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A new scheme aims to put African research on the map by providing free access to a range of the country's top academic journals.

The South African Journal of Science (SAJS) will lead the way, becoming the first high-profile open access journal by the end of March in a pilot project lasting two years.

Robin Crewe of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSA), the publisher of the journal, announced the project at the African Science Communication Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, last month (19 February).

The move was welcomed by open-access campaigners.

"Open access is relevant to the development of Sub-Saharan Africa, as some of the "closed" journals are expensive and some of our print-only journals do not reach the international academic community," says Kobus Roux from the Pretoria-based Meraka Institute.

The project is based on the Brazil-based Scientific Electronic Online Library (SciELO). It aims to provide readers in developing countries with free online access to peer-reviewed academic journals and has already been successfully implemented in eight countries.

Susan Veldsman, director of ASSA's scholarly publishing unit in Pretoria, said the aim is that the African version of SciELO will have 35 journals freely available online by the end of 2009.

The SAJS journal will launch its new open access edition and convert the last two years of print editions into an open access format at the end of March, according to its incoming editor Michael Cherry — a zoologist from South Africa's University of Stellenbosch.

Not all journals are eligible to join the project — only those listed under international indexes are under consideration. A series of independent review panels are assessing journal quality, with agriculture headed by former Rhodes University vice-chancellor David Woods and social sciences led by retired University of Cape Town researcher Wieland Gevers.

Carol Priestley, director of the UK-based Network for Information and Digital Access, warned that the new venture should ''complement existing initiatives'' such as African Journals Online and Sabinet's Open Access Journal Collection to ''mitigate against duplication".

Taurai Imbayarwo, of Africa Science Trackers in Stellenbosch, highlighted the project's expense for the taxpayer. Taxes subsidise universities, researchers and print publications — while universities retain their US$7,000–10,000 payment for every article published in an accredited journal. If the publication process is now free to academics, the system may need revision, he said.