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Must we decolonise Open Access? Perspectives from Francophone Africa

A long read featuring the recent work of Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou and Florence Piron, on how a truly open and inclusive ‘Open Access’ movement must include those at the periphery

I recently watched the recording of the fantastic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion session at OpenCon, and I was struck by the general theme of how ‘openness’ isn’t necessarily the force for equality that we perhaps think it is, and how issues of power, exploitation, and hierarchy means that it should be understood differently according to the context in which it is applied. In the session, Denisse Albornoz used the expression of ‘situated openness’ to describe how our Northern conception of openness should not be forced on anyone or any group – it needs to be understood first in individual contexts of historical injustices and post-colonial power structures.

What stood out for me most in this session, however, (because it related most to my work) was Cameroonian Thomas Mboa’s presentation, which talked about the ‘neo-colonial face of open access’. The presentation employed some very striking critical terms such as ‘cognitive injustice’ and ‘epistemic alienation’ to Open Access.

I’ve always known that the Open Access movement was far from perfect, but at least it’s moving global science publishing in the right direction, right? Can working towards free access and sharing of research really be ‘neo-colonial’ and lead to ‘alienation’ for users of research in the Global South? And if this really is the case, how can we ‘decolonise’ open access?

Thomas didn’t get much time to expand on some of the themes he presented, so I got in contact to see if he had covered these ideas elsewhere, and fortunately he has, through his participation in ‘Projet SOHA’ . This is a research-action project that’s been working on open science, empowerment and cognitive justice in French-speaking Africa and Haiti from 2015-17. He provided me with links to four publications written in French by himself and his colleagues from the project – Florence Piron (Université Laval, Quebec, Canada), Antonin Benoît Diouf (Senegal), and Marie Sophie Dibounje Madiba (Cameroon), and many others.

These articles are a goldmine of provocative ideas and perspectives on Open Access from the Global South, which should challenge all of us in the English-speaking academic publishing community. Therefore, I decided to share some excerpts and extended quotes from these articles below, in amongst some general comments from my (admittedly limited) experience of working with researchers in the Global South.

The quotes are taken from the following book and articles, which I recommend reading in full (these are easily translatable using the free tool Google Translate Web, which correctly translated around 95% of the text).

Piron et al’s (2017) article starts with a stinging critique of those of us in our Northern scholarly publishing community cliques, and our never-ending open access debates over technicalities:

“… there are many debates in this community, including on the place of open licenses in open access (is an article really in open access if it is not freely reusable in addition to being freely accessible?), on the legitimacy of the fees charged to authors by certain journals choosing open access, on the quality and evaluation of open access journals, on the very format of the journal as the main vehicle for the dissemination of scientific articles or on the type of documents to be included in institutional or thematic open archives (only peer-reviewed articles or any document related to scientific work?).

Viewed from Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa, these debates may seem very strange, if not incomprehensible. Above all, they appear very localized: they are debates of rich countries, of countries of the North, where basic questions such as the regular payment of a reasonable salary to academics, the existence of public funding for research, access to the web, electricity, well-stocked libraries and comfortable and safe workplaces have long been settled.” Piron et al. (2017)

… and their critique gets more and more scathing from here for the Open Access movement. OA advocates – tighten your seatbelts – you are not going to find this a comfortable ride.

“… a conception of open access that is limited to the legal and technical questions of the accessibility of science without thinking about the relationship between center and periphery can become a source of epistemic alienation and neocolonialism in the South”. Piron et al. (2017)

“Is open access the solution to the documented shortcomings of these African universities and, in doing so, a crucial means of getting scientific research off the ground? I would like to show that this is not the case, and to suggest that open access can instead become a neo-colonial tool by reinforcing the cognitive injustices that prevent African researchers from fully deploying their research capacities in the service of the community and sustainable local development of their country.” Piron (2017)

Ouch. To understand these concepts of ‘cognitive injustice’ and ‘epistemic alienation’, it helps to understand this ‘world system’ and the power relationship between the centre and the periphery. This is based on Wallerstein’s (1996) model, which Thomas featured in his OpenCon slides:


