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Fight academic apartheid to advance equality and quality in the sciences

“Fight academic apartheid to advance equality and quality in the sciences”
Name: Prof Rune Nilsen
Position: Professor Emeritus in Global Health
Expertise: Open Access, University politics, Global health
Institution: University of Bergen
Country: Norway
More info: Home Page

An interview with Prof Rune Nilsen on 23 November 2015

What got you originally interested in Open Access (OA) and how did it evolve?

As a child, I grew up in a small industrial town where the idea of solidarity was fundamental. My involvement in global communication began as an amateur radio enthusiast as a teenager. In the late 1960s, as a student, I became influenced by the student riots in Europe and the USA. There was optimism, and a hope for change.

After my PhD in 1981 I started collaborating with research partners in Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia in the area of health. At that time, I also got involved in research strategy and university politics. It was when I started working at the high-level Armauer Hansen Research Institute in Ethiopia that I realised that, despite a good research library, local researchers and students did not have access to the research literature they needed. The Institute had sufficient funds to subscribe to what they needed, but was seen as an unreliable customer by leading international publishing houses. This is where I first encountered ‘academic apartheid’: where institutions in low-income countries do not have the same rights to research literature. So I got the Institute to transfer money to the University of Bergen, which in turn transferred payments to the publishing houses who then delivered journals to Bergen that were then forwarded to Ethiopia. This process was the only one that publishers would accept! The University of Bergen thereby took the needed role as a mediator in disseminating scientific knowledge to a partner institution in Africa.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Openness

I believe that the Nobel Peace Prize of 1985 had a special role in promoting Open Access values prior to the Internet age. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War won the prize, and part of that money was used to launch a satellite programme – called HealthNet – to support the digital dissemination of medical research. The idea was to provide people around the globe with digital copies of medical literature from the United States National Library of Medicine – the world’s largest medical library. Digitised articles were sent via circulating Low Earth Orbit satellites, covering the entire globe, but with priority to poor countries such as Nepal and as well as, for example, South Africa. This became the first global system, to my knowledge, to digitally disseminate scientific literature to low-income countries. I was active on the HealthNet board and, until recently, this has been one of the main sources for access to scientific literature amongst my partners in African research institutions.

Challenging academic apartheid

In 1988 I became a professor of International Health at the University of Bergen. We partnered with African research institutions and saw the challenges they had in getting access to research. The economic downturn hit low-income countries hard, resulting in the cancellation of subscriptions to scientific literature. This left African scientists and students with out-dated books and articles; some authors without access even to their own work. The same was true for teaching and learning material. WHO and other organisations paid for some literature, but this did not suffice. In the 1990s I consequently focussed on high-quality research and public access as the basis for my engagement in university politics. In 2001 I became the Deputy Rector at the University of Bergen and had a position to particularly address academic apartheid as an institutional responsibility for universities. I began to propagate the idea of utilising the digital paradigm for further promotion of Open Access. As an academic leader, I had close collaboration with an inspiring and dedicated staff at the University Library at Bergen.

In the same period, I was a member of The Rectors Conference in Norway. I addressed Open Access and, as a result, the Rectors Conference published a white paper on OA in 2003. This became the basis for the first Norwegian policy on Open Access. Internationally, I had an active role in the EUA, The European Rectors Conference, which then put Open Access on the agenda in 2004. I became a leading advocator of OA in that context. However, the main driver in Europe was for the benefit of European research and private companies. Open Access was considered a driving force for European prosperity, but an emerging concern for global responsibility got rapidly stronger.


What is your hope or vision for more Open Access to research?

I strongly believe that research institutions in low-income countries have the same right to knowledge and advanced methods, and to be judged by the same quality criteria as other institutions.

“Open Access is to be an effective tool towards advancing equality and quality in sciences worldwide.”

Still, their research is often judged as second-rate. I believe that such a view is the basis for academic apartheid. Even today we see that research institutions in Europe and the USA are primarily concerned about promoting Open Access for the benefit of their own research and society. However, I am totally convinced that the role of Open Access is to be an effective tool towards advancing equality and quality in sciences worldwide.


What are the main challenges for more Open Access, in your opinion?

