Open access to SA journals

South Africa’s scientific research profile is
about to get a huge boost, when the country’s
journals become freely available online.
(Image: stock.xchng )

Janine Erasmus

A new scheme will provide free and open access to a range of top South African science journals and boost the profile of South African scientific research in the international arena.

Based on the Brazilian version of the pioneering Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO), the scheme was announced at the African Science Communication Conference in Johannesburg in February 2009. The project is funded by the national Department of Science and Technology and will be known as SciELO South Africa.

Professor Robin Crewe, vice-rector of the University of Pretoria and president of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (Assaf), made the announcement, which has been welcomed by advocates of open access.

SciELO is an electronic library covering a selected collection of scientific journals. It gives full access to a number of serial titles, including full article text, and access to both serial titles and articles is available via indexes and search forms. Articles are free from most copyright restrictions.

SciELO focuses on developing countries where few citizens have access to traditional peer-reviewed (reviewed before publication by experts in the same field) academic journals in printed form. Journals are the primary vehicle for communicating the most current scientific findings to the public, and a lack of access leads to a low rate of usage of these publications and to the phenomenon known as “lost science”.

Creating an open-access platform for these journals will assist in overcoming the obstacles of price and accessibility and will enhance the international visibility of South African research.

The first SciELO portal became operational in Brazil in 1998 and has since spread to a further seven countries – Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Portugal and Venezuela. The database covers 613 titles of accredited, peer-reviewed journals and makes the full text of nearly 200 000 articles freely available online to interested readers. The South African platform will be the first African version of SciELO.

More competitive internationally

Susan Veldsman of Assaf, who is in charge of the project, said that the goal of the South African version is to have 35 journals freely available online by the end of 2009. “South African researchers will have the ability to be more competitive in an international context. SciELO South Africa can bring about real change in our country,” she added.

The first scholarly title to make its pages freely accessible is the respected South African Journal of Science. The publication has been part of a two-year pilot open access project and will be online for free by the end of March. The last two years of print editions will be converted into a digital format for online perusal.

Kobus Roux, competency area manager from the Meraka Institute in Pretoria, welcomed the initiative. “Open access is relevant to the development of sub-Saharan Africa,” he said, “as some of the closed journals are expensive and a number of our print-only journals do not reach the international academic community.”

Only those journals listed under international indexes are eligible to join SciELO South Africa. Local publications are required to comply with strict quality standards to ensure that only the best are included. They will be assessed by independent review panels in a range of fields.

International collaboration

A delegation from Assaf visited the premises of SciELO in Brazil in August 2008 to examine the potential of adopting the South American model for use in South Africa. SciELO is seen as an example of successful regional collaboration which has raised the research profile of a developing economic region in the face of global dominance by developed countries.

There is also the possibility of the new initiative becoming part of a broader regional network, since the African Academies of Sciences is running a project to boost scholarly publishing across Africa.

Assaf CEO Wieland Gevers said that South African scientific journals will now have an opportunity for deserved regional and worldwide recognition. “Of the 225 South African scientific journals, over 100 have never had an article cited,” he commented. “South Africa occupies a paradoxical position in the context of scientific publication: it is simultaneously a giant within the African context and a dwarf in the international arena.”

This is despite the fact that South Africa boasts 10 Nobel Prize winners, four of whom won the prize for work related to scientific disciplines. One of these illustrious academics is Allan MacLeod Cormack, who co-developed the CAT scan technique.

Cormack, who passed away in 1998, was posthumously awarded the National Order of Mapungubwe in Gold in 2002 for his services to medicine and to his country. His fellow Nobel science laureates are molecular biologist Sydney Brenner (2002), virologist Max Theiler (1951), and biophysicist Aaron Klug (1982).

Bringing science to society

The Academy of Sciences of South Africa was established in 1996 under the patronage of then-president Nelson Mandela. Assaf represents South Africa in the international scientific community and guides the government in matters related to scientific and technological policies.

The organisation also edits and publishes two journals – the scientific dissemination journal Quest and the South African Journal of Science – and a host of periodical reports, as well as a newsletter titled Science for Society.

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