“… a world-system whose market unit is the scientific publication circulating between many instances of high economic value, including universities, research centers, science policies, journals and an oligopoly of for-profit scientific publishers (Larivière, Haustein, and Mongeon, 2015).” Piron et al. (2017)

“… we believe that science, far from being universal, has been historically globalized. Inspiring us, like Keim (2010) and a few others (Polanco, 1990), from Wallerstein’s (1996) theory, we consider that it constitutes a world-system whose market unit is the scientific publication. Produced mainly in the North, this merchandise obeys standards and practices that are defined by the ‘center’ of the system, namely the main commercial scientific publishers (Larivière, Haustein, & Mongeon, 2015), and their university partners are the US and British universities dominating the so-called world rankings. The semi-periphery is constituted by all the other countries of the North or emerging from the South which revolve around this center, adopting the English language in science and conforming to the model LMD (license, master, doctorate) imposed since the Bologna process to all the universities of the world with the aim of “normalizing” and standardizing the functioning of this world-system. The periphery then refers to all the countries that are excluded from this system, which produce no or very few scientific publications or whose research work is invisible, but to whom the LMD model has also been imposed (Charlier, Croché, & Ndoye 2009, Hountondji 2001)”. Piron et al.  (2017)

So, the continuing bias and global focus towards the powerful ‘center’ of the world-system leads to the epistemic alienation of those on the periphery, manifesting in a ‘spiritual colonisation’:

“… this attitude that drives us to want to think about local problems with Western perspective is a colonial legacy to which many African citizens hang like a ball.” Mboa (2016).

So where does Open Access fit in with this world-system?

 “… if open access is to facilitate and accelerate the access of scientists from the South to Northern science without looking into the visibility of knowledge of the South, it helps to redouble their alienation epistemic without contributing to their emancipation. Indeed, by making the work of the center of the world-system of science even more accessible, open access maximizes their impact on the periphery and reinforces their use as a theoretical reference or as a normative model, to the detriment of local epistemologies.” Piron et al. (2017)

Rethinking Northern perspectives

This should be an eye-opening analysis for those of us who assumed that access to research knowledge in the North could only be a good thing for the South. Perhaps we need to examine the arrogance behind our narrow worldview, and consider more deeply the power at the heart of such a one-way knowledge exchange. Many of us might find this difficult, as:

“The idea that open access may have the effects of neocolonialism is incomprehensible to people blind to epistemological diversity, who reduce the proclaimed universalism of Western science to the impoverished model of the standards imposed by the Web of Science model. For these people, the invisibility of a publication in their numerical reference space (located in the center of the world-system) is equivalent to its non-existence. The idea that valid and relevant knowledge can exist in another form and independently of the world-system that fascinates them is unthinkable.” Piron et al. (2017)

Having spent a little time at scholarly publishing events in the Global North, I can attest that the mindset described above is common. There are kind thoughts (and a few breadcrumbs thrown in the form of grants and fellowships) towards those on the periphery, but it is very much in the mindset of helping those from the Global South ‘catch up’. Our mindset is very much as Piron describes here:

“If one sticks to the positivist view that “science” is universal even if its “essence” is symbolized by the American magazine Science then indeed African science, that is to say in Africa, is late, and we need to help it develop so that it looks more and more like the North”. Piron (2017)

And whilst in the North we may have a lot of respect for different cultural perspectives, genuine reciprocal exchanges of research knowledge are rare. We are supremely confident that our highly-developed scientific publishing model deserves to be at the centre of our system. This can lead to selective blindness about the rigorousness of our science and our indexed journals, in spite of the steady drip drip drip of reports of biased peer review, data fraud and other ethical violations in ‘high-impact’ Northern journals, exposed in places like retraction watch.

North/South research collaborations are rarely equitable – southern partners often complain of being used as data-gatherers rather than intellectual equals and partners in research projects, even when the research is being carried out in their own country.

“These [Northern] partners inevitably guide the problems and the methodological and epistemological choices of African researchers towards the only model they know and value, the one born at the center of the world-system of science without questioning whether this model is relevant to Africa and its challenges”. Piron et al (2017).

These issues of inequity in collaborative relationships and publication practices seem inextricably linked, which is not surprising when the ultimate end goal of research is publishing papers in Northern journals, rather than actually solving Southern development challenges.

