Africa: Breaking Down the Academic Paywalls, in Africa Too

Across Africa, academics and researchers face financial barriers that keep them from accessing the same knowledge their peers elsewhere in the world can afford.

But some young Africans are fighting to change this. Open access publishing is their weapon of choice.

While participating in the 2011 campaign to pass Kenya's Cancer Bill, Daniel Munyambu Mutonga, a medical student at the University of Nairobi, hit a wall - a paywall. To convince the public of the bill's importance, he needed the latest statistics and research on breast cancer in Kenya. The articles were a click away. But, he recalls, he "just couldn't get to that information. It wasn't published in accessible journals."

The reason for non-access? His library couldn't afford the expensive medical journals in which the articles were published. Adding to his frustration, Mutonga realized that the research he needed had probably been published by a Kenyan, maybe even a colleague down the hall. Yet for him, the findings were invisible.

Later that year, Mutonga heard a talk about the open access movement. This global alliance of students, librarians, entrepreneurs and government officials fights for free and unrestricted digital access to academic research. After the presentation, the medical student thought back on how limited access had personally affected him - even shaping decisions about the direction of his own research.

Good health, good governance

Mutonga is not alone. African students scour the web every day for scholarly articles, but run into the same insurmountable paywalls. Mutonga instantly realized the potential of the open access movement and started a campaign at his university.

But the effects of paywalls go beyond the hallowed halls of academia. That's why others are joining the fight for open access. Tom Olijhoek, a Dutch microbiologist who conducted malaria research in Kenya, emphasizes the importance of open access for public health.

"There are doctors who are working in malaria-affected areas every day, treating patients, without access to the latest research. They don't know if the new medicine promoted by pharmaceutical industries is really effective. And researchers are wasting their time duplicating research that others have already done elsewhere," he explains.

Manka Angwafo, another advocate based in Kenya, believes open access could also be a powerful tool to promote government transparency.

"I see the importance of open access, particularly for Africa, for a much broader range of collections than just academic articles, such as policy briefs and strategy papers," she says.

Anyone interested in their community could make use of these documents, Angwafo reasons.

"For example, if there's a sewage problem in my neighbourhood, I could actually figure out what the government is doing to address my problem, and who is in charge of that. Only 2 percent of the population might want to do that, but that person might be able to bring about change for the whole community," she says.

Heavy tolls, unsustainable charity

Access barriers are particularly high for those in the developing world. But even Harvard - by far the world's richest university, with a $30 billion endowment - sounded the alarm bells last year about "an untenable situation" facing Harvard Library.

In 2012, Harvard's cost for journals, alone, approached $3.75 million. Harvard claims that subscriptions to "some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands". In comparison, the library's total budget for digital subscriptions at Makerere University in Uganda ranges between $50,000 and $60,000 a year.

Academic publishers do regularly offer African universities reduced or free subscriptions to their journals. That said, Jon Harle, a researcher from the Association of Commonwealth Universities, finds that "still the universities [in Africa] are unable to maintain good collection across all subjects".

Such reduced subscription programmes, like the WHO-administered HINARI, also cut access as soon as publishers see commercial potential in developing countries. In 2011, they suddenly excluded Kenyan universities from free access. South Africa is already considered too rich to participate in the programmes.

Iryna Kuchma, from the non-profit organization Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), helps negotiate deals between publishers and African universities, and believes some publishers are "great partners". Yet she believes such initiatives offer only a temporary solution.

"Those free-access programmes just work as marketing tools," she says. "Their success depends on negotiating skills of EIFL libraries and the good will of the publisher."

Changing the business model

The open access movement has set out to change the business model of academic publishing. Last year witnessed governments - perhaps the largest funders of scientific research - joining the ranks. The UK and the European Commission now force government-funded researchers to publish in open access journals, which are freely accessible to all or, at least, to self-archive research in open access university repositories.

In Africa, governments have been slower to adopt open access policies.

"There will be no rush to change without pressure from the government and funders," says Andrew Mwesigwa, a librarian at Makerere University in Uganda.

If he's right, that means that open access in Africa remains contingent on the actions of Western organizations, which fund about 70 percent of African research.

Yet even without quick changes at the top, a bottom-up approach is in full swing. Students like Mutonga, the Kenyan medical student, are working with librarians to create repositories of all the research produced at their university. Last November, Mutonga travelled to the Open Access Africa conference in Cape Town to spread the word about student advocacy and the successes at his university.

At the same time, larger repositories are springing up, collecting research on certain themes or regions. Africa Portal offers a collection of research on African policy issues. Olijhoek, the Dutch microbiologist, is a consultant for MalariaWorld, a site offering the latest information on malaria for researchers and doctors alike.

Angwafo, the Kenyan open access advocate, recently founded Hadithi, an online platform that, besides aggregating other journals, aims to increase the online visibility of local African journals.

"Many of those journals have no metadata online," Angwafo explains. That implies that other websites like Google Scholar cannot locate, aggregate and classify African research. Hadithi's technology wants to change that.

"We want to make it possible for users to download, share, and retweet research," says Angwafo.

The participants in the open access movement are diverse, but all are motivated by the belief that knowledge can be a great force for change. As Mutonga puts it: "If everyone is able to access information, we can compete at a level playing ground. Developing countries can then come up with their own solutions."

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