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Joining hands to strengthen the African open science movement

Jenice Goveas reports on a recent event advocating for open science in Africa co-organized and attended by representatives of the university sector.

The global narrative for open science is largely dominated by that of the developed countries. However, if the movement is to achieve the true goals of universal open access,  it is necessary to contextualize the open science needs of developing countries in the reality of a nascent and underfunded scientific ecosystem built on weak scientific infrastructure.

The African science, technology and innovation ecosystem is looking at brighter days with the open science movement steadily gaining momentum. Amidst the challenges of infrastructure in Africa, innovative databases, preprint servers and open research platforms like AfricArXiv have been increasing the visibility of African research. While there is a need to increase political will at the national level for promoting open science practices, collaboration is key to achieve its goals.

In sync with this thought, the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Public Library of Science (PLOS), and the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa) jointly organized an Advocacy and Capacity Building programme in Open Access (OA) and Open Science (OS) for top management staff of African Universities on 26 April 2022. The programme aimed to inform participants about the need for open science and its benefits, and also facilitate dialogue that would help identify challenges hindering its implementation. The event was attended by the presidents, vice-chancellors, rectors, deputy vice-chancellors, directors of research and librarians of several African universities. Their discussions focused on improving knowledge about open science: popularizing best practices, increasing adoption and encouraging better publishing practices and citizen science at member institutions.

Global perspectives on open science

Ana Persic, acting Chief of section for Science Policy and Partnerships at UNESCO reported on the UNESCO recommendations on Open Science and the need for an international policy and action framework for open science that recognizes disciplinary and regional differences. Geoffrey Boulton, Chair of the ISC project on the Future of Scientific Publishing highlighted the need for “Making open science work in practice”. He discussed the Principles of scientific publishing, their relevance, and the need to take action towards achieving universal open access. Roheena Anand, Executive Director, Global Publishing Development at Public Library of Science (PLOS), discussed the transition from open access to open science and equitable participation and the need to conduct research on open science.

Open science to enhance Africa’s knowledge economy

Joy Owango, the executive director of the Training Centre in Communication at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, as chair of the programme, opened with the fact that out of 1074 open science mandates globally, only 36 are in Africa, and emphasized the urgent need to increase this number. According to the Secretary General of the Association of African Universities (AAU), Olusola Bandele Oyewole, “open science is the way to make science have an impact on the community”. Open data, open methodology and open notebooks are the key tools to make information available.

Tshiamo Motshegwa, the director of the African Open Science Platform (AOSP) presented on what open science means for Africa, saying, “open science offers opportunities for more data to be translated into information and in turn into knowledge and a knowledge economy”. He observed that Africa’s demographic advantage gives great scope to inculcate open science practices among researchers. The role of librarians as key stakeholders in the open science ecosystem was stressed by Mac Anthony Cobbiah, the chairperson of the Academic Library and Library consortia section (AFLIA), reiterating that “Libraries have to embrace change and deal with changed format of information”.

Impediments to adopting open science mandates

However, lack of understanding and awareness of open science, misunderstanding and misinformation among researchers that publishing open access is expensive were highlighted as barriers to further adoption of open science. Challenges to knowledge sharing and data access included a lack of incentives, weak scientific and digital infrastructure and connectivity, a dearth of enabling policies at national and regional levels, an absence of effective IP and data protection policies, language barriers and a lack of encouragement towards digitization. The open discussion also highlighted the need to preserve Africa’s indigenous knowledge in digital repositories. Participants took the example of South Africa, which has been a torchbearer for OA policies, because leadership at the national level pushed for open access, and it was mandated by the national academy.

Ways forward

Some of the next steps discussed included advocacy, garnering support from management and peers. Further workshops will be designed for adoption of open science practices: The meeting was a prelude to four capacity-building workshops to be carried out in different regions of Africa, in order to brainstorm effective strategies for inculcating open science in research curricula, pedagogy and assessment, while charting a roadmap to translate open science into quality teaching, research, and community service. This would build capacity towards creation of a framework for sustainable management of open science in African institutions. The larger goal of these efforts is to reduce the loss of resources due to the duplication of research, and accelerate socio-economic gains through shared knowledge, achievable through open science practices.

Watch the meeting:

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Image by NASA Johnson.

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