Academic journals charge for article access and this means that only institutions and people with resources can access the new knowledge they contain, especially the prestigious journals.
South Africa is no different, as we pay exorbitant fees, in pounds, dollars or euros, to access these journals to read research – both by local and international academics – that is paid for with taxpayers' money. This generally makes it too costly for a member of the public to read the research coming out of South Africa – research that they may have paid for. Moreover, academics submit work and peer-reviewed journal articles for free, whereas the journals accrue the profits.
This is why the country is turning to open access through the South African arm of the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO SA), the first open access site for scholarly journals on the African continent.
Although the issue of open access has been topical for more than a decade in academic circles, it jumped into the mainstream media earlier this year when an American internet activist, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide.
While guest lecturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he downloaded millions of academic articles from the online publisher, JStor (Journal Storage), and disseminated them for free. He was charged with federal cybercrime and faced the possibility of 35 years in prison. The 24-year-old co-developer of the RSS news feed format committed suicide in January this year.
The court papers of United States vs Aaron Swartz say: "JStor generally charges libraries, universities and publishers a subscription fee for access to JStor's digitised journals. For a large research university, this annual subscription fee for JStor's various collections of content can cost more than $50000. Portions of the subscription fees are shared with the journal publishers who hold the original copyrights."
JStor is a repository of more than 2 000 academic journals.
So where does this leave a developing country such as South Africa?
Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom could not be at the launch of SciELO SA this week, but in a speech read out by his special adviser, Khotso Mokhele, Hanekom said: "Much of the academic literature that exists in the form of journal articles is based on research which was in fact funded directly or indirectly via government support, on the premise that knowledge is a public good.
"How then does it happen that academic publishers are given the right to retail this knowledge, often to the same taxpayers who paid for its generation in the first place?"
The event commemorated South Africa's quality certification to be part of the SciELO network. All SciELO journals appear on the Web of Knowledge interface, which is run by Thomson-Reuters.
The South African Journal of Science was the first journal to join SciELO SA, managing editor Dr Linda Fick said. "The SciELO network at the moment republishes the articles … [It is] a broader network that publishes those articles again."
When asked about quality assurance, she said: "Each journal has its own system for peer review."
The department of science and technology has allocated R22-million to the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) for 2013-2016 for the SciELO SA project. The department of higher education had also put resources towards the project, SciELO SA operations manager Louise van Heerden said on Wednesday, but repeated attempts to contact the department were unsuccessful.
"We chose SciELO, developed in Brazil, because it works well for developing countries," Van Heerden said. "We're providing a platform for South African journals to go open access. Only the best journals are placed on the SciELO database, and only if they are prepared to go open access."
Assaf chairperson of the standing committee on science publishing, Wieland Gewers, said on Wednesday: "The logic is that most South African journals had small print runs [and were] distributed to local libraries and subscribers. There was no international circulation, they weren't online and were virtually invisible."
Spokesperson at the National Research Foundation (NRF), the main public research funding body, Thabiso Nkone, said that the foundation did not pay for journal subscriptions, which "are typically bought by the institutions themselves".
Gewers said so much of tertiary institutions' resource budgets went on journal subscriptions that there was very little money left to buy books. He said: "Literally all of Brazil's quality journals are in this free online portal."