In this context, open access may appear as a neocolonial tool, as it facilitates access by Southern researchers to Northern science without ensuring reciprocity. In doing so, it redoubles the epistemic alienation of these researchers instead of contributing to the emancipation of the knowledge created in the universities of the South by releasing them from their extraversion. Indeed, by making the work produced in the center of the world-system even more accessible, free access maximizes their impact on the periphery and reinforces their use as a theoretical reference or as a normative model, to the detriment of local epistemologies, which generates situations absurd as, for example, the use of a theoretical framework related to wage labor in the Paris region to analyze the work of women in northern Mali” Piron (2017)

“The resulting consequences are, in particular, the teachers of the Southern countries who quote and read only writers from the North and impose them on their students and the libraries of our universities who do everything to subscribe to Western scholarly journals while they do not deal with our problems. (Mboa Nkoudou, 2016 )”

This is also a striking example:

“It is very sad to note that geographers in Ouagadougou are more familiar with European work on the Sahel than those at the Higher Institute of Sahel in Maroua, Cameroon.” Piron (2017)

The lack of equity in research knowledge exchange and collaboration is also caused by another one-way North to South flow: funding. Research in the South is often dependent on foreign funding. Big Northern donors and funders therefore set the standards and agendas in research, and in how the entire research funding system works. Southern partners rarely get to set the agenda, and researchers rarely get to develop the research questions that guide the research. They have to learn to jump through administrative hoops to become credible in the eyes of the Northern donor (for more information see ‘Who drives research in developing countries?‘).

Southern institutions are also compelled, via league tables such as the World Unviersity Rankings, to play the same game as institutions in the North. Institutions are ranked against each other according to criteria set in the North, one of which is citations (of course, only citations between journals in the Web of Science or Scopus, which is overwhelmingly Northern). And so to stay ‘competitive’, Southern institutions need their researchers to publish in Northern journals with Northern language and agendas.

Northern agendas and local innovation

Whilst it is tempting to think that the issues and criticism described above is mostly a problem for the social sciences and humanities, there are also real issues in the ‘hard’ sciences – perhaps not so much in their epistemological foundations – but in very practical issues of Northern research agendas. For example, Northern research, being based in Europe and the US, is overwhelmingly biased towards white people, in diversity of leadership, diversity of researchers, and most importantly in the whiteness of clinical trial subjects. This is problematic because different ethnic populations have different genetic makeups and differences due to geography, that mean they respond differently to treatments (see here, here and here). Are African and Asian researchers informed of this when they read research from so-called ‘international’ journals?

Furthermore, these Northern agendas can also mean that research focuses on drugs, equipment and treatments that are simply not suitable for developing country contexts. I was reminded of a discussion comment recently made by a Pakistani surgeon on the Northern bias of systematic reviews:

There is a definite bias in this approach as almost all of the guidelines and systematic reviews are based on the research carried out in high income countries and the findings and the recommendations have little relevance to the patients, health care system and many a time serve no purpose to the millions of patients based in low resourced countries. e.g. I routinely used Phenol blocks for spasticity management for my patients which were abandoned two decades ago in the West. Results are great, and the patients can afford this Rs 200 phenol instead of Rs 15,000 Botox vial. But, unfortunately, I am unable to locate a single systematic review on the efficacy of phenol as all published research in the last decade was only on the use of Botox in the management of spasticity.” Farooq Rathore (HIFA mailing list, 2016).

Similarly, I’ve read research papers from the South that report on innovative approaches to medical treatments and other problems that utilise lower-cost equipment and methodologies (in fact, as is argued here, research in low-resource environments can often be more efficient and innovative, containing many lessons we, in the North, could learn from). This point is also made by Piron et al:

“… the production of technical and social innovations is rich in Sub-Saharan French-speaking Africa, as evidenced by the high number of articles on this subject in the Sci-Dev magazine, specializing in science for development, or in the ecofin site, an economic information agency turned towards Africa. But these are mostly local innovations that mobilize local resources and often recycled materials to, for example, introduce electricity into a village, better irrigate fields or offer lighting after sunset. The aim of these innovations is to contribute to local development and not to the development of international markets, unlike innovations designed in the North which, while targeting the countries of the South, remain highly marketable just think of milk powder or GMO seeds. The issue of open access to scientific publications is a very secondary issue for local innovators in such a context”. (Piron et al. 2016)

These examples of innovation aside, there are many cases where the ‘epistemic alienation’ described above leads to ‘the exclusion or contempt of local knowledge’ (Mboa, 2016), even amongst researchers in the global South.

“In fact, Western culture abundantly relayed in the media and textbooks is shown to be superior to other cultures. This situation is pushing Africans to multiply their efforts to reach the ideal of life of the “white”. This situation seems to block their ability to think locally, or even to be reactive. Thus, faced with a given situation specific to the African context, many are those who first draw on the resources of Western thinking to propose elements of answers.” Mboa (2016)

Free and open access as ‘showcasing products’

The Research4Life (R4L) programme also comes in for criticism from Piron et al. which will come as a shock to Northern publishing people who often use the ‘… but they’ve got Research4Life’ line when faced with evidence of global research inequalities.

“… while pretending to charitably provide university libraries in the Global South with free access to pre-defined packages of paid journals from the North, this program, set up by for-profit scientific publishers, maintains the dependence of these libraries, limits their understanding of the true network of open access publications and, above all, improves the market for the products sold by these publishers.” Piron et al (2017)

“… this program encourages the continued reliance of these libraries on an external program, designed in the North and showcasing Northern products, while it may disappear as soon as this philanthropic desire is exhausted or as soon as trading partners will not find any more benefits.”

Whilst I still think R4L is a great initiative (I know many researchers in the Global South who are very appreciative of the programme), it’s difficult to disagree with the conclusion that:

‘… this program mainly improves the opportunities of Northern publishers without contributing to the sustainable empowerment of university libraries in the South … this charity seems very hypocritical, let alone arbitrary, since it can stop at any time.” Piron (2017)

Of course, the same could be said of Article Processing Charge (APC) waivers for developing country authors. Waivers are currently offered by the majority of journals from the big publishers (provided according to the same HINARI list of countries provided by Research4Life), although sometimes you have to dig deep into the terms and conditions pages to find them. Waivers are good for publishers to showcase their corporate social responsibility and provide diversity of authorship. However, they are unsustainable – this charity is unlikely to last forever, especially as they rely on the pool of Southern authors being relatively limited. It should also be noted that developing countries with the most active, growing researcher communities such as Nigeria, South Africa and India do not qualify for either R4L access or APC waivers.

Speaking of APCs, something I observe regularly amongst Southern researchers is a confusion over the ‘Gold’ OA author-pays model, and this too is noted:

“In northern countries, many researchers, especially in STEM (Björk and Solomon, 2012) [ 7 ], believe (wrongly) that open access now means “publication fees charged to authors” … this commercial innovation appears to be paying off, as these costs appear to be natural to researchers.” Piron (2017)

This also appears to be paying off in the Global South – authors seem resigned to pay some kind of charge to publish, and it is common to have to point out to authors that over two-thirds of OA journals and 99% of subscription journals do not charge to publish (although, the rise of ‘predatory’ journals may have magnified this misunderstanding that pay-to-publish is the norm).

It may be tempting to think of these inequalities as an unfortunate historical accident, and that our attempts to help the Global South ‘catch up’ are just a little clumsy and patronising. However, Piron argues that this is no mere accident, but the result of colonial exploitation that still resonates in existing power structures today:

“Open access is then easily seen as a means of catching up, at least filling gaps in libraries and often outdated teaching […] Africa is considered as lagging behind the modern world, which would explain its underdevelopment, to summarize this sadly hegemonic conception of north-south relations. By charity, Northern countries then feel obliged to help, which feeds the entire industry surrounding development aid [….] this model of delay, violently imposed by the West on the rest of the world through colonization, has been used to justify the economic and cognitive exploitation (Connell, 2014) of colonized continents without which modernity could not have prospered.” Piron (2017)

To build the path or take the path?

