Friday, May 27, 2005

Feeding Africa's Information Starved

Africa is starving - but this starvation has nothing to do with food. Rather it's a hunger for information - specifically academic writing and research. Finding any well-researched data on Africa, other than that churned out by the Western media or academic institutions, is nearly unattainable.

Due to a lack of resources, only a small quantity of materials produced by African researchers, are made available on the market. Or else, they collect dust on the shelves of African university libraries with little or no access for those who want to use them.

This is a concern that has preoccupied the minds of the academic librarians, intellectual property and ICT experts gathered in Johannesburg on the second day of the Commons-sense Conference under the theme: "African Universities and Digital Resources: How can we 'alleviate' this kind of poverty?"

One solution put forward is the effort made by the Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD), a program of the Association of African Universities (AAU). The program aims at improving management and access to African scholarly work through abstracting, indexing and providing full text to theses and dissertations.

According to Mary Materu-Behitsa, Coordinator of the DATAD Project, eleven academic institutions from all over Africa have participated, allowing students, researchers and academics electronic access to works produced by African scholars. This also creates capacity in universities for the electronic collection, management and dissemination of academic pieces.

When DATAD - described as a landmark for research development in Africa - was launched in April 2003, 6,500 records were submitted to its database. That number has now grown to over 16,000.

Materu-Behitsa notes however, that copyright and intellectual property rights have posed challenges to the program. Since over 15 % of the work has been produced by African postgraduate students studying in universities in foreign countries, the research materials ordinarily carry the copyright of those universities, which, she said, normally have very stringent copyright laws. "Many African universities do not want to be sued, so they stay away from making the publications available electronically," Materu-Behitsa said.

So far, only Kenya's Kenyatta University has an international copyright statement on their theses and dissertations while most other academic establishments have only a vague stipulation of some kind of licence.

Another challenge is that the institutions are relatively restrictive. For instance, the University of Ghana Library stipulates that post-graduate theses are available for consultation in the library and are not normally available for loan, and never lent to individuals. Moreover, it is illegal to copy or quote from the work without the author's and the university's consent.

At Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, the author/student's rights are totally ignored and the law says that all rights are reserved by the University and no part of the publication may be produced without having prior permission from the institution. And Zimbabwean law stipulates that the copyright vests in the author of the work.

It is against this backdrop of confusing and restrictive laws that the role of Creative Commons (cc) becomes paramount. Hussein Suleman, the second speaker at the session, explained that digital libraries run by educational and research institutions to archive documents that are owned or produced locally have become more popular in Africa.

Suleman says this means that Creative Commons has arrived on the scene just in time as an increasing number of 'right-holders' introduce licences on research outputs more than ever before. Suleman says this mechanism is more rigid than copyright laws.

"Since licenses must be formally defined and rigorous, the time for Creative Commons (cc) is now," Suleman stated. With cc, he noted, students or scholars have an opportunity to specify what is allowed in the use of their creations.


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