South Africa is catching up with the globe on Open Access but needs to do more to reach desired goals

Published On: 13 September 2023|

Even though South Africa has made significant advances towards achieving Open Access to scholarly publishing, there are hurdles to still overcome that require a concerted national effort by the local knowledge community (universities, science councils, government entities) and other role players to reach the desired goals.

Some background

The Open Access movement started in the early 2000’s with the Bethesda statement on Open Access Publishing, followed by the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in 2003. However, resulting from the slow progress made with the transition towards Open Access, a growing number of research organisations established a new international initiative, OA2020, which aimed to convert most of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to Open Access (OA) publishing.

This global initiative was formalised in 2015 to fast-track the transformation of scholarly publishing houses from the current subscription (paywall) system to new open access publishing models that enable unrestricted use and re-use of scholarly outputs and assure transparency and sustainability of publishing costs. At the heart of this initiative is the quest for universal read access, ability of the global knowledge community to publish open accesscontainment of costs, inclusivity, and social justice.

South Africa’s universities, under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf), got involved when the USAf Board of Directors took the decision in 2018 to align their universities with the OA2020 project, to secure open access to all journal articles by moving away from a “pay to read” to a “pay to publish” model. The global science community had converged on a position that once article processing costs (APCs) were covered in journals, the published articles would then be moved to global open access. Alongside restoring copyright to the author, this transitional model is referred to as transformative agreements to move the process towards more complete open access.

Prior to 2018, USAf, in collaboration with the departments of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Science and Technology (DST) had been involved in another initiative to procure a national site licence for journals and other information databases. This effort was abandoned after a study conducted in 2010 showed that the costs related to the procurement of national site licences were prohibitively large, which, in turn, necessitated a consideration of new models.

In 2018/9, USAf convened a task team of five entities including itself to collaborate in taking this process forward. The partner entities were the South African National Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC), the National Research Foundation (NRF), the DHET and the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).  During 2019, SANLiC and USAf took a lead in briefing the academic and science communities on this initiative.

Even though the foundation laid during that time was stymied by the onset of CoViD-19 in 2020, SANLiC has been leading consortium-based negotiations with global publishing houses, with the intent of influencing the conversion of publishing contracts to open access.

Current State of Open Access in South Africa

On Monday, 4 September, USAf convened key role players on South Africa’s Open Access initiative to collectively assess the current situation, chart a path forward, and determine the coordination role in the Open Access landscape. In attendance were senior representatives of ASSAf, the Committee of Higher Education Libraries of South Africa (CHELSA), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), USAf’s Finance Executives’ Forum (FEF), the NRF, SANLiC and USAf’s former Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa.

Updating the group on progress made on transformative agreements and future plans, the SANLiC Director, Mr Glenn Truran (left) noted that most (66%) of South Africa’s 2014-2019 research was published in the subscription model, behind the paywall and without author rights retention.

Since SANLiC commenced aggressive negotiations for transformational agreements, the research published behind paywalls has potentially halved. As a result of the agreements, pay-to-read subscriptions were repurposed to finance open access publishing without author facing charges. There are currently 11 transformational agreements in place (ACM Open, American Chemical Society, Cambridge University Press, Emerald, Institute of Physics, Oxford University Press, Royal Society, SAGE, ScienceDirect, Springer and Wiley).

This means South Africa is catching up with the early adopters who have negotiated the repurposing of reading subscriptions to finance a transition to open access. The current phase of negotiations with Taylor & Francis and the Royal Society of Chemistry, if successful, will unlock another 15% of SA’s total research output from the paywall. This means that, in 2024, South Africa could potentially have reduced its publishing behind a paywall to 18% of its total research output.

Awareness creation is critical if publishing uptake is to grow

However, these transformative agreements mean little unless scholars take up and maximise available Open Access publishing opportunities. Truran says authors need to find journals open to Open Access and understand their publishing conditions to protect their copyright. “We missed opportunities in 2021 and in 2022, resulting in a lot of our researchers still publishing behind the paywalls,” Truran said.

Even though some publishers had capped the number of open access article entitlements, in 2022, South Africa only exceeded the cap imposed by Emerald while “we did not even come close to reaching the caps in Wiley.” Truran said even though SANLiC publishes information on its website for scholars to seek out favourable journals, the challenge lies in communicating the right information to the appropriate researcher at the right time. He added that library help desks need to be widely informed about these opportunities to enable researchers to optimise available Open Access opportunities.

