Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital eraOpinion

Open access to scholarly knowledge in the digital era (chapter 1.1): The alienation of African knowledge – open access as a pharmakon

This article is chapter 1.1 in section 1 of a series of articles summarising the book Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access.

In this first chapter of the colonial influences section, Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou contends that open access (OA) has not fulfilled the lofty ambitions set out in the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) in 2002. He argues that instead of reducing publication costs, accelerating the dissemination of scientific information, ensuring the visibility of scientific publications, and promoting barrier-free access to scientific information, OA now often seems to reinforce and to create new inequalities. However, Nkoudou recognizes that OA still holds great hope for the African continent, depending on how it is adopted.

Nkoudou’s discussion has three parts:

  1. A description of the context in which OA has been adopted in Africa.
  1. An attempt to demonstrate that OA acts as a poison that causes epistemicides and linguicides in Africa and whose most insidious manifestation is epistemic alienation.
  1. A suggested strategy for recovering the healing potential of open access. By carrying out cognitive decolonization and redesigning OA as a tool of cognitive justice and liberation, this strategy is about learning to unlearn in order to relearn.

Nkoudou examines OA through the lens of the pharmakon. The term pharmakon comes from the Greek word pharmakos (φάρμακον), which refers to a purification ritual that took place in ancient Greece. During this rite, criminals were expelled from the city to purge the polis of the evil that affected it. It may seem ambiguous, but from this ritual, the (criminal) evil is still used to heal the city.

In his essay on Plato’s Pharmacy, and in a more recent context, Derrida provides a modern and philosophical interpretation of this ritual; he highlights the ambiguity of the term pharmakon which can mean both medicine and poison. It is from this perspective that OA can be compared to a pharmakon – Nkoudou argues that it is simplistic to consider OA as a unified phenomenon: in some situations, it acts as a poison; in others, as a cure.

The biased beginnings of open access in Africa

Early OA practices began in North America and Europe. Following this, many new OA services sprang to life on the World Wide Web. The term “open access” was itself formalized and clearly defined only in 2002, after the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).

This first meeting opened the gate to a cascade of similar summits ending every time with declarations, plans, or programs for open access. From 2002 to the present day, most of these major meetings have taken place in Western countries and under the impetus of the actors from these countries.

Looking to Africa, Nkoudou states that the promises of OA after the BOAI in 2002 seemed irresistible if they were to address the lack of access to scientific information in African universities. This was probably the beginning of OA in Africa. However, the visibility of African scientific production is always dependent on Western initiatives, even when it comes to using open technologies that African practitioners (including librarians and computer scientists) could appropriate in complete autonomy and at a lower cost.

From this, Nkoudou concludes that the Western origin of OA is then clear, and advises that this comes with significant challenges for its wholesale import into new African contexts.

Early mismatching in the African context

Nkoudou alerts that OA faces different challenges in Africa than in Western countries. Many factors suggest that OA is a matter for the rich countries of the Global North, where basic infrastructural matters have long been settled.

On this basis, Nkoudou argues that it makes little sense to say that we are dealing with the “same” OA or motivations for it in both contexts. He alerts that this disjunction stems from the failure to account for African realities since the beginning of the diffusion of OA. Since the beginning of OA, there have been local barriers to uptake that, unfortunately, persist to this day. These include lack of infrastructure, lack of internet access in African universities, and the low digital literacy of most scholars.

These barriers inhibit OA, and particularly green OA1, whose promises seemed most to meet Africa’s needs. In this latter case, the barriers consist of a scarcity of institutional repositories, librarians untrained in matters of open access, and the passivity of library staff with respect to introducing OA into academic practice. In addition, the absence of local funder interest in OA and the lack of financial resources in African universities compound libraries’ expenditure on so-called “prestigious” journals. Nkoudou advises that these barriers are the root of the failure of OA to meet its promises of rapid dissemination and access to scientific information on the African continent.

Another hope for OA was to make unknown and neglected research from the Global South visible and accessible to Western scholars. However, Nkoudou alerts that in addition to the barriers mentioned above, this vision for OA faces resistance (involuntary or not) from African researchers. Among the reasons that can explain this resistance are the desire to make African knowledge visible was not truly an African initiative, many African researchers perceive OA as a threat to the supposed income they believe they will receive from their scientific publications, and the scarcity of funding and grants for research leads to a lack of incentives for Africans to engage in OA.

From these observations, Nkoudou concludes that although the 2002 BOAI declaration was paved with good intentions, it did not address the realities of its adoption on the African continent.

Is open access a poison for Africa?