Of course, the authors do admit that access to Northern research has a role to play in the Global South, provided the access is situated in local contexts:

“… African science should be an African knowledge, rooted in African contexts, that uses African epistemologies to answer African questions, while also using other knowledge from all over the world, including Western ones, if they are relevant locally.” Piron (2017)

However, the practical reality of Open Access for Southern researchers is often overstated. There is a crucial distinction between making content ‘open’ and providing the means to access that content. As Piron et al. 2017 say:

“To put a publication in open access: is it, to build the path (technical or legal) that leads to it, or is it to make it possible for people to take this path? This distinction is crucial to understand the difference in meaning of open access between the center and the periphery of the world-system of science, although only an awareness of the conditions of scientific research in the Southern countries makes it possible to visualize it, to perceive it.”

This crucial difference between availability and accessibility has also been explained by Anne Powell on Scholarly Kitchen. There are many complex barriers to ‘free’ and ‘open’ content actually being accessed and used. The most obvious of these barriers is internet connectivity, but librarian training, language and digital literacy also feature significantly:

“Finding relevant open access articles on the web requires digital skills that, as we have seen, are rare among Haitian and African students for whom the web sometimes comes via Facebook … Remember that it is almost always when they arrive at university that these students first touch a computer. The catching up is fast, but many reflexes acquired since the primary school in the countries of the North must be developed before even being able to imagine that there are open access scientific texts on the web to make up for the lack of documents in the libraries. In the words of the Haitian student Anderson Pierre, “a large part of the students do not know the existence of these resources or do not have the digital skills to access and exploit them in order to advance their research project”. Piron (2017)

Barriers to local knowledge exchange

Unfortunately, this is made even more difficult by resistance and misunderstanding of the internet and digital tools from senior leadership in Africa:

“Social representations of the web, science and copyright also come into play, especially among older academics, a phenomenon that undermines the appropriation of digital technologies at the basis of open access in universities.” Piron et al. (2017)

“To this idea that knowledge resides only in printed books is added a representation of the web which also has an impact on the local resistance to open access: our fieldwork has allowed us to understand that, for many African senior academics, the web is incompatible with science because it contains only documents or sites that are of low quality, frivolous or entertaining. These people infer that science in open access on the web is of lower quality than printed science and are very surprised when they learn that most of the journals of the world-system of science exist only in dematerialized format. … Unfortunately, these resistances slow down the digitization and the web dissemination of African scientific works, perpetuating these absurd situations where the researchers of the same field in neighboring universities do not know what each other is doing”. Piron et al. (2017)

This complaint about in-country communication from researchers in the South can be common, but there are signs that open access can make a difference – as an example, in Sri Lanka, I’ve spoken to researchers who say that communicating research findings within the country has always been a problem, but the online portal Sri Lanka Journals Online (currently 77 open access Sri Lankan journals) has started to improve this situation. This project was many years in the making, and has involved training journal editors and librarians in loading online content and improving editorial practices for open access. The same, of course, could be said for African Journals Online, which has potential to facilitate sharing on a larger scale.

Arguably, some forms of institutional resistance to openness in the Global South have a neocolonial influence – universities have largely borrowed and even intensified the Northern ‘publish or perish’ mantra which focuses the academic rewards system almost entirely on journal publications, often in northern-indexed journals, rather than on impact on real world development.

“The system of higher education and research in force in many African countries remains a remnant of colonization, perpetuated by the reproduction, year after year, of the same ideals and principles. This reproduction is assured not by the old colonizers but by our own political leaders who are perpetuating a system structured according to a classical partitioning that slows down any possible communication between researchers within the country or with the outside world, even worse between the university and the immediate environment. For the ruling class, the changes taking place in the world and the society’s needs seem to have no direct link to the university.” Mboa (2016)

Mboa calls this partitioning between researchers and outsiders as “a tight border between society and science”:

“African researchers are so attached to the ideal of neutrality of science and concern of its ‘purity’ that they consider contacts with ordinary citizens as ‘risks’ or threats and that they prefer to evolve in their ‘ivory tower’. On the other hand, ordinary citizens feel so diminished compared to researchers that to talk to them about their eventual involvement in research is a taboo subject …” Mboa (2016)

Uncolonising openness

So what is the answer to all these problems? Is it in building the skills of researchers and institutions or a complete change of philosophy?