Looking ahead, Truran said the following questions need to be explored: “How do we monitor and manage transformational agreements? How do we terminate transformational agreements and transition to full Open Access, where we only pay to publish? How do we deal with declining purchasing power parity? How do we develop local Open Access publishing capacity?

International trends as shown in Berlin

Ms Ellen Tise (right), Chairperson of the SANLiC Board and Senior Director: Library and Information Services at Stellenbosch University, reported on the 16th Berlin Open Access Conference that took place in June, organised by the OA2020 and themed Together for Transformation.

She said what she found unique at that conference was when publishers were invited, on Day One, to summarise their perspectives on Open Access and to share opportunities and challenges in delivering optimal publishing services.  Elsevier, American Physical Society, Wiley, Cambridge University Press, PLOS, Springer Nature and Frontiers were some of the big names represented.

Some of the issues discussed were:

  • Relevance and impact of the progress made with Transformative Agreements, globally and in the publishers’ own regional contexts;
  • Progress or lack thereof of publishers in meeting their communities’ open access objectives;
  • Expectations for further advancement towards a scholarly publishing paradigm that is fully open, sustainable, inclusive and globally equitable.

Ms Tise said the Berlin Conference noted a lack of commitment on the publishers’ part to transition to Open Access and to eliminate subscription paywalls. Evidence showed that although some publisher portfolios were growing in the amount of content published in Open Access, content published behind the paywall also continued to grow.

So, even thoughprogress was acknowledged towards the Open Access paradigm, there was consensus on the need to increase the pressure. Notwithstanding that some countries in the Global North had moved forward with specific concessions safeguarding their own interests outside of the global agenda, there was no turning back on Open Access.

South Africa’s delegation to the 16th Berlin Open Access Conference in June were, from left, Mr Bishen Singh, Chief Financial Officer at the NRF; Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Chief Executive Officer of USAf; Ms Faranah Osman, Executive Director: Information Technology & Knowledge Resources at the NRF, and Ms Ellen Tise, Senior Director: Library and Information Services at Stellenbosch University – in her capacity as Chairperson of the SANLiC Board.

Delegates from the Global South therefore spoke of more South-South collaboration, considering common challenges such as those related to foreign exchange and the publishers’ propensity to maximise profits. Resultantly, South Africa commenced engagement towards collaboration with India in Berlin, followed up with a subsequent engagement with the NRF, after Berlin.  Another prospective collaborator, the Columbian consortia, wants to learn from South Africa, the approach taken to reach favourable agreements with some of the publishers. These deliberations have since continued at the SANLiC roundtable that took place from 7-8 September, at which the Association of African Universities also participated.

Ms Faranah Osman (right)Executive Director: Information Technology & Knowledge Resources at the NRF, who was part of South Africa’s delegation to Berlin in June, said she felt frustrated by the lack of transparency regarding article processing charges. She advocated strongly for an equitable pricing model which would ensure equitable participation in this discourse.

Osman said that “Even though partners in the Global North are willing to talk to South Africa, when it comes to action engagements we are excluded. South Africa is seen as enjoying a much higher GDP than its counterparts in the south, yet our researchers cannot afford the basic publishing fees imposed by corporate publishers – a challenge compounded by foreign exchange complexities.”

Professor Ahmed Bawa (left), Former CEO of USAf and now Professor of Higher Education at the Johannesburg Business School of the University of Johannesburg, said he agreed with the notion shared by countries in the Global South, that there is a need to move beyond the Transformative Agreements that perpetuate the current traditional model. “The model, and the dominance of publishing houses in the Global North must change,” he said.

While he said he found Ms Osman’s point interesting, he added that South Africa needed to focus the effort. “We were supposed to aggregate our research costs to portray a national, not institutional cost regime, especially considering that the NRF funds the national research enterprise. South Africa has not made much progress because we have not acted on things we have to do.” Here Professor Bawa was referring to picking up from where the multi-stakeholder task team left off in developing a national standpoint and translating it into a national Open Access Policy and Strategy.

Next steps

The key role players agreed that the Open Access initiative would be best coordinated and driven as a national project convened by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). USAf will coordinate the first steps in that direction and hand over the process of taking this initiative forward in due course.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications.