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Reflections on ‘Towards Sustainable Open Access Book Publishing in the African Context’, a workshop at the University of Cape Town

Published onMar 12, 2024
Reflections on ‘Towards Sustainable Open Access Book Publishing in the African Context’, a workshop at the University of Cape Town
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Last month, the Open Book Collective (OBC) co-convened a three day workshop (February 7th to 9th 2024) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), exploring the challenges and opportunities associated with developing a sustainable open access (OA) book publishing ecosystem in Africa, with the remit of building interventions that contribute to and/or accelerate the growth of African scholarship. In this post, we’ll report on some of the conversations that took place across the workshop, and share some of our thoughts for the next steps in developing these initiatives and connections.  

The workshop was titled ‘Towards Sustainable Open Access Book Publishing in the African Context’ and was organised in collaboration with a number of partners, many of whom are involved in the Copim Open Book Futures project. These included the African Platform for Open Scholarship (APOS; formerly Continental Platform), The Association of African Universities (AAU), Directory of Open Access Books, Lancaster University, punctum books, Thoth Open Metadata, and University of Cape Town Library, with additional financial support from Coventry University. It was attended by librarians, publishers, researchers and infrastructure providers from across the continent, with representation from Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania, as well as members of the Open Book Futures team from Europe and the UK. 

One of the key intentions of the workshop was to provide space for attendees to share challenges, experience, expertise, and information about new developments in the support and funding of OA book publishing. We also shared our ideas for the next steps towards the realization of an equitable and sustainable OA landscape for books across in an African context, as well as providing opportunities for attendees to develop new skills. 

In opening remarks, Director of UCT Libraries, Ms. Ujala Satgoor, outlined the key role that UCT Libraries has been playing in initiating conversations around open scholarship in Africa, addressing the need to build appropriate, situated networks for the dissemination of African research. Critical to this work is UCT Press, which recently relaunched as a fully open access publisher, and APOS, which was founded by UCT Libraries. This was followed by two keynote talks: Prof. Olusola Bandele Oyewole, Secretary General of the AAU outlined the benefits of open research in an African context, as well as the structural barriers impeding its development; Joe Deville then outlined the potential role that the both the Open Book Collective and the wider Copim Open Book Futures project might play in supporting the promise of OA in a global context. 

Reggie Raju discusses the work of the African Platform for Open Scholarship at UCT.

Across the workshop as a whole, a consistent theme was the need to develop and share African solutions to African challenges around scholarly publishing. These are themes that Reggie Raju, Director of Research and Learning at UCT Libraries and one of the co-founders of APOS, has written about. For example, he has argued that ‘the publishing landscape has been ‘northernised, research from the global north sitting at the very top of the knowledge hierarchy to the exclusion of Africa and other parts of the global south’. These themes were ever-present at the event, with a shared collective desire to challenge the exclusionary, global north-dominant paradigms that dominate the scholarly publishing landscape, including OA publishing. 

Colleagues discussed some of the barriers standing in the way of an imminent shift in the status quo. These included funding, issues with ICT infrastructure impeding electronic publication, and uneven levels of awareness about OA amongst academics, institutions and supporting staff. In relation to the last of these, a repeated topic was the persistent myths around OA publishing, including OA being associated with forms of predatory publishing. Delegates also repeatedly stressed the need for more coordination and communication both between and across national contexts, ranging from the need for institutional policies to the possibility of an (inter)national OA repository for scholarship developed for and by colleagues across the African continent.

The workshop structure was a mixture of presentations, plenary discussions and breakout sessions — we invite colleagues to browse the full programme, which includes links to slides from presenters. Some of the barriers participants had experienced had parallels in the global north, whilst others were situated and contextual.

For example, limited funding and poor knowledge and/or perceptions of OA publishing are problems for OA stakeholders across the globe, whilst African scholars must also grapple with challenges related to infrastructure, and colonial legacies that privilege publishing with established publishers in the global north, often in English. This is despite the real and recognised benefits of OA publication for issues such as collaboration, access, and visibility. To this end, it was noted that several major African universities have made public commitments to Open Research, such as UCT, Stellenbosch, Makere University, Covenant University, and the Universities of Ghana and Nairobi. Nonetheless, participants told us that a lack of institutional policies to support OA inhibits practice on the ground, as do low levels of awareness amongst academics. 

