You want your Open Access initiative to succeed? Partner with research funders

This month I moderated a very informative webinar on Encouraging Openness and how stakeholder policies can support or block it, organized by CIARD (Open Agricultural Knowledge for Development) and delivered by Bill Hubbard, Director of the Centre for Research Communications (CRC) at the University of Nottingham. 

During the webinar, Bill mentioned two points that gave me food for thought. These are that simple policies to encourage Open Access (OA) do not seem to work (unless where they are mandated with sanctions); and that research funders are key to encouraging OA. 

Opening access to agricultural research information in Africa is a big issue. Please, note my use of the term opening access as opposed to Open Access. This is because from my experience a good number of researchers, especially in public research organizations in Africa, appear not to be too keen with the idea of Open Access as in free and unrestricted online availability to the content they generate. They of the view that they cannot just give away for free their research outputs, a factor that has contributed to slow progress on OA initiatives on the continent. Therefore, I am of the view that for a start opening access, as in ensuring that research output is properly documented and is made visible to enhance identification and access without any restrictions if the organization or researcher decides to so, is more appropriate in such an environment. After all, in the long run it will lead to OA. Placing too much emphasis on free and unrestricted online availability of research frightens a good number of people. 

Since 2006, I have been working on initiatives that encourage opening access to agricultural research information in Africa. I have supported projects in this area in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, and provided technical support and policy advice to several other countries. The focus of the initiatives has been on working with key institutions involved in the generation, processing and dissemination of agricultural knowledge, placing emphasis on developing their technical and functional capacities and ensuring that the enabling policy environment in place. Depending on the initial assessment of the institutional readiness, support has included providing appropriate ICT (i.e. computer servers, workstations, scanners, connectivity, etc.); training staff in digital information management, developing digital institutional repositories,  and using content management systems; and developing copyright guidelines, and information management and communication (ICM) policies and strategies that encourage opening access to content.

Out of 16 institutions that I worked with in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, only the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is doing well and has its institutional repository listed in OpenDOAR. What has happened to the other 15 institutions?

Bill is right when he says that simple policies to encourage Open Access (AO) do not seem to work, unless they are mandated with sanctions. Six of the institutions that I worked with information policies and strategies that incorporated OA, and these were endorsed by senior management. To date, the number of full-text documents in some of institutional repositories is almost the same as it was at the end of the projects. Not that many resources have been added because researchers are not depositing their works, and no one is sanctioned.

For a long time, even before the arrival of OA on the scene, most agricultural research organizations in Africa have had policies in place that required staff to deposit copies of their publications with the library or documentation centre. In most organizations these policies have rarely worked largely because no staff are sanctioned for not depositing their publications. Most researchers do not feel compelled to deposit their publications in the institutional repository to facilitate opening access to their works.

I also agree with Bill that research funders are key to the success of Open Access (or opening access) initiatives. Agricultural research in public research organizations in Africa is largely funded by external donors. Imagine what would happen if they all included Open Access to outputs of the research they fund in the conditions for financing research projects? 

Your guess is as good as mine. Institutional OA policy or no policy, research output will be available for Open Access if the funders for research demands so.

I guess now I have ideas on how to approach my next OA initiatives.