From 2002 to the present day, OA has evolved positively but Nkoudou alerts that it has also been deeply perverted. At its birth, OA was a broadly unified and idealistic movement with the green and gold routes; supported by a small but strong community of scientists, librarians, and research sponsors, advocating for free access to information and protesting against the high costs of publications. Over time, this romantic vision of OA has undergone fundamental changes that have distorted it toward market orientation, control, and governance of information and research. The capitalist / market orientation of contemporary OA is evidenced by the economic language of the major laws, declarations, and policies.

These changes and a shift toward economic thinking began with the growing interest in OA by commercial publishers. Nkoudou warns that these entities have now infiltrated the decision-making spheres – often lobbying at the highest levels of politics – and created an imbalance in their favor within the discourse of open access. However, green OA is a harder route to commercially exploit than is gold.

Article processing charges (APCs) have gained importance as the dominant and most prominent, even if not the most widespread, business model for open-access journals.  However, Nkoudou laments that the sad truth is that many African researchers cannot afford the costs required for authors to publish in APC-based journals. Hence, this model can be considered as a vehicle of continued exclusion.

In addition, he alerts that there is a tight relationship between APC pricing and a journal’s Impact Factor (IF). The higher a journal’s IF, the higher the costs of the APCs that are set. Thus, APCs consolidate the market strategy of publishers. This is encouraged at the local level by the promotion and tenure system which, despite declarations such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), is still embedded in traditional practices of scientific publications and often gives more importance to high IF journals.

This importance is given at the expense of local scientific production and open journals, which local promotion and tenure systems often consider to be of poor quality. This disregard of published work in journals outside these criteria is also visible at the global level. Indeed, academic institutions of the North will not usually recognize journals from Africa as being of high quality and sometimes these titles are not listed in scientific databases commonly used in Western universities (e.g., Scopus, Web of Science).

Nkoudou concludes that, in the end, the APC model represents the most visible capitalist trajectory of OA. It sets up a financial barrier to publish in “prestigious” journals; a form of exclusion that in almost all cases rules out researchers from African universities. It also consolidates the myth of the Impact Factor, leading to the exclusion of some journals according to their geographical origin. Europe and North America sit at the center of the scholarly publishing system, and countries of the Global South, including Africa, are placed at the periphery.

Coloniality of knowledge in open access

Coloniality refers to the fact that the relationship between colonialism and coloniality is structural and persisting, in opposition to the idea that colonialism is over. Coloniality of knowledge is a theoretical concept based on the insight that colonial societies have systematically banished indigenous forms of knowledge. The concept describes the ongoing colonial access to, as well as the distribution, production, and reproduction of, knowledge, and the often subtle processes that ultimately exclude and occlude alternative epistemes (or ways of knowing).

Nkoudou reveals how coloniality of knowledge manifests in OA in the context of the African continent. If platforms that harvest information available on the web are examined, it quickly becomes apparent that most information resources come from the Global North. Web of Science, for example, reveals that Africa produces less than 1 percent of scientific articles in the world.

This does not reflect the reality of scientific production because there are many high-quality articles written in Africa, but they are not included in web platforms such as the Web of Science. This is either because a large number of them exist in a physical format (hard copies) that prevents their circulation, diffusion, and sharing on the web; or because many African journals do not meet the infrastructural requirements of these web platforms. These platforms existed before the beginning of OA, but they also joined the OA movement, and now harvest almost all the OA resources that circulate on the web. As a result, the scientific information disseminated by these platforms reaches the majority of internet users in Africa, to a greater extent than local scientific productions. This situation strongly contributes to an ongoing coloniality of knowledge.

Fifty years ago, there would have been a readily identifiable reason for this exclusion, in that the costs associated with the production and distribution of physical (printed) documents were very high. In the contemporary era, this argument is not relevant, since the internet, the web, and OA have reduced production costs substantially and made the subsequent dissemination of information instantaneous. The paradox is that, despite this coloniality, Africans do not seize the opportunity of green OA to disseminate the grey literature that is abundant in African universities, so institutional repositories (IR) do not reflect the actual scientific production of African universities. Nkoudou asks how, under these conditions, can we avoid a coloniality of African scientific production, if researchers do not have the possibility to self archive and contribute themselves to the circulation of their work even through green OA?

Epistemic alienation

Epistemic alienation can be defined as the distortion of one’s native way of thinking, and of seeing and speaking of one’s own reality. In Africa, this cognitive distortion is led by the adoption (unconscious or not) of Eurocentric philosophical, sociological, and historical thought – used to speak of, to describe, and to study African realities. Epistemic alienation is symptomatized by epistemicide: destruction of local epistemologies that are replaced, in this case, by a Western paradigm.

