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  • Bridging the digital divide through open access

Kenyan researcher Joseph Juma Musakali asks what African research institutes can do to exploit the open access movement.

Publishing scientific findings and accessing the research of others is an essential part of the academic process, particularly to encourage debate and foster innovation.

But many research institutions in Africa cannot afford to subscribe to many scientific journals, making it hard for scientists to keep up with research. Some institutions cannot even afford to promote and share the results of their research. Only a few people see their results and much of the research findings on the continent are going unnoticed.

The open access movement removes barriers to academic literature and offers opportunities to participate in the wider research and teaching community, ensuring that Africa does not end up on the wrong side of the 'digital divide'.

African higher education institutions can make use of open access in several ways but they must also address the vital, underpinning role of information and communications technology (ICT).

A wealth of journals

Improving access to subscription-only journals is now possible through, for example, the WHO's Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), which works with major publishers to enable developing countries to access biomedical and health literature. More than 6,400 journals are available free to health institutions, workers and researchers in 108 countries.

Similarly, the Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) programme, set up by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has enlisted major publishers to provide 107 developing countries with access to more than 1,200 journals in food, agriculture, environmental science and related social sciences.

There are also many open access journals, including those in the Public Library of Science (PLoS), as well as others listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a project set up by Lund University Libraries in Sweden. African institutions can contribute electronic journals to these sites to promote and disseminate their research.

Translating, teaching and training

Enabling language and linguistic departments to translate foreign electronic materials into local languages is one way to provide access to a wider selection of materials. This should go hand in hand with faculty exchange with institutions in other countries. Apart from spreading ideas, this could encourage partner institutions to share information repositories.

Some universities, such as the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, have launched open access projects for students and staff.

It has, for instance, developed digital teaching materials that are available to the community free of charge. Students work closely with faculty to record materials and compile them in an open repository, accessible to other students as a resource to support their coursework, and available to the public via the Internet.

To help encourage the use of open access resources, faculty and students need training, especially in information search and retrieval where and how to find the latest or most relevant research articles.

At my department, in the school of information sciences at Moi University, Kenya, we are not only training students in these skills but also showing them how to submit papers to open access journals.

ICT underpins open access

Critical to creating an environment for open access are robust policies to improve ICT. All African researchers and scientists should petition their governments to put policies in place.

Most educational institutions have little or no access to the Internet and networks, and bandwidth is limited. Expanding networking would encourage institutions and local journal publishers to build websites and provide content online, so helping users to access research materials particularly if they were made available free of charge.

To this end, the arrival of fibre-optic cables in African countries is very timely. In July last year, the first of four undersea fibre-optic cables went live, connecting Africans along the east coast to high-speed broadband Internet. The lines touch ground in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

Developing strong ICT policies is not just about improving Internet coverage it also includes supporting institutions to manage intranets, repositories and networking projects. For example, the Kenya Education Network Trust (KENET) promotes the use of ICT in teaching, learning and research in higher education institutions.

KENET aims to connect all of Kenya's universities, colleges and research institutions through a private network that also has high-speed Internet access. It enables electronic communication among students and faculty in member institutions and sharing of learning and teaching resources by collaborating on the development of educational content.

African researchers can also make use of external networks, particularly those of nongovernmental organisations that are committed to disseminating information. The UN University, for example, offers free support, guidance and course materials to universities in the developing world that want to share courses and develop their own open access websites.

Librarians, authors, researchers and other groups in Africa need to come together to champion open access. African countries will either become an integral part of the global knowledge economy or find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Joseph Juma Musakali is a researcher who teaches at the school of information sciences, Moi University, Kenya.

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