“The colonial origin of African science (Mvé-Ondo, 2005) is certainly no stranger to this present subjugation of African science to northern research projects, nor to its tendency to imitate Western science without effort. Contextualization, particularly in the quasi-colonial structuring of sub-Saharan African universities (Fredua-Kwarteng, 2015) and in maintaining the use of a colonial language in university education. Considering this institutionalized epistemic alienation as yet another cognitive injustice, Mvé-Ondo wonders “how to move from a westernization of science to a truly shared science” (p.49) and calls for “epistemological mutation”, “rebirth”, modernizing “African science at the crossroads of local knowledge and northern science perhaps echoing the call of Fanon (1962/2002) for a “new thinking” in the Third World countries, detached from European model, decolonized.” Piron et al. (2017)

For this to happen, open access must be about more than just access – but something much more holistic and equitable:

“Can decentralized, decolonised open access then contribute to creating more cognitive justice in global scientific production? Our answer is clear: yes, provided that it is not limited to the question of access for scientific and non-scientific readers to scientific publications. It must include the concern for origin, creation, local publishing and the desire to ensure equity between the accessibility of the publications of the center of the world system and that of knowledge from the periphery. It thus proposes to replace the normative universalism of globalized science with an inclusive universalism, open to the ecology of knowledges and capable of building an authentic knowledge commons (Gruson-Daniel, 2015; Le Crosnier, 2015), hospitable for the knowledge of the North and the South”. Piron et al. (2017)

Mboa sees the solution to this multifaceted problem in ‘open science’:

 “[Cognitive injustice comes via] … endogenous causes (citizens and African leaders) and by exogenous causes (capitalism, colonization, the West). The knowledge of these causes allowed me to propose ways to prevent our downfall. Among these means, I convened open science as a tool available to our leaders and citizens for advancing cognitive justice. For although the causes are endogenous and exogenous, I believe that a wound heals from the inside outwards.” Mboa (2016).

Mboa explains how open science approaches can overcome some of these problems in this book chapter, but here he provides a short summary of the advantages of open science for African research:

“It’s a science that rejects the ivory tower and the separation between scientists and the rest of the population of the country. In short, it’s a science released from control by a universal capitalist standard, by hierarchical authority and by pre-established scientific classes. From this perspective, open science offers the following advantages:

  • it brings science closer to society;
  • it promotes fair and sustainable development;
  • it allows the expression of minority and / or marginalized groups, as well as their knowledge;
  • it promotes original, local and useful research in the country;
  • it facilitates access to a variety of scientific and technical information;
  • it is abundant, recent and up to date;
  • it develops digital skills;
  • it facilitates collaborative work;
  • it gives a better visibility to research work.

By aiming to benefit from these advantages, researchers and African students fight cognitive injustice. For this, open access science relies on open access, free licenses, free computing, and citizen science.” Mboa (2016).

But in order for open science to succeed, digital literacy must be rapidly improved to empower students and researchers in the South:

“Promoting inclusive access therefore requires engaging at the same time in a decolonial critique of the relationship between the center and the periphery and urging universities in the South to develop the digital literacy of their student or teacher members.” Piron et al. (2017)

It also requires improving production of scientific works (‘grey’ literature, as well as peer-reviewed papers) in the South for a two-way North/South conversation:

“Then, we propose to rethink the usual definition of open access to add the mandate to enhance the visibility of scientific work produced in universities in the South and thus contribute to greater cognitive justice in global scientific production.” Piron (2017)

And providing open access needs to be understood in context:

“… if we integrate the concern for the enhancement of the knowledge produced in the periphery and the awareness of all that hinders the creation of this knowledge, then open access can become a tool of cognitive justice at the service of the construction of an inclusive universalism peculiar to a just open science.” Piron, Diouf, Madiba (2017)

In summary then, we need to rethink the way that the global North seeks to support the South – a realignment of this relationship from mere access to empowerment through sustainable capacity building:

“Africa’s scientific development aid, if it is needed, should therefore be oriented much less towards immediate access to Northern publications and more to local development of tools and the strengthening of the digital skills of academics and librarians. These tools and skills would enable them not only to take advantage of open access databases, but also to digitize and put open access local scientific works in open archives, journals or research centers.”  Piron (2017)

So what next?

