OA business models.[12]

Other significant developments include the global OA advocacy initiative OA2020’s efforts to implement transformative agreements in transitioning scholarly journals to OA. Transformative agreements allow users to repurpose former subscription payments to cover open publication of a country’s or institution’s research articles, thus eliminating author-facing article processing charges. Transformative agreements also allow one to restructure financial streams, creating enabling conditions for OA publishing and a more transparent, competitive market.[13]

In Africa, Côte d’Ivoire has launched a country-level Open Access repository, while Ethiopian university and government stakeholders have implemented OA policies for repositories, journals and infrastructures. In South Africa, institutions like University of Cape Town and University of the Witwatersrand have made similar inroads in promoting OA, with the former institution developing a continental platform for publishing OA journals, monographs and textbooks in Africa.[14] In addition, countries such as Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda, have finalized their national policies for data and repository management.[15]

These kinds of arrangements have contributed to significant progress in mainstreaming OA. Piwowar et al estimate that, as of 2019, approximately 31% of all journal articles are available as OA and 52% of article views are to OA articles. Given these trends, they project that, by 2025, 44% of all journal articles will be available as OA and 70% of article views will be to OA articles.[16] However, there is still a lot of work to be done, as noted in a recent article:

In addition to and sometimes combined with geopolitical arguments and regional skepticism, active attempts to discredit open access as “bad science” are never far from the surface, e.g. the insinuation that open access publications may not be properly peer reviewed or that the APC model inevitably leads to lots of publications with questionable merit.[17]

This drives home the point that OA requires a consistent commitment to make sustainable – and sometimes incremental – gains in realising its goals. The current COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of unfettered access to scientific and scholarly information, for researchers, educators, students, journalists and non-academic professionals alike. But sustainable change needs to happen at both the systemic and individual levels. Ultimately, it is not a question of whether OA is better than other publishing models, but rather of how OA can enhance a more equitable publishing ecosystem and thus make knowledge and data more accessible.

For more information on how to publish OA research, OER Africa has created a learning pathway to give you practical guidance for doing so. Visit Publish Using Open Access to access this tutorial. Other learning pathways are available here.

 

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[4] Open Access.nl. (nd). What is Open Access? Retrieved from https://www.openaccess.nl/en/what-is-open-access

[5] Burns, P. (2017). Academic journal publishing is headed for a day of reckoning. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/academic-journal-publishing-is-headed-for-a-day-of-reckoning-80869

[6] Björk, B. and Solomon, D. (2013). ‘The publishing delay in scholarly peer-reviewed journals’. Journal of Infometrics. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259165321_The_publishing_delay_in_scholarly_peer-reviewed_journals

[8] Kiley, R. (2020). ‘Open access: how COVID-19 will change the way research findings are shared’. Wellcome. Retrieved from https://wellcome.org/news/open-access-how-covid-19-will-change-way-research-findings-are-shared

[9] Tavernier, W. (2020). ‘COVID-19 demonstrates the value of open access: What happens next?’ Association of College and Research Libraries. Retrieved from https://crln.acrl.org/index.php/crlnews/article/view/24414/32251

[10] Boyle, P. (2021). ‘Covid-19 underlines the need for full open access’. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/covid-19-underlines-need-full-open-access

[11] Else, H. (2021). ‘A guide to Plan S: the open-access initiative shaking up science publishing’. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00883-6

[12] Else, H. (2021). ‘A guide to Plan S: the open-access initiative shaking up science publishing’. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00883-6

[13] Open Access 2020. (2020). OA2020 Progress Report. Retrieved from https://oa2020.org/wp-content/uploads/OA2020-Progress-Report-December-2020.pdf

[14] Makoni, M. (2021). New continental platform for open access publishing. University World News. Retrieved from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210203114558607

[15] Markin, P. (2020). Open Access in Africa, Institutional Repository Development and Open Science Challenges. Open Research Community. Retrieved from https://openresearch.community/posts/open-access-in-africa-institutional-repository-development-and-open-science-challenges?channel_id=2448-players

[16] Piwowar, H., Priem, J. and Orr, R. (2019). ‘The Future of OA: A large-scale analysis projecting Open Access publication and readership’. bioRxiv. Retrieved from https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/795310v1

[17] Spichtinger, D. (2020). ‘Not yet the default setting – in 2020 open research remains a work in progress’. London School of Economics. Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/01/17/not-yet-the-default-setting-in-2020-open-research-remains-a-work-in-progress/

 

What's New

Half a century ago, on 26 April 1970, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention came into force and is commemorated as World Intellectual Property (IP) Day, with the aim of increasing general understanding of IP. At OER Africa, we respect the right of individuals to protect their IP and we understand its importance in driving innovation. However, in the case of educational materials, we believe that All Rights Reserved may often not be the most appropriate copyright in today’s world.

