South Africa’s journey into open access publishing is not new, but it has received renewed energy and vigour. The current dominant commercial model of scholarly publishing undermines the production and dissemination of knowledge in science systems such as South Africa’s, first through a hopelessly inequitable higher education and science system with large disparities amongst institutions and because of the increasing unaffordability of the current subscription-based model. This is a description of the approach being adopted to address one part of the quest towards open access scholarly publishing.

Reports have emerged of a new national agreement between Elsevier, the giant science publishing enterprise, and the Irish science system on open access (OA). Elsevier, long seen as being intransigent to OA approaches to scientific journals in its stable, has also concluded transformative agreements with the Netherlands, Hungary, Sweden, Qatar and Norway. Several other publishing houses are making progress in this direction. This bodes well for the eventual emergence of a new global publishing regime where scholarly communication is available and free for all readers with internet access. This change has been the result of a number of factors, primary amongst which are bottom-up pressures from university systems and researchers as producers of knowledge, but it represents also a reflection of many new adventures towards the reimagination of the intricate and complex relationships between science and society.

Here in South Africa, the colonial and apartheid history of South Africa’s higher education and science systems has resulted in the legacy of deeply unequal access to scholarly journals and information databases. The detrimental impact of this on broadening the development of scholarly activities and scholarly publishing across the 26 public universities and the rest of South Africa’s knowledge system is immense and there is a national consensus that this has to be corrected. Amongst university leaders, there is a strong consensus that the procurement of research information and data should move towards a platform that gives equal access to all South African scholars and students and to a broader public.

The context that defines this period has several parameters. In recent years, the cost of access to scientific publishing has increased significantly for all users. The impact in South Africa is compounded by weakening of the Rand against other major currencies, such as the Euro and the US Dollar. In consequence, it has proven very tricky even to maintain the current limited access to scientific information. Even this grossly unequal access costs South African institutions between R500 million and R600 million per annum to access the traditional pay-to-read journal subscription models. The very recent Covid-19–inspired slide of the value of the South African Rand to the US Dollar will increase these costs by up to 30% in the 2020–2021 round of negotiations with the large publishing houses. There is no question that there needs to be a change of model to secure this broadened access.

Also, at a national level, this project has to be seen in the context of the open science policy framework that the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) is working towards and which is contained in the new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) White Paper, published in February 2019. This OA project is a small, but an important subset of that much larger project.

On the other hand, at the global level, there are large national and international projects and movements aimed at producing an OA basis to scientific information through direct engagement with the publishing industry. While South Africa’s system is small in comparison with other national systems, it is into this international momentum that South Africa’s science system is plugging. South Africa produces about 1% of the global output of journal articles and has approximately a 10% share of the upper decile of the most cited articles globally. While it is small, it is a significant global player. What this means is that there would be the need for South Africa to work with other science systems around the world in addressing this issue – simply put, South Africa would not, by itself, have the leverage to shift the negotiation agenda with the large publishing houses: Elsevier, Wiley, Springer-Nature, Taylor and Francis, etc., and yet, it could be an influential partner.

On the basis of these conditions, the Board of Universities South Africa (USAf), made up of the 26 vice-chancellors of the public universities, adopted a resolution that the issue of access for all 26 universities should be explored with the proviso that there is no further increase in costs. In principle, this excluded the idea of a national site licence for read access. The imperative of trying to ensure access to journal and other information databases for all South African scholars and students at South African universities and other audiences has given rise to a large project coordinated by the USAf and the National Research Foundation (NRF) together with the Academy of Science of SA (ASSAf), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the DSI and the South African National Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC). The purpose of the task team was to decide how to address the issues of affordability and access in the most effective ways. South Africa’s journey to OA will have many routes and options taking into account the continuing need for high-quality, high-impact journals, the need for OA, the question of affordability, etc.

Globally, there are interesting explorations of OA that take into account the various forms of OA and in particular, experiments in institutional open repositories, new much more affordable not-for-profit OA journal publishers, repositories of preprints such as arXiv, the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) project and the OA2020 project which has captured the interest and engagement of many of the world’s large science systems.

South Africa’s own journey towards OA is not new with its universities and the science system more generally joining in on the international discourse in the mid-1990s. Most of its universities signed the Budapest Declaration of 2002 and then, more recently, the Berlin Declaration. In the Preface to the latter, there is a clear indication of the link between OA and the larger project of access to information and knowledge: “In accordance with the spirit of the Declaration of the Budapest open access Initiative, the ECHO Charter and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing, we have drafted the Berlin Declaration to promote the internet as a functional instrument for a global scientific knowledge base and human reflection and to specify measures which research policy makers, research institutions, funding agencies, libraries, archives and museums need to consider”.

The mass student movement calling for new forms of relationship between universities and society during the 2015–2017 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns in South Africa. Photo from Tony Carr shared under a CC BY-NC licence.

The mass student movement calling for new forms of relationship between universities and society during the 2015–2017 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns in South Africa. Photo from Tony Carr shared under a CC BY-NC licence.
The mass student movement calling for new forms of relationship between universities and society during the 2015–2017 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns in South Africa. Photo from Tony Carr shared under a CC BY-NC licence.

The key emphasis over the last two and half decades has been on developing institutional and national repositories for articles written and published by academics for broader access and the development of OA journals. South Africa has not been a slouch with the development of a number of repositories and the development of OA academic journals built into the SciElo platform run by the ASSAf. Notwithstanding these major developments, there remains much to be done, and the traditional subscription-based journals continue to be the primary destination for journal articles. This is driven largely by choices made by researchers (and the systems in which they operate) and the influence on them of national and international metrics used to measure the impact and influence of research output.