Even if you disagree with many the above ideas, I hope that this has provided many of you with some food for thought. Open Access must surely be about more than just knowledge flow from North to South (or, for that matter the academy to the public, or well-funded researchers to poorly funded researchers). Those on the periphery must also be given a significant voice and a place at the table. For this to happen, many researchers (and their equivalents outside academia) need training and support in digital skills; some institutional barriers also need to be removed or overcome; and of course a few cherished, long-held ideas must be seriously challenged.

“These injustices denote anything that diminishes the capacity of academics in these countries to deploy the full potential of their intellectual talents, their knowledge and their capacity for scientific research to serve their country’s sustainable local development”. Piron et al., (2016).

What do you think…?


Thanks to Florence and Thomas for double-checking the translations of their work from the French originals.

The rest of the material above represents my own personal thoughts, and does not necessarily represent the views of my employer.

This article is licensed under the terms of a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA


A cursory look at some ‘predatory’ journals

Last week a researcher got in contact because some of his colleagues (at an academic department in a developing country) had asked him to check a list of journals – he suspected that they were dodgy journals and asked us to verify this. I did a quick bit of research and in each case I spotted at least one or two ‘red flags’ on each journal which suggested they were ‘predatory’ or appallingly low quality. I thought I would adapt this advice to a shareable blog post, as the list contains some good examples of deceptive and terrible journals that you should avoid at all costs (this post has also been shared already on the AuthorAID Discussion group). So let’s dive right in!

Journal 1 – Academia Journal of Scientific Research

The journal prominently claims to have an Impact Factor*. This is not the kind of Impact Factor journal your supervisor told you to publish in – journals have to be indexed in the Clarivate (formerly Thomson Reuters) Web of Science to get an Impact Factor, so it should be listed here: (spoiler alert: it’s not)

impact factor

If you are going to pretend to have an Impact Factor, at least make it higher than 0.3!

Journal 2 – International Journal of Development Research

Quality of the website suggests this is not an ‘international’ journal. But also, claims to be ‘UGC approved’ (by Indian University Grants Commission)… but it’s not listed here: (there is more information via this link about the history and criteria of the UGC list).


Prof. Bilgin looks rather sheepish. And so he should be.

Fake association with Thomson Reuters.
researcherIDFurthermore, they create a fake association with Thomson Reuters. The Thomson Reuters ‘Researcher ID’ website is for individual researchers to identify themselves and list their publications, but many predatory journals are registering accounts using just their journal name. They do this so they can link to this page from their website, and it *looks* like they have an official Thomson Reuters page. Clever.

Needless to say, the journal is not listed on the official website:

Journal 3 – World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR)

Like many of the journals here, the scope of the journal “scientific research” is very broad and should make you sceptical of their ability to be able to cover such a wide range of subjects! It might be useful to compare and contrast this with Science or Nature, which are well-established international, multidisciplinary journals.

This is the Editorial Board listing for Nature Scientific Reports: – as you can see it has an extensive list of editors covering every area under the natural and clinical sciences, so you can be confident in their expertise in your subject area. Compare this with WJSRR: Not quite in the same league, is it?

Also, the paragraph below is what we might call ‘gobbledygook’. It’s repetitive, incomprehensible English and says nothing about the scope of the journal. Also see the worrying red text – your paper will be ‘published without delay’. That doesn’t bode well for rigorous peer review.

“World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR) is peer reviewed, online an open journal. It serves as a World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR) forum of scholarly / researcher / academician research related to Scientific Research and Reviews Research. World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR) are covers all the fields of Scientific Research related. There is no limit and covered full length research article, short communication, review paper and case study etc. World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR) are inviting you to submit your paper and paper will publish without delay. World Journal of Scientific Research and Reviews (WJSRR) journal content will review by most prominent experts in the respective field. All published journal reader can read absolutely free.”

Journal 4 – Asian journal of science and technology


Professor Yildirim looks like he is quietly seething that somebody has spelt ‘physical’ wrong on his nice banner.

