Access to information is a basic human right entrenched in the South African Constitution. Yet there are many barriers restricting or preventing access to information.
The biggest barriers are:
access to the internet;
restrictive copyright laws together with digital rights management systems that “lock up” information or restrict access;
unreasonable policies and embargo periods set by publishers on online material; and
excessively priced books.
What needs to be done to lift the impossible restrictions currently in place?
Copyright laws and the case for open access
There is a solution: open access.
South Africa is doing some amazing research but cannot share it globally because of restrictive copyright laws or unreasonable policies and embargo periods set by publishers. South African authors cannot become known and cited if their works are locked up behind expensive paywalls, accessible only to a limited audience.
South African students and researchers also need access to the best international and local up-to-date journals, books and other research to be able to contribute new knowledge in their fields.
This is the reason open access is so crucial for South Africa and other developing countries.
Open access is an international movement which facilitates access to information that is usually locked up or held behind expensive paywalls or copyright. Many educational institutions around the world, including South Africa, have created open access institutional repositories to make their research outputs accessible on the global stage.
These repositories provide access to public-funded works to anyone who can access the internet. More importantly, they open the door to research and other knowledge that has always been closed to developing countries.
Institutional repositories are free and open, providing full text articles, book chapters and other research outputs of institutions. The users don’t have to pay. In many ways, if it wasn’t for open access material, health workers, researchers, educators and librarians would not be able to access information that is relevant and up-to-date.
The case of the young US student, Jack Andraka, provides a dramatic example of the power of open access. He discovered a new cancer test by accessing Open Access material on Google.
More than 850 enlightened publishers around the world now facilitate access to knowledge by allowing institutions to deposit their final PDF published articles onto open access institutional repositories. They will benefit from sharing knowledge; their publications will get more readers; the authors will get more citations and increased impact.
The “big five” publishing houses in the world today are RELX Group, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage. In 2013, these publishing houses published more than half of all academic papers in the peer-reviewed literature. In 2014 they were responsible for more than 70% of all papers published in chemistry and psychology.
Unfortunately RELX Group – formerly Reed Elsevier and the world’s leading provider of health and science information, which serves more than 30 million scientists, students and health and information professionals globally – believes that locking up knowledge somehow “benefits” academia, research and knowledge production.
Its new “sharing” policy smacks in the face of resource-sharing via open access. It attempts to place unreasonable embargoes on material so that it cannot be made available on open access institutional repositories for a long time. This means that institutions cannot make their own research outputs accessible on open access until such time as the company or other publishers decide they can. Embargo periods range from 12 months to four years.
In recent months, academic institutions and libraries around the world have objected strongly to RELX Group’s new policy. To date, 268 institutions and 2681 concerned librarians and academics have signed a petition against the policy. The publishing company has responded with an attempt to show the benefits of such a policy. But it just entrenches its policy of restrictions and control over research, which institutions themselves have produced via their academic authors.
The publisher has also been boycotted for a few years by many international researchers due to their excessive pricing models and publishing policies. In July 2015, the Netherlands academic institutions took a decision to embark on a countrywide boycott in an attempt to break the stranglehold the publisher has on the academic community.
Two other academic publishers that have also made their policies more restrictive towards open access via institutional repositories are Springer and Emerald.
These publishers need to rethink their policies and permit institutions to make their own research accessible via their own institutional repositories, without embargoes. Readership on journal articles covers a reasonably short period and publishers should be allowing final PDF published versions to be placed on institutional repositories within six months of publication.
Those who can afford subscriptions will still subscribe to those journals as they do not want to have to search for material on different databases. They will still want consolidated journal issues and consolidated electronic databases for their use. But, by allowing articles to be placed on authors’ institutional repositories, at least the material is accessible to those who cannot afford subscriptions.
A peculiar balance of power
The whole balance of ownership and production has become skewed. Academic institutions pay researchers to write articles and books to make their research public. They also provide free editorial services in most cases for journals. The publishers then get authors to sign over all their copyright to them so that they can control the content as long as possible.
This is a bizarre practice. Authors have a whole bundle of rights granted to them by copyright law, yet publishers do not tell authors that they can retain rights, or that they only need to give the publisher a “non-exclusive” licence to publish their works.
Authors do not always know their rights and often sign them all over to publishers. For instance, they do not have to sign over all their rights. That way, they can retain the right to, for example, make their work available to colleagues for learning and research. They can even place them on an open access institutional repository.
Authors should have the final choice of what happens to their works, not publishers. The copyright law gives rights to authors. Authors need to realise what their rights are so that they do not relinquish control over their works.
How ridiculous is it for authors, experts in their fields, to have to ask permission from publishers to use their own material to teach, share with colleagues, place on a personal or institutional repository, or allow translations or modifications of their works.
Creating this opportunity for researchers will increase their chances for writing and getting published too. Not only will research in South Africa, for instance, be made available to other colleagues, researchers, educators, librarians and citizens in general, but it will also serve to provide information and knowledge to other African countries and around the world.