The project

Just to reiterate, convergence of a number of initiatives from Universities South Africa, the DHET and the DSI resulted in the establishment of a set of projects to understand how best to procure a national site licence for journals and other information databases. This was given impetus by the two departments when they commissioned a study carried out by the ASSAf on the ways in which the institutions in the National System of Innovation were procuring journals and the cost of such procurement. This study was done in 2010 and it looked both at subscription payments as well the payments for article publication charges (APCs). While much has changed since this study was done, at its completion it was clear that the costs related to the procurement of national site licences was prohibitively large, which in turn indicated the need for the consideration of new models.

The USAf convened a small task team – involving the USAf, SANLiC, the NRF, the DHET and ASSAf – to understand how best to take this process forward. It was at this time that momentum was being generated in Europe in a challenge to the major publishing houses for the development of a new system of provision of scientific information and data that was essentially captured in the OA2020 project which was fully formulated in 2015.

The USAf and SANLiC convened two workshops for librarians and other decision-makers to provide them with a clear understanding of the nature of the OA2020 project – this is described fully below. Ralf Schimmer of the Max Planck Digital Library was invited both to provide librarians and research managers with an opportunity to engage the ideas of OA2020 and to determine its relevance to South Africa and what next steps were necessary if we were to enhance our capacity to negotiate effectively with the publishing companies towards such an end.

The OA2020 project calls on the publishing houses to flip their journals from being ‘pay to read’ to ‘pay to publish’. In other words, the argument put forward is that once the payments (APCs) were made for journal articles to be published, they would then be moved into a state of global OA. Together with returning copyright to the author, this model, based on striking up what are referred to as new transformative agreements, is a way to move towards more complete OA for those journals behind the pay-to-read paywall.

At the 14th OA2020 meeting in Berlin in December 2018, China committed itself to the OA2020 route and so did the University of California system. It was also announced that Sweden had cancelled its contract with Elsevier to put pressure on it to come to the negotiating table to strike up a ‘pay-to-publish’ model rather than the ‘pay-to-read’ one. Germany, the UC system, the Netherlands and Norway have all moved toward aligning themselves with the Swedes. The South African delegation to this meeting, representing the USAf, the NRF and SANLiC, made important contributions. A declaration flowed from this important Berlin meeting which captured the following.

The statement that follows represents the strong consensus of all those represented at the meeting.

  1. We are all committed to authors retaining their copyrights.

  2. We are all committed to complete and immediate OA.

  3. We are all committed to accelerating the progress of OA through transformative agreements that are temporary and transitional, with a shift to full OA within a very few years. These agreements should, at least initially, be cost neutral, with the expectation that economic adjustments will follow as the markets transform.

While there is a growing international consensus amongst academic communities and funders of research on the need for OA, about 75% of the world’s research outputs are locked behind pay-to-read paywalls. This results in highly restricted access, the continuation of deep, structural inequities to access and fiscal strains on the budgets of universities and other knowledge-intensive institutions.

How will this work for South Africa?

  1. It is critically important that we see this as a national project involving all the universities, science councils, government departments, etc., rather than one engaged in by individual institutions.

  2. Given that transformative agreements are cost neutral, current expenditure by the universities and science councils on subscription fees in a national pool of resources would be enough to ensure that the South African science system will be able to afford these transformative agreements where read access would remain, while South African research output would be OA and reach a wider national and international audience.

  3. The responsibility for APCs would shift from the individual researcher to a central agreement.

  4. Given South Africa’s research output trajectory, sufficient pay-to-read subscription funding would be freed at the conclusion of transformative agreements to finance future South African OA publishing expenses as well as solutions for any remaining pay-to-read requirements.

  5. To summarize, these transformative agreements address three key issues:

    • They would shift the affected journals from a pay-to-read model to a pay-to- publish one without creating additional financial burden. The idea is that once payment is made for the publishing of an article, it will be available on an OA basis to the world.

    • The funding for this project to shift journals to OA will be achieved by ‘converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models’.

    • Copyright will reside with the author and OA would be immediate.

  6. It is vitally important that scholars are able to publish in the journals of their choice.

  7. In principle, the idea that individual scholars will pay APCs should become a thing of the past.

While the SCOAP3 project is not a transformative agreement, it is an example of how such a model might work. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), based in Geneva, coordinates the project and a centralized fund associated with it. The project negotiated with the publishers of all the key particle physics journals to enter the kind of agreement captured by OA2020. Each country contributes to the central fund an amount which is directly proportional to its international share of the publications output, which for South Africa is 0.5% of the global output, and therefore a national contribution of 0.5% of the total central fund. This makes particle physics articles, even in the most high-impact, prestigious journals, openly accessible to all. CERN manages the payment for the publication of the articles. It is an example of diamond OA where there are no APCs or ‘author facing charges’. Like SciElo, the tab is picked up by a society, organization, government or endowment. It is regarded as an alternative pathway to transformative agreements and is usually discipline specific. See also note vii below.

Some concluding thoughts

The success of the OA2020 campaigns in other national systems is driven by the level of consensus that exists in those scholarly communities. This requires engagement and discussion. And we have to work hard to build such a consensus. There is need for urgency since the negotiations for the next set of contracts with the large publishers have already begun.

If we assume that the current situation of fragmented, unequal access is not acceptable and if we agree with the idea that we should be moving towards an open science approach, especially where there is public expenditure of research and development, then we have, as a National System of Innovation, to move towards new approaches to OA. In this case, it would be most effective for us to work with international partners, so as to enhance the negotiating power of the ‘academy’.

Further Reading

Author information


Ahmed Bawa is the CEO of Universities South Africa. Until recently he was Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Durban University of Technology. He has an interest in the understanding of universities as social institutions and the relationship between science and society. He is a theoretical physicist. Email:

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