- Moving Africa away from the global knowledge periphery: a case study of AJOL
Bibliographies played a crucial role in education and research during the ‘papyrocentric’ era (when publishing and written communication were solely paper-based) as tools that allowed people to maintain systematic awareness of published formal research outputs of interest, and of how to locate these. Actually accessing the content summarized in bibliographies was often, if not usually, a challenge for African academics, however, due to African institutions being generally beset by substantial resource scarcity (with the exception of the larger universities in South Africa, and a handful in other African countries). This resulted in the bibliography, even a national one, being something of an unfulfilled wish list for Africans rather than a guide to assist access to readily available content. Decades of underinvestment in higher education on the African continent, and less developed countries in general, partly due to a 55-year World Bank policy determining that higher education was unimportant for economic growth in developing countries,1 resulted in a global scholarly information divide already entrenched before the advent of the internet.
Modern journal publishing is young within Africa, and essentially postcolonial. It suffered disproportionately from the crises in higher education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1980s were also an economically difficult time for many developing countries, so recovery in African scholarly research and communication was stifled. Until at least 2000, ‘the international development community encouraged African governments’ relative neglect of higher education. The World Bank, which exercises significant influence over developing country governments, has long believed that primary and secondary schooling are more important than tertiary education for economic development’. The World Bank’s global education-sector spending was 17 per cent on higher education from 1985 to 1989, but this figure dropped to just 7 per cent from 1995 to 1999.2 [End Page vii]
On the back of these lingering problems, the current information era, or computer age, has exacerbated the gap between developed and developing countries’ access to information for research and education, in the form of the digital divide, despite the information age being characterized by an unprecedented, exponentially increasing proliferation of knowledge materials, both in the traditional formally published sense, and in new types of scholarly communication like wikis, blogs and video-recorded conference presentations. What of bibliographies in this current era and their role in increasing structured access to the plethora of scholarly information to, within and from Africa?
In attempting to provide at least a partial answer to this question, this essay uses the case study of African Journals OnLine (AJOL). Until 1 May 2009, AJOL was essentially a limited meta-data bibliography of peer-reviewed, African-published scholarly journals. But due to stakeholder requests, it has since expanded to include full text online and become a digital library. With over 350 partner titles, AJOL is the world’s largest online collection of African journals. AJOL is increasingly focused on providing support to make Open Access publishing a viable model for its journal partners, along with trying to forge stronger partnerships and linkages with relevant initiatives on the African continent.
The essay will argue that increasing accessibility of African research outputs through Open Access, and sustained commitment to building partnerships, collaborations and networks amongst African stakeholders with linkages between these and their overseas counterparts are two pivotal and necessary conditions to move Africa away from the global knowledge periphery.
Africa’s multiple peripherality to the global knowledge system
The world’s second largest continent contains 54 countries and is enormously diverse, but despite the wide range of capacity and resources within and between these countries, an important and legitimate generalization can be made that strengthening research and research-publishing are crucial priorities for improving higher education in Africa.3 Since knowledge, access to information and higher education have been shown conclusively to be critical to economic development and long-term poverty alleviation,4 it is imperative for the continent that contains two-thirds of the 50 Least Developed Countries in the world to collectively overcome Africa’s ‘multiple peripherality’ to the international knowledge system.5
Paul Otlet, one of the fathers of...