It is easy to make the case for open access in North America, where there are coordinated, national efforts to develop technical infrastructure. One of the frustrating things about our current scholarly communication system is that it is still not entirely open access despite the fact that we have the technological capability to create and sustain an OA publishing system. Indeed, we are lucky here in Canada, for many reasons.
But a robust, open access-ready technology infrastructure is not the norm around the world. In “Open Access Towards Bridging the Digital Divide – Policies and Strategies for Developing Countries,” Allam Ahmed focuses on the possibilities for and restrictions against implementing wide-scale open access in Africa. Regardless of good will and hard work in this direction, there remain significant challenges to implementing continent-wide technological change in Africa. Namely, that what North Americans might consider as basic technological infrastructure does not necessarily exist across Africa (at least this is true as of 2007, when Ahmed published this article). Ahmed writes, “Internet connectivity in tertiary education institutions in Africa is in generally [sic] too expensive, poorly managed, and inadequate to meet even basic requirements” (345). In light of this lack of infrastructure, how does one justify an open access research system that is entirely predicated on the availability of online publishing software, robust hardware, and adequate storage, when these are simply not available to many researchers working internationally?
Ahmed acknowledges these significant roadblocks, but still argues that open access could mediate the digital divide between the Global North and the Global South. He is straightforward in his opinion on the role of developed nations in amending the current situation: “If the developed countries are sincere about bridging the divide, then one of our first priorities will be to address the daring need of African intellectuals, namely, freeing scientific publications from undue censorship” (340).
Ahmed takes a thorough look at the infrastructure and policy climate that does exist in Africa, and offers suggestions for how open access might be successful in Africa — both in terms of African researchers accessing publications and African researchers creating open access publications. Among other suggestions, he insists on open access advocacy, internationally, including by bodies such as the United Nations. He also cites efforts toward Green OA, especially via African scholars depositing their work in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Ahmed argues that in the United States and United Kingdom there is support for open access by higher authorities in education and government; by contrast, established African scholars have not pushed for open access, and “Initiatives from association [sic] of libraries, association [sic] of provosts, among other high-ranking caliber of scientists as seen in the developed countries, are not yet identifiable in Africa” . Such a lack of advocacy by those in power needs to be remedied. He infers that resources need to be spent on building continental technology infrastructure, so that at the minimum researchers can access online publications and journals can build and sustain websites.
Ahmed’s critique of the international open access situation is poignant, and can be summarized in the following quotation: “Electronic publications, which once seemed to be capable of ending the isolation of African scholars, are presently as exorbitant and difficult to access as their printed-paper counterparts” (353). Without acknowledging the full meaning and entire context of access, and addressing the various challenges this might bear for all countries internationally, we will never create a truly global open access ecosystem.
Ahmed, Allam. 2007. “Open Access Towards Bridging the Digital Divide – Policies and Strategies for Developing Countries.” Information Technology for Development 13 (4): 337-61.