Knowledge Brokers Forum Blog
Sep 12

Open Access: One small step or a giant leap?

Wed 12 Sep 2012 16:28:07 | 2 comments

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) recently announced the welcome news that all publically-funded development research is to become freely available.  As the recent ‘Academic Spring’ debate attests, this is good news for most, not least of all southern researchers who rank accessing research high up a long list of problems they face when trying to engage with the wider development community.

“Charging the developing world to see findings of new scientific research will mean fewer people escape poverty and could cost lives” warned International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell as he set out the Department’s new open access policy.  “Even the most groundbreaking research is of no use to anyone if it sits on a shelf gathering dust… What's just as important, though, is ensuring that these findings get into the hands of those in the developing world who stand to gain most from putting them into practical use.”

Although some may disagree, surely any attempts to make research available easily and at little or no cost to researchers in developing world deserve applause (bravo, Eldis)? Yes… but while open access initiatives and policies such as these are hugely significant, it’s important to understand that the ‘apartheid of knowledge and analysis’ (as Duncan Green of Oxfam puts it) doesn’t end with improving access.

As a programme dedicated to promoting and sharing knowledge from and for the Global South, GDNet has long been aware of the barriers that southern researchers experience to having their knowledge influence global debates on development. GDNet recently identified other key challenges: securing research funding, communicating research findings to peers and policy audiences, and the (mis)perceptions of the quality of southern research, and concluded that a change in personal attitudes towards research from developing countries is also necessary.

Leading by example, GDNet has launched Connect South, a campaign to encourage members of the development research and policy communities to adopt a more inclusive approach to southern research. The campaign calls on people and organisations working in development to pledge how they will help southern researchers to communicate their work better and more widely.  The organization has launched its own Charter of Commitment to southern research which they are hoping will inspire other organizations to do the same.

Ensuring that research findings get into the hands of those who stand to gain most from putting them into practice is one thing. Recognising the value southern research offers to global discussions on development is quite another. If development research is to make the impact DFID wants it to, both need an equal chance to succeed.

Join the campaign at linkd.in/ConnectSouth


Thanks Clare for highlighting this initiative. From what I read, it is an initiative for northern partners to connect to us southern research units - at least that's how I interpret what I read?

When I clicked on the link I was hoping to see resources to help us at southern research units connect to each other, and to support our connections. I recently read a paper by a southern researcher (from University of Cape Town) highlighting just how invisible our research on poverty alleviation is through search engines (their research specifically used google). The paper is not widely available yet (hence I can't provide a link). What struck me - and I've been working in NGO/Research communications for 17 years - is that most research institutes do not have dedicated staff to make research visible, and in exceptional cases (like the institute I work for where we have 3 staff dedicated to information brokering), the technical curation skills for digital curation just aren't there. For example, in our team of 3, we have a 'policy dialogue officer' - making people-to-people connections, often through events, a 'information and communications officer' (me) - with mostly a paper publishing background, and newly focussing on the digital terrain (I don't have the technical skills), and a 'librarian' - whose focus is on our special collection of books, not on the digital terrain. For the last 9 years, I've actually been doing 'digital curation' (not all in this job), but I am only now learning that I am not doing it the right way - that just building an online bibliography is not enough; I need to get the right IT skills and support to do 'metatagging' etc. But the IT people I come across mostly work for businesses and their concerns are not with making research available, so I don't find the right advice. Online materials are too technical for me to understand well (I get the general idea, but still not sure what I need to do in practice).

The consequence is that while I've curated literally thousands of items, none of it is metatagged, and while you can find it if you know the title/ author you're looking for, it's virtually invisible without that information.

Why has this happened? well, because until recently, I never met anyone who understood the terrain, who could advise me/us and never understood that there was a problem with the way things were being done.

Every single one of the projects I worked on was donor funded, with them expecting us to make our work visible (and we could provide links to show that it is), but no one checked that the technical basis of curation was well understood by the staff who worked on it.

I absolutely know I am not alone in realising this now - almost 20 years down the line of digital curation in the South.

It seems we in the South (none of us with the kind of IT skills necessary) were assumed to KNOW how to do this kind of work, and the assumption was wrong.

And now there's lots of southern online archives and bibliographies, but none of them make the research available effectively. I feel quite depressed by all of this. And I feel even more depressed knowing that while the penny has dropped for me, our institute is fairly unique in how it is going about brokering and others consider us a southern 'model' - this means, for many, they still don't know and understand how to properly curate their materials.

For me, this suggests a huge funding gap, that donors need to run training/ short courses for all the communication work they fund making sure that everyone knows the exact methodology for making the research visible.

I wish I could access such a short course for myself RIGHT NOW. As far as I can tell from google (and who knows that info might not be correctly curated either) there are no such short courses in South Africa. In the digital age, I can't fathom how this could be?
Hi Rebecca

Thanks for your comment and for highlighting what is a major issue for intermediaries such as yourself in accessing the technological skills and 'know-how' necessary for digital curation.

The Connect South campaign seeks to raise awarenes of a number of challenges facing southern organisazations and indivuduals in communicating research knowledge by encouraging discussion (such as this), and to mobilize the development community to respond by making pledges to be part of a solution.

The campaign is about connecting northern institutions with southern ones but it is also about creating a platform on which southern members can draw attention to issues such as the one you raise here. I like your idea of creating a resource as part of the campaign to help southern research units to connect. At the moment we are asking organizations to use the campaign group page to do this in a less formal way. For example, Stability Journal has used our LinkedIn space to invite southern researchers to collaborate with them. GDNet (the campaign's leader) will also highlight a number of networking opportunities and training events you might be interested in. www.gdnet.org

Why not post the comments you make here on www.linkd.in/ConnectSouth? I'm sure many of our supporters would be interested in what you have to say.


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