Nkoudou alerts that the African university system is one of the main causes of epistemic alienation because these institutions simply replicate Western universities, without any effort to contextualize missions, curricula, and structure. Indeed, these postcolonial universities are still dependent on the West; this dependence can be economic, scientific, or related to the language of instruction.

The fact that African policy makers do not always prioritize research funding in their countries makes them dependent on the scientific agendas of donors, most of whom are from the North. Extended to equipment, documentation, and scientific paradigms from the North, this dependence profoundly affects the African researcher’s way of thinking. Current OA policies are not helping to change this situation, because many of them are international and shaped for Western contexts. There are a few true and effective African OA policies, which are not just replications or extensions of Western OA policies. But this situation would be a little different if government economic policies were to financially support common thinking on how to find solutions to local problems.

A scientific dependence is visible in the way in which Western authors and materials are frequently cited in scientific papers, theses, and dissertations produced in African universities. In French-speaking African countries, for example, one can note the prevalence of French authors in humanities and social sciences. The use of famous European authors as a reference instead of local authors is prevalent in the practice of many African researchers, despite the difference in the specificity of the context. This bias toward the citation of Western material means that issues that are specific to Africa are pursued with less vigor, and OA accentuates this problem. This is because most OA scientific publications available and diffused on the web, with high visibility, are from the North. OA aggravates epistemic alienation by reinforcing the use of the scientific work from the center of the world-system, while consolidating Eurocentric thought as the global theoretical reference or normative model, to the detriment of local epistemologies.

However, Nkoudou cautions that we should not place the entire blame for this situation on Western people, systems, and countries. This is because the situation may be the responsibility of the local researchers themselves, due to their lack of OA literacy and practices. The finger can also be pointed at librarians, who are not advising their institutions of current OA practices and the necessity to establish OA policies or infrastructures, such as institutional repositories and open journals. Blame can also be directed towards the leaders of academic institutions who do not prioritize OA in their policies, and at the editors of local journals for allowing their titles to die out. In addition, promoters of local journals need to be trained and supported by decision makers and OA policies.

In countries such as South Africa, efforts are being made to change this reality. But Nkoudou states that we must accept the obvious – that South Africa is not at the same level of development as many African countries. To do otherwise is to hide the realities of the majority of Africa.

On the matter of language, Nkoudou states that it must also be recognized that African researchers face a real dilemma. All have a first African language, with English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese being only secondary languages. Therefore, Africans feel obliged to undertake the difficult exercise of translating their thoughts into the colonial languages imposed in academic curricula.

Added to the above, the inherent looseness of translation lends imprecision to the dissemination of African knowledge within a context dominated by Eurocentrism and English as the lingua franca. This linguistic distortion contributes to the marginalization and denial of African languages and fatally to their linguicide. This is another epistemic alienation that the current practices of scholarly communication and OA promote. African researchers face the difficult choice between sacrificing the relevance of their ideas in the local community, for the visibility that writing in English provides; or the opposite.

From his analysis, Nkoudou concludes that the debasement of OA has had disastrous consequences in the African academic environment. Amongst them is epistemic alienation, symptomatized by epistemicides (killing of indigenous people’s knowledge), and linguicides (killing of indigenous people’s languages). Epistemicides and linguicides preexisted OA, but Nkoudou contends that OA trends at the global level and the lack of awareness at the local level are reinforcing and accentuating these preexisting problems. On this basis, Nkoudou warns that open access currently contains within it the germs of epistemic poison for Africa.

Rethinking OA: A decolonized approach to scholarly communication

However, Nkoudou advises that the fact that OA can be an epistemic poison for Africa does not mean that it should be abandoned. Indeed, he sees OA as offering African scholarship unprecedented opportunities to reach previously inaccessible audiences – nationally, regionally, and internationally. Thus, failing to embrace OA would mean missing a great opportunity to improve the dissemination, visibility, and impact of research findings from the African continent.

Depending on how it is approached, OA can be a cure for these ills; so in response, Nkoudou calls for a process of “learning to unlearn in order to relearn.” This process follows a twofold approach: decolonize the way of thinking and redesign OA to make it more relevant to the African context.

Cognitive decolonization as a starting point

Nkoudou advises that the starting point is to decolonize the way of thinking of scholars from both South and North. Western scholars need to be included because it is important for them to make an epistemological rupture to better understand all the potential, nuances, and limits that they cannot see, blinded by their context.

To achieve cognitive decolonization, Nkoudou suggests a dual approach. First, we should privilege and prioritize recognition and representation of the perspectives, epistemologies, contexts, and methodologies that inform knowledge production globally and locally. This will help to develop the confidence of academics in knowledge, history, and language from the periphery. To do this, we will use epistemological decolonization that deals with problems such as epistemicides, linguicides, cultural imperialism, and alienation, through a double task of provincializing the center of the system and deprovincializing Africa. Provincializing the center of the system is a process of moving the center by confronting the problem of over-representation of Western thought in knowledge, social theory, and education.

