Open access in the Middle East and North Africa: FORM

Now, as we all know – the production and promotion of Open Research is becoming increasingly important; it’s not only a primary concern for all areas of the academic ecosystem, but also impacts the commercial and industrial sectors, and is crucial to the development of successful knowledge economies across the world. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is no exception to this trend; it has a rapidly developing, and increasingly advanced, tertiary education sector and numerous well-funded research networks. However, more support is needed to help institutions engage with Open Science in its various manifestations. But how can we achieve this? After all – there’s so much going on in this arena already, it can be rather overwhelming for those we hope to help.

Open Access, Open Science, Open Data, Open Source, Open Research, Open Education Resources – anyone working in academic publishing (or indeed the higher education sector in general) is bombarded with a veritable barrage of all things ‘Open’ on a daily basis. Updates about ideas and initiatives clog our inboxes; our social media timelines are awash with news about cutting-edge networks, repositories, tech solutions and platforms; and the conference circuit is similarly saturated.

The one thing which all these innovations and announcements have in common is the assumption that their audience of intended recipients have a shared interest in – and understanding of – the inherent benefits which Open Science offers to the academic ecosystem and the world as a whole.

But I work in a region where that kind of communal baseline acceptance doesn’t exist, and nor do we have the kind of cross-regional collaborative ecosystems and array of free resources available to libraries, universities, and publishers in Europe. Despite the world-leading education infrastructures currently being developed across MENA, awareness of what Open Science is, and the full scope of what it represents, remains patchy in many stakeholder communities. Moreover, advocates of ‘Open’ concepts are as likely to meet with mistrust as they are to receive eager endorsement.

This is illustrated by regional perceptions of Open Access publishing and publications, which are frequently viewed with a profoundly jaundiced eye. The two most common misconceptions I come across as Head of Publishing at Knowledge E are firstly that Open Access is a predatory movement designed to steal money and research, and secondly that OA content is inherently low quality. I’ve been told this repeatedly during meetings with universities and research institutions, and during workshops I’ve hosted.

And this anecdotal evidence is borne out by our annual Open Access Week Quiz. When we aggregate the scores for the past couple of years, a worrying trend emerges… Almost 20% of respondents don’t fully understand what Open Access is, and a further 15% aren’t aware of the benefits. Meanwhile, 48% of respondents don’t know about the different tiers of Open Access and what this meant for them, and rather worryingly, 50% didn’t know authors retained their own copyright! When we move from basic knowledge to perceptions, the responses are even more concerning. Because, although many respondents might make use of Open Access materials, they don’t trust them. Almost 16% thought all Open Access research was ‘low quality’ or ‘fake’, because they believed Open Access meant ‘not peer reviewed’. 18% thought any journal charging an APC was a predator, and finally – 26% of respondents thought “Open Access” was synonymous with predatory practices. Obviously this survey is specifically limited to Open Access publishing, but I think it offers a useful proxy for the way ‘Open’ concepts are viewed by many of the major stakeholder demographics in the region.

However, this mistrust of Open Access publishers can be juxtaposed with the tremendous appetite for Open Science concepts in many quarters. This is visible at every level, from Government Ministers and key policy makers, to libraries, higher education institutions, and major healthcare facilities. Global organisations such as UNESCO and the Arab States Research and Education Network (ASREN) are working to facilitate top-down change, while organisations such as the Qatar National Library and Egyptian Knowledge Bank are leading huge national projects to promote the creation and use of Open Access research. Individual institutions are equally proactive, and there are a number of hugely successful Open Access strategies in place in key universities across the region.

Yet, these are often isolated instances and limited to supporting Open Access publishing rather than moving towards Open Science as a whole. Moreover, despite strong government mandates to develop the region as a research hub, to promote Arab-language research to the global scholarly community, and a lesser – but still tangible – impetus towards Open Access, multiple challenges continue to impede the advancement of Open Science programmes. Alongside the widespread misconceptions about Open Access, some of my clients have faced issues with unsupportive institutional policies and inadequate structural frameworks, meanwhile others struggle with the lack of clearly defined guidelines for best practices when implementing Open policies and structural frameworks.

Although I’m still relatively new to the region, having only moved to Dubai in February 2020, I work for a well-established and widely-respected company, which has built up a vast network of relationships with the region’s academic stakeholders over the past decade. The trust which our clients and contacts have in Knowledge E resulted in many of them coming to me (as an Open Access publisher) for advice on how to address these challenges. And this is what led us to come up with the idea of holding a special event to help support engagement with Open Science in universities and libraries across the region.

Of course, a lot of companies might claim to be ‘mission-driven’, but in Knowledge E’s case this really is true. We believe that increasing the accessibility and visibility of research is key to ensuring the sustainability of scholarly ecosystems (as well as vital for the sociocultural and economic development of the region). This event is being jointly organised by Knowledge E and the Knowledge E Foundation, a registered Community Interest Company which aims to improve the accessibility, availability, and inclusivity of research and education for everyone, everywhere. Funded by the profits from Knowledge E, the Foundation tries to make a difference wherever possible, from disaster relief and building schools, to funding education initiatives and Open Research.

“Our goal is to provide a forum for MENA librarians, researchers, government policy makers and higher education institutions to exchange ideas and start new cross-regional collaborations developing Open Science policies and infrastructure.”

Although we had initially envisaged something comparatively small, plans for the Forum for Open Research in MENA (FORM) have snowballed, and I was particularly thrilled when UNESCO reached out to give us their endorsement and become our Advisory Partner, and when the Egyptian Knowledge Bank offered to be our Host Partner.

FORM will be held on the 26–27th of October, in Cairo with speakers from major regional groups including ASREN, WISE, the Arab League Education, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO), and the Open Science Community Saudi Arabia (OSCSA), as well as global organisations such as UNESCO, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), OAPEN, and the Public Knowledge Project (PKP). There will also be case studies from MENA libraries and universities.

Of course, Open Science projects aren’t going to solve every global problem, and issues surrounding funding, digital poverty, and institutional inertia may never be wholly addressed. But a digital transformation is inevitable and has the potential and power to benefit everyone. Therefore, our goal is to support our region’s research communities, working with them towards a more Open MENA and a more knowledgeable world. And we hope you’ll consider joining us this coming October, in Cairo or online:


Written by: Emily Choynowski