Case study

DFID Research: The open revolution at the EADI IMWG workshop in Antwerp.

On the 13-14 September the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) held a workshop at the University of Antwerp in Belgium on open development.

Africa J. Bwamkuu speaking on the importance of capacity building in research institutes
Africa J. Bwamkuu on the importance of capacity building in research institutes. Picture: Laurie Aldous-Grant/CommsConsult

With the immense disparity in knowledge production between the northern and southern hemispheres, open access is widely accepted as being the main route to redressing the balance. However, the means of achieving equity are still undefined.

DFID’s Open and Enhanced Access Policy is due to come into effect at the beginning of November 2012 and discussions around open development continue to fill the media. The Guardian recently held a live debate surrounding open access while Sir Mark Walport, the next chief scientific advisor to the UK government, spoke out on the need for freely available research findings on the BBC. Few people dispute the need for open access but even fewer are able to clearly predict the direction it is likely to take.

On the 13-14 September the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI) held a workshop at the University of Antwerp in Belgium where the Information Manager’s Working Group (IMWG) discussed open development. Over two days, knowledge managers, research communicators and other development professionals came together to consider not only how research dissemination will be broadened by the introduction of open policy but also where the parameters lie in defining this new territory.

Open development incorporates open access publications as well as open data and open educational resources. With experts in these fields as well as participants from the Institute of Development Studies, IKMemergent, R4D, Hivos, GDNet as well as Universities from across Europe, discussions evolved around the practicalities of effective implementation and how this might impact upon the research communications landscape in the future.

Entering the mainstream

Eve Gray, Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, and an expert in open access, pointed out that while it has been occurring in Africa in one way or another for the last thirty years, open access has only recently entered the mainstream. Part of the reason for this, according to Gray, was how the global mainstream is defined. Citing J. Guedon, Gray suggested that it was a northern concept.

With more articles currently available on acne than on Malaria in certain leading academic journals, Gray highlighted that the global imbalance in knowledge production would not be redressed simply through open access policy but that a process of change must emerge whereby research is not prioritised by its relevance to the global north.

User engagement was seen as an essential element in this change. Tariq Kokhar from the World Bank and Stephen Katz from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), both experts in open data, highlighted the significance of data visualisation in broadening the application and use of specific data sets. Kokhar pointed out how user engagement creates more effective dissemination as it takes information to the people who need it, rather than storing it in one repository.

Katz described it as “Trying to move away from the supply side to the demand side in the knowledge business.”

Similarly, user engagement was seen as a key component in developing effective open educational resources with Robert Schuwer, associate professor at the Open university of the Netherlands, outlining the immense potential of user interpretation; as resources are adapted by users they can be shared, building upon an open repository of educational material for teachers and students.

Beyond the Journal?

A clear focus emerged during discussions over how traditional formats will have to change to accommodate and encourage the progression of open development. With illustrations of how open data has moved beyond the previously established boundaries of data interpretation, focus turned to journals and how they will have to evolve under open access.

“We’ve got to expand the concept of what a journal is.” said Gray.

Questions were raised over the value of research reports and whether they were in fact the most effective tool for encouraging research uptake and engagement. However, concerns remained over establishing ways of ensuring quality assured products.

With many scholars still dependent upon publication in specific academic journals to boost career prospects and future funding, questions were raised in group discussions over how new measures of quality and reputation could be established in open access formats. Methods of incentivising researchers were seen as crucial to the success of open access publishing.

Collaborative methods of peer review were suggested. Gray highlighted altmetrics, the study of new metrics based on social media. These tools were identified as an alternative measure of quality and impact assessment with Gray highlighting the potential for social media as a key player in new scholarly formats; with new platforms such as Mendeley and Zoho providing spaces for new forms of peer review.

“Research is a cyclical process.” Gray stressed. 

Building Pathways and Capacity

Programmes such as HINARI and Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) enable a large number of universities and research institutions in the developing world to have access to leading journals; however, as a prerequisite, these universities need to be members of consortia. With many research institutes affected by frequent policy changes and new government targets, this prerequisite was identified as an issue which the open development movement must consider.

“We’ve been offering technical platforms… but the scaffolding was lacking…” said Gray.

Building capacity within the institutions themselves was seen as a necessary element in achieving any of the objectives to which the open access movement aspires.  Open development needs to be accompanied and supported by better training and improved ICT systems within southern research institutes.

Stephen Katz pointed out the technical architecture behind building effective open data repositories. “The fact that it’s available doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to use.” Katz said, emphasising the value of defragmentation and collation in presenting multiple sets of data. With organisations such as FAO and World Bank investing time and energy into constructing usable portals for usable data, concerns arose around capacity of research institutes in the south creating their own repositories.

Africa J Bwamkuu, from the Open Access Repositories: Capacity Strengthening Programme for Africa (OA - IRCSP), pointed out that, while there is a lot of intellectual output from Africa, it remains on the shelf, inaccessible to a wider world of research. He outlined how his work with OA-IRCSP involved developing a toolkit for research institutions on building and managing effective repositories and how by establishing communities around knowledge management projects had benefited dramatically.

Open Communities

Among the many issues discussed over the two days, three questions emerged as being central to understanding the possible direction and form open development will take over the next few years.

  1. How will research outputs evolve with the integration of social media tools?
  2. What measures of quality will emerge to incentivise scholars to publish within OA journals?
  3. How can better knowledge management be facilitated in developing countries?

While these questions were asked, there were no definitive answers. The only certainty was that these questions do have answers and that these answers will emerge quickly as open access comes into force.

It was, perhaps, the third question which came closest to being answered. The EADI IMWG meet annually to discuss issues in development research and dissemination; a group of professionals in knowledge management, they share ideas and expertise to establish new ideas for developing their field. In such a collaborative and participatory space it was clear that a community open to innovation and communication, as Bwamkuu pointed out, provides the most effective basis for navigating successful pathways through the as yet unknown territory of open development.

Published 4 October 2012