Open Access: the Start, not the End of the Equity Journey

Open Access Week 2020 Oct 20, 2020

by Dr Louise Bezuidenhout and Dr Sara de Wit, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (SAME), University of Oxford.

As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of Open Access resources is becoming increasingly visible. As research and lecturing move online, access to free electronic resources has proven key for both students and researchers. The ability to access these open resources has been supplemented by the considerable innovations in digital teaching, research and communication tools. These tools have enabled academia to move traditional academic interpersonal interactions online and to use the virtual environment as a means of connecting geographically distanced colleagues and learners.

As social scientists working in different areas in the Global South and exploring local-global entanglements, we recognise that Open Access is indispensable in the road towards equity in sharing data, information and knowledge. Particularly an edited volume that deals with the communication of climate change in different contexts around the world requires Open Access to take the multi-directionality of knowledge communication seriously. This means that knowledge about climate change should not just flow from science to ‘lay-audiences’ but local communities and experts all over the globe need to be part of the global conversation. Providing Open Access publications is thus not just crucial for accessing knowledge and information equally, but also to allow knowledge creation and input from an array of different contexts to speak to each other.

While the evidence supporting Open Access as a key academic resource is compelling, it is often too easy to forget that any open resource is embedded within complex infrastructural, technological and social networks. To access any open resource one must have access to a computer, a stable connection to the internet and power, bandwidth and data to support uploads/downloads, and a social system that supports online activity. When considering open resources from this socio-technical perspective it becomes apparent that Open Access is the start, not the solution to the problem.

In order to demonstrate the challenges of access to open resources post Open Access, it is helpful to consider the difficulties of online teaching in low/middle-income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study of the cost of 1GB of data revealed the incredible variability across the world. India had the cheapest data costs, at 9c, while Malawi topped the list at $27.41. At a time when most students are working off-campus and reliant on their own data purchases it is easy to see that the usability of Open Access resources in Malawi will be very different to India. This raises important questions about hidden divides and marginalizations that persist within the Open Science landscape.

Zimbabwe has experienced extensive power outages for the last few years, and the situation has not resolved during the pandemic. Rolling power outages often last throughout the day, leaving a small window late at night for citizens to make use of a stable power supply. These power outages not only affect working routines by forcing individuals to work out of hours, they also curtail the ability to work during the outages. Lack of battery power for computers and internet shutdowns make it difficult - if not at times impossible - to work effectively during the outages. Understanding this infrastructural breakdown makes one question how effective Open Access resources are in the face of such challenges.

We are, of course, not arguing against the importance of Open Access resources or suggesting that the Open Access community has the responsibility to address complex socio-technical challenges. Rather, we are suggesting that being mindful of these situations necessitates that we do not “rest on our laurels”. There is much that can be done within the Open Access milieu to make resource access easier for our colleagues working in these challenging circumstances. We need to think about how to diversify file formats to create downloads possible in expensive data/limited bandwidth settings. We need to think about bundling, zipping and sharing in different venues. Most important, however, we need to recognize that there is no “one size that fits all” when it comes to providing effective Open Access for low/middle-income countries. Situations can vary as much within countries as between countries and we need reliable feedback from multiple in-country actors so as to provide a suite of options that suit the varying needs. Instead of just providing open resources, we need to start engaging with in-country Open Access champions to find out how these resources can really start to make a difference.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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