Second, we should facilitate and promote the creation of socially relevant knowledge, independently of Western norms and standards. This is the quest of:

  • epistemic freedom, which is the right to think, to theorize, and to interpret the world, to develop one’s own methodologies, and to write from where one is located, unencumbered by Eurocentrism
  • democratizing “knowledge” from its current rendition in the singular into its plural form, “knowledges.”

This search for epistemic freedom is aligned with the concept of cognitive justice, initially defined as a recognition of diverse ways of knowing by which human beings across the globe make sense of their existence. Through this process, Nkoudou proposes that scholarship could be decolonized, empowered, and enabled to define and design the best ways to adopt OA according to local needs.

The redesign of open access as a tool of cognitive justice

Open access can be made a tool of cognitive justice if we take into account the enhancement of knowledge produced in the periphery, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. To achieve this, Nkoudou recommends a five-point approach:

  1. First, we must embrace open science as the next stage of OA. While enabling access to knowledge and research results through a multiplicity of dissemination possibilities, open participatory science will also help us to seize the prevalent power relations that structure knowledge production into inter-connecting hierarchies at local and global levels. Open science aims for the entire research process to become more open: including the production of the research question, methodologies, through to data collection, peer review, publication and dissemination. In that way, it is easier to look at who is participating in these processes of knowledge production and what kind of power they have in a given context, and from this to make the system more collaborative and equitable.
  1. Second, we should explore alternative ways for communicating research, aside from a traditional, published journal article. This is especially relevant because African scientific knowledge is mostly found in the grey literature (theses, dissertations, and research reports) and they are rarely online or freely accessible. As a result, they are invisible in Northern databases and do not demonstrate their full potential in many contexts. That is why it is crucial to promote and to reinforce green OA. Additionally, we should consider the fact that younger scientists are using blogs and wikis for collaborative research development rather than the more competitive mode of research production to which older researchers are accustomed. Attention to this “grey literature” is important.
  1. Third, we require local criteria for research assessment and evaluation, adapted to African realities, without any constraint to satisfy the requirement to publish in prestigious journals. A truly African-focused scholarly publishing programme, for example, should not necessarily follow the international dominance of scholarly journals, but should publish according to the needs of target audiences, whether that be articles, research reports, data sets, and monographs, as well as publications targeted at non-scholarly audiences, such as manuals and handbooks.
  1. Fourth, we need to train and to attune local stakeholders in and to decolonized OA. African university libraries, if better funded and their staff better trained in decolonized OA, could play a major role in locating, archiving, and preserving local scientific documents as well as in the management of these archives. This will help them gain confidence in their ability to create knowledge relevant to their community.
  1. Fifth, for all these initiatives to be fully realized, it is imperative to develop open-access policies that are sensitive to cognitive justice. Policy formulation would thus need to grapple with issues of access and development impact, rather than just the question of academic prestige. Publication policy cannot privilege international publication over local but needs to focus primarily on the production of high-quality and relevant research to meet African development needs and only in second place deal with the need for international prestige.

In summary, in his chapter, Nkoudou presents the case that OA, as it is deployed today, contains a poisonous element for Africa and that this will remain the case if nothing is done. But we can still remedy this situation if we adopt a decolonized approach to scholarly communication. In this regard, he alerts that the five recommendations he makes should sound an alarm bell for all actors in the OA community around the world so that, together, we can get OA back on track in the quest for the common good.

Next part (chapter 1.2): Scholarly communications and social justice.

Article source: This article is an edited summary of Chapter 12 of the book Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access3 which has been published by MIT Press under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.

Article license: This article is published under a CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons license.

References and notes:

  1. There are several forms of open access, usually assigned on a color spectrum of “gold” and “green.” Gold open access refers to conditions where a publisher makes the material openly available to read and reuse. By contrast, green open access refers to instances where an author deposits a version of the work into a subject or institutional repository.
  2. Nkoudou, T.H.M. (2020). Epistemic Alienation in African Scholarly Communications: Open Access as a Pharmakon. In Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.
  3. Eve, M. P., & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2020). Reassembling scholarly communications: Histories, infrastructures, and global politics of Open Access. MIT Press.

Also published on Medium.

Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access

Edited by Martin Paul Eve and Jonathan Gray, the MIT Press volume "Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access" carries out a critical inquiry into the politics, practices, and infrastructures of open access and the reconfiguration of scholarly communication in digital societies. This RealKM Magazine article series presents edited summaries of the volume chapters prepared by RealKM Magazine editor and lead writer Bruce Boyes.

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