Knowledge behind barriers

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Across the continent Africans are fighting to break down pay walls to academic knowledge. Their fight for Open Access might prove fundamental in closing Africa’s knowledge gap with the developed world.

Daniel Mutonga, a medical student at the University of Nairobi, hit a wall during the 2011 campaign to pass Kenya’s Cancer Bill, which aimed to increase access to cancer treatment. In order to inform others on the bill’s importance, Mutonga needed the latest statistics and research on breast cancer in Kenya, but he “just couldn’t get to that information. It wasn’t published in accessible journals.” The articles were just a click away. But because his library hadn’t subscribed to the expensive journals in which the articles were published, they were locked away behind a pay wall.

Adding to his frustration, Mutonga realized that the research he needed was probably even conducted by a local Kenyan researcher, maybe even a colleague down the hall—but it didn’t matter: for him it was both invisible and inaccessible.

Relentless restrictions
One student who can’t access an academic article may not seem like a big deal. Even to Mutonga himself it seemed just a minor nuisance. But later that year he first heard a talk about the Open Access movement,  which fights for free and unrestricted digital access to academic research. After the presentation, he thought back on how limited access had affected him—even shaping decisions about the direction of his own studies. And he was not alone: people all over Africa scour the web every day for scholarly articles, and run into the same relentless pay walls. Mutonga instantly realized the potential of the Open Access movement. Soon afterwards, he started an Open Access campaign at his own university.

And the effects of pay walls go beyond the walls of academia. 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.”

Manka Angwafo, another Open Access advocate, believes it 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.” Anyone interested in their community could make use of these, Manka argues: “For example, if there’s a sewage problem in my neighborhood, I could actually figure out what the government is doing to address my problem, and who is in charge of that. Only 2% of the population might want to do that, but that person might be able to bring about change for the whole community.”

Changing the business model
Even the world’s richest university – Harvard in the US- has complained about the cost of academic journals and while some publishers do offer reduced or even free subscriptions to African universities, this ‘charity’ is dependent on good will and the negotiating skills of African university administrators.

The Open Access movement aims to change the business model of academic publishing. Many Western governments have already moved to ensure that state funded researchers make their results freely available, but governments in Africa have been slow to adopt such policies.

Yet even without change at the top, a bottom-up approach is in full swing in Africa. Students like Daniel Mutonga are working with their university librarians to create repositories of all the research produced at their university. Last November, he travelled to the Open Access Africa conference in South Africa 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. Tom Olijhoek is involved with MalariaWorld, a site that offers the latest information on malaria for researchers and doctors alike.

Manka Angwafo has recently founded Hadithi, an online platform that doesn’t just aggregate other journals, but also aims to increase the online visibility of local African journals. “Many of those journals have no metadata online”, Angwafo explains, which means other websites like Google Scholar cannot locate, aggregate and classify African research. Hadithi’s technology wants to change that. Angwafo: “We want to make it possible for users to download, share, and retweet research.”

Knowledge is power
The Open Access movement is diverse, but all involved are motivated by the belief that knowledge can be a great force for change. Russel Botman, vice-president of the Association of African Universities, recently wrote: “If knowledge is the currency of our time, then open access amounts to the redistribution mechanism of that wealth.”

Daniel Mutonga voices a similar sentiment: “If everyone is able to access information, we can compete at a level playing ground. A student trained with good access to the Internet and articles has an education that’s equivalent to any other in the world. If developing countries can access information they can come up with their own solutions.”