Image courtesy of Markus Winkler, Unsplash

Half a century ago, on 26 April 1970, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention came into force and is commemorated as World Intellectual Property (IP) Day, with the aim of increasing general understanding of IP. WIPO is a self-funded agency of the United Nations and serves as a global forum for an IP system that enables innovation and inventiveness for the benefit of humankind. Almost all sub-Saharan African countries are members of WIPO. IP refers to property that does not necessarily have any physical substance (‘creations of the mind’), such as  inventions, designs, artworks, books etc. It provides for ways in which the IP embodied in such works can be protected. This protection is provided through, for example, copyrights, patents, and trademarks. These give creators rights over information and intellectual goods that they have produced, often providing economic incentives by protecting their ideas. A WIPO resource that explains the concept of IP is Making IP Work, and the organization is a leader in protecting people’s IP to drive innovation.

Critics of the concept of IP maintain that it prevents the free flow of ideas, hampers progress, and harms the public interest by concentrating on the benefits for the few at the expense of the many. A recent example would be the patenting of Covid-19 vaccines, resulting in enormous profits for certain pharmaceutical companies at the expense of global public health. For educational materials, the mechanism used to protect the rights of the creator is the concept of copyright

At OER Africa, we respect the right of individuals to protect their IP and we understand its importance in driving innovation. However, in the case of educational materials, we believe that asserting copyright with all rights reserved may often not be the most appropriate copyright in today’s world. Many of the resources are produced with public funds, so these should be available for reuse. Higher education institutions are coming under increasing pressure to produce better results, massify enrolments, and lower costs. Embracing the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) by replacing All Rights Reserved with an open licence (such as one of the Creative Commons licences) can assist educational institutions to provide resources that can be accessed freely, used, adapted, and redistributed by others without restriction. You can find out more about open licensing on our online tutorial called Find Open Content.

The theme of World Intellectual Property Day for 2022 is “IP and youth innovating for a better future.” Correctly, WIPO aims to encourage youth to develop their ingenuity and creativity by using the tools of the IP system to build a better future. However, we would like to urge youth to consider openly licensing educational materials they may develop, and in turn, to make use of openly licensed materials.

A Creative Commons CC BY licence allows educationists to freely access and adapt educational resources for their own contexts. Enabling materials to be used in this way is especially important in developing country settings where resources are often not available or too expensive for students to access. For example, a better future for many young children in Africa would be learning to read for understanding. The African Storybook initiative provides openly licensed picture storybooks to encourage children to read for pleasure in numerous African languages. Encouraging youth to translate existing storybooks into their own language or adapt them for a different context or reading level are ways they can contribute to the development of literacy across the continent. If they have the skills to do so, they might also contribute storybooks to the website. Authors who develop such resources retain the copyright to their work; the open licence merely enables others to use the materials for their own purposes – which is very useful for youth, teachers, and parents alike. There are currently 3,210 storybooks available on the website, in 224 languages. An evaluation of the early years of African Storybook noted that ‘The number of stories and range of languages is … a powerful testament to the open publishing model which enables one story to be adapted …. or translated into many languages, quickly and easily and cost-effectively.’

At the higher education level, academics can develop course materials which they can openly license for adaptation and use by others. Many academics are concerned that they are giving away their IP by releasing them as OER. This however is not the case; as mentioned above, the course developer is the copyright holder, and all open licences require attribution of the original source. As Butcher (2011) explains in A Basic Guide to Open Education Resources, only a small percentage of teaching and learning materials generates revenue through direct sales, while teaching resources that have commercial resale value are few, and are declining still further due to educational material being freely accessible on the Internet. Releasing them under an open licence extends their longevity and brings recognition rewards to the author. Where there is a real potential for resources to be marketed for profit, the individual or the institution can maintain all rights reserved copyright, using WIPO’s guidelines. An academic wishing to openly license their work can refer to OER Africa’s Copyright and Licensing Toolkit, to find out about licensing options, applying a licence, and understanding copyright clearance.

IP clearly has a role in driving innovation. However, it is important to remember that it is a social construct, not a law. When considering World IP Day, we believe that all educationists should aim to strike a balance between using IP for their own personal benefit and openly licensing their works for the benefit of the constituencies they work within.


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As of 2022, activities by UNESCO to support implementation of its OER Recommendation are gathering pace and OER Africa is pleased to be assisting UNESCO in this important work. The Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER) (40 C/32) was adopted at the 40th UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 25th November 2019 as the culmination of a long process of UNESCO engagement with the concept of OER.

 

Image courtesy of Martin Weller, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As of 2022, activities by UNESCO to support implementation of its OER Recommendation are gathering pace and OER Africa is pleased to be assisting UNESCO in this important work. The Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER) (40 C/32) was adopted at the 40th UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 25th November 2019 as the culmination of a long process of UNESCO engagement with the concept of OER.