I have come across a lot of arrogance whilst promoting Open Access. Some have accused me of being a mixture of missionary and socialist, whilst others have said that I am naive and that it is easy for me to promote Open Access as a global health researcher. For some, there is an underlying attitude that their work is more important. Open Access still means second-rate research for some. I believe that this arrogance is also part of a system that discriminates research in low-income countries. This needs to change.

A serious challenge to the Open Access philosophy has been that an influential group of conservative researchers support the insatiable, large publishing houses. Those publishers have huge revenues and an aggressive business model, which is especially true within the sciences and medical research. Strong institutional leadership and strategies for mandating OA amongst researchers are needed to counteract this.

On a more positive note, the researchers who mainly publish articles are now increasingly supportive of OA. However, researchers who write books are still tending to keep a conservative attitude towards publishing, including textbooks for students. Many of them support the old publishing model and its publishing houses, and their right to privatise knowledge. In my opinion, this represents an out-dated system of values that needs re-addressing.

Lastly, I would like to point out that I believe that the “gold” model to Open Access, i.e. paying to publish OA, represents a new apartheid system. The prices to publish Open Access can be extremely high, and it is the rich who can afford to publish in these journals. The capitalists are the leaders in the new “gold” publishing era. We need to move away from a system where someone decides who should have access to what. In my opinion, for the sake of global public good, we ought to abandon a discriminative “gold” choice for the sake of “green” Open Access.


What can libraries do to promote openness to research?

The library is not just a support service. Nowadays, libraries must play a much more active role in disseminating scientific results. Librarians must continue to be a tough and politically active motor in promoting Open Access. Libraries can continue to break down academic barriers by providing equal access to information to scholars, students and teachers. Libraries can help eradicate academic apartheid for good.

What still needs to be done to provide more Open Access to research?

What we need is strong and knowledgeable academic leadership for more access to research. Institutional leadership is necessary that is courageous enough to 1) mandate Open Access and 2) to take on the publishers. Look at the Open Access policies at Harvard and MIT! Strong policies from prestigious academic institutions have been an important step in the development of Open Access and should be followed by other institutions.

Above all, scholars themselves have a global responsibility to disseminate their research results; it is part of their job. They should not be publishing for the sake of performance measurements such as the impact factor, but rather for visibility – to be read and cited by others. There should be no closed rooms. We need more openness and collaboration to solve the world’s larger problems related to climate, food and the ocean. Health disciplines have shown that openness can work. Open Access has led to scientific literature being accessible to research clusters worldwide. It has increased the use (citations) and thus the impact of this research. In my health field we have proven how one can combine quality and openness. It is largely thanks to Open Access that the Centre for International Health (CIH) at the University of Bergen – together with scientific partners in Africa and Asia – has been able to establish internationally strong research networks and centres of excellence within global health research.

It is also my opinion that the most important leadership tool for achieving OA is an institutional mandate for making all scientific publications Open Access. This then needs to be followed up by all institutional rectors and deans. So far, in Norway, the University of Oslo (UiO), is one of the institutions that has done the most to make their research available Open Access by including a mandate for OA in the employment contract. I hope that all universities in Norway will soon follow suit. Combining this with an institutional mandate for OA and making OA as part of job descriptions for all researchers and teachers at research institutions will make Norway a strong partner for the international OA agenda.

“Institutions need to take back the control of their own publishing activities!”

Bergen University’s institutional repository (e.g. BORA), which has been a motor in the OA process at UiB, is an increasingly important vehicle for openness towards OA. It also helps break down the walls of academic apartheid. It can do this if everything we publish, such as articles, books, textbooks and other learning materials, is deposited there by an institutional mandate. In addition, we need to utilise a new publishing system enabled by the new digital paradigm, and bypass the current greedy culture of publishing that is still strongly rooted in academia. Institutions need to take back the control of their own publishing activities!

Copyright: Ingrid Cutler & Alexander Petrov, The University of Bergen. Creative Commons CC-BY Licence.

Tags: EUA, Internet, OA mandates, OER, Open Access, access, accessibility, advocacy, benefits, business models, challenges, citations, communication, conservatism, developing countries, developing world, dissemination, economics, employment contract, equality, greed, impact, international, journals, leadership, libraries, library, national OA policy, openness, public responsibility, quality, responsibility, rights, society, strategy, subscriptions

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