Thinking globally

Early on as we were setting up the Mozilla Science Lab, I had a chat with a former neuroscientist about the challenges facing modern day research – soundboarding our initial ideas, hearing about his experiences in academia, discussing gaps in training and awareness. What struck me from that conversation in particular was a comment made about where “most of the good science” came from (90%+ in his estimation), challenging the idea that such a program as ours was needed as in his opinion, if you needed to know something or access research and if you were at a top notch university, then it was a non-issue.

And that’s where 90% of the “good science” was done, he soon after conveyed – at top-level universities in the US (with a few exceptions).

Now, it’s no secret that the research we see gain the most citations, rank highest in indices such as the ISI, or share is not fully representative of all the world’s researchers, and that what’s available is skewed largely to western cultures. That’s slowly changing, but in reply to the neuroscientist’s point above, what’s reflected in the literature is not the whole picture, nor is it indicative of the broader research community – the folks we aim to help through our work at the Science Lab.

Which brings me to my conversations over lunch today. I’m currently in Nairobi, here for a workshop that kicks off tomorrow focusing on discoverability and openness of African scholarship, with many of the participants East African agricultural scientists. The two day workshop is sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation and organised by OpenUCT in Cape Town, the first of what I hope are many knowledge sharing discussions with those here on the ground trying to stay on top of their research, build out their university and personal footprint in their fields, and well, communicate that out to the world without their voices being lost.

Here Open Access is a touchy issue – most of the researchers and librarians I’ve spoken to in support of the premise and of what that unlocks for them in terms of the world’s literature. But in the push to turn that spigot all the way to OA, there’s also a tangible fear of losing what competitive advantage they may have built up over their careers, a worry that their work will not reach the same audience as others in the West.

And then there are the technical and cultural issues here on the ground, of which I’m just scratching the surface. From a UNESCO / eIFL workshop I participated in back in 2009 around sharing content and data on the web to the perspective heard today at lunch from a librarian in Ghana, we’re still working across varying levels of awareness and just sheer resource. Many students, even up to the postgrad level, at these universities still rely on their central library on campus for Internet access (smartphone adoption is helping, but personal laptop ownership is still not yet the norm). Some universities only recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, as opposed to their 150th (or 918th, if you’re Oxford), formed after African independence. (Have a read of Eve Gray’s fantastic post about these issues for more.)

So why am I here, and not at say, SXSW? Because science is global. Perspective is important. The means to understand the world, the ability to process, share, and generate new knowledge is not just for the elite, but for all (and luckily, my colleagues at Mozilla firmly believe that too). And given a chance to hear from other researchers on the ground, curious about “science on the web” from discoverability and dissemination, to capacity-building/skills training was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

This is one of our first steps in building bridges with researchers in other parts of the world, so that we can truly work together to make research more efficient. As stated in our plan for 2014, we’ll also be looking at running events and hearing from others in South America, Australia and in Asia about their challenges in doing open research on the web. Our goal is to continue to see how we can help the broader research community and join up the various efforts and threads of conversation to move forward together. Have an idea? Get in touch. We’re here to help.

And many thanks to the Carnegie Foundation and the Open UCT team for inviting me to join them this week in Nairobi. You’ve already given me much to think about, and I look forward to learning more over the next few days.


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