First and foremost, UNESCO is planning a series of regional virtual consultation workshops around the world, with at least one workshop to be organized for each of the five regions into which UNESCO organizes member states (Africa, the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe and North America). These workshops will provide a first platform for member states to re-convene formally since the OER Recommendation was adopted, allowing an opportunity for them to share information on how they have progressed with implementation and discuss ideas for the way forward. This will be an important opportunity for such discussion and for UNESCO to share key messages learned in the first two years since adoption. It will also enable member states to begin planning what and how they would like to report on their progress with operationalization of the OER Recommendation, a process which occurs for all UNESCO Recommendations every fourth year at the UNESCO General Conference (and is thus due to occur in 2024 for the OER Recommendation).

In parallel, with this work, UNESCO has begun a process to develop a guide on the integration of OER into national policies and strategies, which will be developed in French with a focus on Francophone Africa and particularly the Sahel Region. Although many such guides exist, they have typically always been developed in English first with a global audience in mind, so development of a guide such as this, with its specific geographical focus, is a global first and will help to resolve some of the inequities associated with rate of progress of adoption of OER globally. OER Africa is glad to be providing technical and research support to a Consultant contracted by UNESCO Dakar who has been appointed to undertake this important work.

While this is all happening, UNESCO continues its work in advocacy and information-sharing through the OER Dynamic Coalition. Regular webinars are held online (the most recent, on Quality OER, was held on 10th March, 2022) and a monthly newsletter keeps interested parties up to date on latest developments. Anyone interested in receiving the newsletter can request to be added to the mailing list. Please fill out the form here.

OER Africa is proud to continue to support UNESCO in its important work in facilitating implementation of the OER Recommendation around the world.


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Access the OER Africa communications archive here

This week (14-20 March 2022) is South African Library Week. In 2001, the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) established Library Week for all types of libraries in South Africa to market their services and create awareness of the important role that libraries play in a democracy.

Msunduzi Public Library, South Africa. Courtesy of AfLIA

This week (14-20 March 2022) is South African Library Week. In 2001, the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) established Library Week for all types of libraries in South Africa to market their services and create awareness of the important role that libraries play in a democracy. This includes advancing literacy, making the basic human right of freedom of access to information a reality, and promoting tolerance and respect in society. Although South African Library Week is only recognized in South Africa, these values resonate with libraries in countries across Africa and globally.

This year, the theme for Library Week is ReImagine! RePurpose! ReDiscover... Libraries! It will explore how libraries reimagine their services and their ability to render those services, repurpose both their spaces and their services to continue being effective in the communities that they serve, and allow library users to rediscover the library and the ways in which it benefits them. An ongoing collaboration between the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) and OER Africa aims to encourage librarians in Africa to be able to reimagine libraries as spaces for opening access to information for their communities. This has been done through a series of activities to raise awareness about the importance of open licensing and open knowledge, including the 2020/21 piloting of a series of learning pathways on open education, with 50 librarians across Africa participating.

Increasingly, public libraries in South Africa and around the continent are required to do more with less, while providing vital access to reading material and resources for communities and individuals who cannot find such support elsewhere. Libraries continue to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and many are looking for new ways to provide services to their communities. While they battle under current challenges, they remain valuable places for people to be able to read books and newspapers, do homework or research, and use computers and the Internet. Could open education practices assist librarians to reimagine how their communities access the information they need?

In an interview for OER Africa, Dr Nkem Osuigwe, the Human Capacity Development and Training Director at AfLIA, described the importance of libraries to the community after a visit to a library in Nakaseke, just outside Kampala,

"This little library could get news from the radio, TV, newspapers, but also books. They knew when and where it was going to rain, the cost of seedlings, how to get better produce. They were passing this information down to members of the community, so, in turn that made the community go there to find out, 'where do I sell my bananas today, at what price, how do I sell them, which market will give me higher prices…' That was the first time I realized that public libraries can really do awesome things when the people that work there understand what it is all about, when they engage their user communities more."

Dr Osuigwe believes the open licensing and open educational resources (OER) can enable librarians to help their communities rediscover libraries: "This is an area that people do not know much about, and it’s also an area that will help librarians generate more resources for their user communities. Where they can go and learn how to collaborate with others and to create resources if needs be."

African libraries are in good hands, with the support of AfLIA, which is constantly striving for equitable access to information for all. Through engagement with critical issues around open knowledge and open licensing, AfLIA encourages its members to reimagine their services and repurpose their spaces and services to help users rediscover how the library will benefit them. Open knowledge initiatives, such as the #1Lib1Ref campaign and the Wikipedia project for African Librarians, and free webinars AfLIA that presents with partners from across the globe, are establishing AfLIA as the platform for all librarians in Africa to come together, learn from each other, and encourage one another. AfLIA is creating an online space for African librarians to share knowledge, insights and perspectives that represent African voices, cultures, and philosophies as well as making sure that African narratives are represented in the global body of knowledge available online. In doing so, AfLIA is ensuring that African libraries and their users are able to reimagine and rediscover libraries as accessible knowledge centres for the global open knowledge community.

This week, join us in celebrating libraries and the important work they do in our communities.

 

Related articles

Access the OER Africa communications archive here