The need for institutional champions at various stages of the research lifecycle was another common theme. Champions might be authors, librarians, publisher and/or policymakers, and advocacy depends on their situated position in the life cycle of research. Embedded champions understand the local context of their institution, including national context and policies surrounding promotion and recognition, and their situation with regard to OA repositories. 

There may also be a need for a centralized open repository for African research, so that universities need not duplicate the labour of creating and maintaining one. Delegates were divided on issues relating to centralization — some saw a role for government in building OA policy at the national level, whilst others favoured a ground-up approach of winning researcher and stakeholder buy-in before policy is formed. ‘Practice comes before policy’ was an opinion held by many, both at the institutional and government level, whilst others felt that as governments were ultimately the major research funders, it should be incumbent upon them to mandate and fund open research. 

Delegates agreed on a clear need to map stakeholders in OA across the African context, in order to improve communication and collaboration between initiatives and link established to emergent practitioners. Collaboration and networking is needed within institutions, between institutions, and between and across national borders. On one hand, solutions are contextual and situated. On the other, coordination and labour-sharing are critical to establishing the road ahead.

Having explored some of the resources and toolkits available from the OBC, DOAB and Thoth (which again are linked from the workshop programme page), we asked delegates what further resources still need to be developed, how they could be collected and hosted, and how the resources could be promoted in their national and institutional contexts. We learned that books analytics services were considered important to a variety of stakeholders, as impact metrics, whilst in some ways a problematic proxy for value, are necessary to convince institutions, academics and policymakers of OA books’ importance and utility. 

We discussed the production process from the perspective of publishers African Minds and punctum; whilst academics in many contexts remain attached to the physical form of the book, the utility and mobility of electronic versions is important in the African context. On the other hand, issues of insufficient ICT infrastructure in some contexts can impede electronic publication and distribution, and publishers need to tailor approaches to ensure maximum accessibility at the level of format and bandwidth. The open access books produced by UCT Press, for instance, are deliberately designed for maximum readability on a smartphone.

Colleagues from UCT and OAPEN/DOAB discussed the variety of open licenses and authors’ options for copyright retention, such as via Creative Commons. The discussion raised some important questions. On one hand, minimal licensing supports the argument for OA as a public good, OA as a tool for development and the decolonization of curriculums across Africa. Minimally-licensed OA, such as CC-BY, makes research output more discoverable and available engagement and innovation. On the other, the question was raised as to whether minimal licensing — such as licenses that permit commercial use of an African-born OA work — essentially opens the door to further appropriation and exploitation of African resources. Ultimately, such licensing questions are something that authors and creators must come to their own conclusions about, in collaboration with their institutions: the need for librarians, academics and research support staff to coordinate and collaborate within institutions was as strong a theme as the need for external collaboration.

Closing marks from AAU Secretary General Prof. Olusola Bandele Oyewole

In closing remarks from AAU Secretary General, Prof. Oyewole, it was argued that the movement towards sustainable OA across Africa requires advocacy, capacity building, and collaboration. Advocacy includes education and upskilling of stakeholders from authors to scholarly communications staff to policy makers at the national and institutional level. 

Workshop participants also discussed what national and cross-national developments could support an expansion of OA publishing structures across Africa. The broad view was that lack of OA awareness at the level of university and government was a greater barrier than any widespread disagreement with the fundamental principles of open scholarship. We discussed the potential for a pan-African consortium of consortiums, which would allow for both coordination strategy and flexibility and receptivity to local situations. Some delegates saw the need for a declaration, similar to the Berlin and Bethesda declarations on OA, that would address OA in an African context; we also reflected on the potential role that AAU could play a role in the coordination and communication of this.

Moving forwards, the OBC is keen to remain engaged with publishers, librarians and authors in Africa, as part of our commitment to diversity and equity in the OA landscape. In support of this work, we have already hosted a follow up meeting with delegates to discuss the possibility of how their initiatives and plans might benefit from the OBC Collective Development Fund, which is due to launch in April. We have also met with Copim colleagues to discuss how we could contribute to the mapping exercise of OA stakeholders across the Africa, while recognising how important it will be for such an exercise to be driven by colleagues based in varied African settings. We also expect to return to the University of Cape Town later this year, to contribute towards an event they are working on in collaboration with others. We are extremely grateful to the delegates for engaging in such open and productive conversations, and especially to our colleagues at the University of Cape Town for hosting us so generously, and for their invaluable contributions to this important discussion.

Delegates at ‘Towards Sustainable Open Access Book Publishing in the African Context’

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