/ 4 February 2013

Africa must use digital libraries

African librarians need data skills to make the transition to open access.
African librarians need data skills to make the transition to open access.

Of more than 2 000 open access repositories worldwide, fewer than 3% are in Africa. And there are even fewer exclusively from sub-Saharan Africa.

Even though the availability of open access material is low, it is important to recognise the progress that has been made over the past decade: several institutions across the region have adopted and are implementing open access policies. However, in spite of these strides, only about 16% of African scholars claim to have a high awareness of e-resources. Much more advocacy is necessary for open access to become a reality across the continent.

Africa stands to gain the most from the open access movement. But factors such as the continent's regulatory environments, the changing role of librarians, weak commitment to institutionalising open access and problems of sustainability have made implementation slow and awareness limited.

According to the World Bank's latest Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, more than half of African countries score poorly — less than three out of a maximum of six, in the measure the assessment uses — on the quality of property rights and rule-based governance. Weak public sector management, particularly in the area of intellectual property rights and rule-based governance in turn hinders the development and implementation of open access scholarly resources.

Poor legal systems make researchers hesitant to adopt or adhere to open access policies because they have little confidence that their intellectual property rights will be respected. As a result commitment to institutionalising open access is weak, sensitisation to its potential is low, and awareness and use of these resources remain modest.

For librarians, making the transition to open access would require a new skill set, so there is a strong need for training and capacity building here too. Librarians would no longer focus on cataloguing but instead shift to creating and maintaining interoperable, web-scale metadata; advising scholars on the complexities of licensing; and communicating with other open access repositories.

In brief, librarians need to move away from the traditional role of making collections available to their community and literacy enhancement, and into more data management and publishing roles. Several programmes such as the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publication and Electronic Information for Libraries have funded training for librarians in Africa, but much more training is still needed to institutionalise open access.

What about sustainability?
Low funding levels from national governments bring into question the sustainability of open access policies. Coupled with a lack of support at high levels of management and weak infrastructure investment for higher bandwidth and better internet connections, this has halted the advance of open access resources across Africa.

As the global economic crisis lingers and Western economies experience sluggish growth, there is increased uncertainty about the amount of future funding available for research. Also, as student populations at Africa's universities continue to grow at a rate above 8% a year, twice as fast as the world average, so too does the need for significant investment in higher education and a diverse set of educational materials.

A shift to open access publishing would be one way to ensure that more relevant local content remains available. Students could take advantage of this as well as other open educational resources.

Fortunately, changing dynamics in Africa are giving new hope for increased adoption of open access. Government policies promoting investments in information and communications technology infrastructure and undersea fibreoptic cables mean that a lot more African scholars will have access to decent internet connections. Already, internet penetration rates, both web and mobile, in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya are above or close to the world average of 32%. And the entry of large licensing organisations, such as Creative Commons, into the African market could reinforce existing legal frameworks and sensitise communities on intellectual property and copyright law.

Knowledge institutions across Africa are picking up on this. In Kenya alone, three major universities — Strathmore University, Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi — and even more research institutions have adopted open access policies and are working on making them operational. For such initiatives to be of maximum use, African governments urgently need to take advantage of this momentum and create an en­abling environment by enhancing the legal framework around open access and copyright law.

Not an easy road
Open access is not a panacea for all challenges in higher education in Africa and converting to open access models will not be easy. Large investments in increasing awareness, and building capacity, research, development and technology are necessary to ensure all parts of the publishing system — editors, peer reviewers, professors and librarians — are competent and effective. Additionally, establishing more reputable open access journals to feed the system is critical.

I have established Hadithi, an online open access research library for African scholars. We harvest, curate and aggregate open access research from institutional repositories worldwide. Through our library, scholars can search and download research material in one place at no cost.

Our organisation seeks to maximise the effect of academic research, involve communities of learning and make societies critically conscious through increased access to quality academic information. We see our platform as a stepping stone towards enabling equal rights to education for students in Africa.

Investing in publishing systems and quality control is important, but the need for significant reform in higher education at the policy level must not be ignored. This involves creating incentives for teachers to remain in the classrooms, and engaging students beyond the classroom.

Most importantly, academia and policy need to work in tandem to turn research into action for development, and it is here that open access in and for Africa can play its most significant role.

Manka S Angwafo is the founder of Hadithi, an online repository of open access research for university students, academics and researchers (hadithi.org)