Again, this claims to be ‘UGC approved’ – but it isn’t

Also, let’s look at the aims and scope to find out more information… oh, ‘page not found’


Batman recommends deep scepticism of claimed ‘impact factors’

Journal 5 – International Journal of Advanced Research

This journal has a link to ‘Impact Factor’ on the homepage which goes to this page: showing a gallery of nice certificates for something called ‘Scientific Journal Impact Factor’.

This is a fake/meaningless ‘impact factor’ (find out more information on fake impact factors here) that has no credibility in the scholarly community. Again, a journal only qualifies for an Impact Factor if its listed here:

Also, their Editor in Chief is a ‘Dr Morse Florse’ of the UK. What a great name! Unfortunately, there is no institutional affiliation listed, it just says he is in the UK, so no way of checking his credibility. I did a search on Google for ‘Morse Florse’ and there is no information on this person, except that he is listed as an editor in chief for lots of journals with similar names. I’m pretty sure this is a fake name, and perhaps based on the fictional detective Inspector Morse.


Journal 6 – Applied science and innovative research**
The Editor of the journal is a ‘Lisa Brown’, an employee of the publisher ‘Scholink’. What credentials does she have to be an editor of a multidisciplinary journal? There are no other details provided, and I was unable to find any information on her online.

They also provide a list of indexes which contains at least 3 fake impact factors:
• Global Impact Factor (GIF)
• Cosmos Impact Factor
• Universal Impact Factor


Summing up, all of these journals should be avoided at all costs. Additionally, I would suspect that any researcher who has shortlisted these sort of journals as potential target journals for their research is looking in totally the wrong place. Perhaps they have been paying too much attention to the spam they receive in their inbox (credible journals never send you unsolicited emails folks!). Or perhaps they did a Google search for ‘international journal’ or ‘research journal’, when in fact it would be much wiser to think about their specific research field first, rather than the grand-titled (fake) multidisciplinary journals listed above. They should be more realistic – afterall, most good-quality academic journals are very niche and serve a specific audience.

After sharing this post on AuthorAID, an author got in contact with me to say that he had an article accepted by one of the above journals and was about to pay an APC when he saw this. He provided copies of the acceptance letter, ‘reviewer comments’ and invoice. More on this next time!

* Impact factors – I’m aware that the Impact Factor is not a perfect measure of journal quality or research integrity. There are a growing number of critics of the metric, and in fact there are tens of thousands of perfectly credible journals that do not even quality for this metric. However, many ‘predatory’ journals advertise their fake Impact Factors quite prominently to entice unwary researchers into thinking they have prestige, so it’s important that those researchers know how to check the claims of these journals and cross-check with the Clarivate website.

** This journal is quite strange. They have tried to make their journals seem quite credible, with some standard Open Access practices – CC-BY licenses, the authors retaining copyright, and working DOIs. However, an organisation that lists offices in London and Los Angeles should not have grammatical errors on their homepage.

When your Open Access paper gets paywalled – part 1

oa4usdThis year I published my first peer-reviewed paper as a co-author – a report on training developing country researchers using MOOCs. Navigating the co-authoring process with two of my colleagues was certainly a fascinating and character-building journey (and probably worthy of its own blog post) but in the end the paper was accepted after some revisions, and published in the March issue of Open Praxis, the journal of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) (full text here). As a bit of an Open Access fan, it was great to be able to publish the paper in a fully Open Access journal which uses the Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 licence. This ticked all the ‘openness’ boxes and, more importantly, we were confident that this would reach as wide a readership as possible.

Following the excitement of my first publication, I had been eagerly awaiting our first citation (a little presumptuous, I know), so I thought I would check Google Scholar to see if the paper had any citations yet … and I stumbled upon a curious thing – the default hyperlink for the paper in Google Scholar wasn’t for Open Praxis, but something called ‘’.
paywall4 (3) I followed the link through to what looked like some kind of Australian library website. And… wait… is that a PAYWALL?  Imagine my surprise at seeing a charge of $4 Australian dollars for a copy of the PDF. No link to the journal, no indication that it was Open Access. Just a $4 charge (+tax).



So how did our openly licensed paper advocating open courses, published in Open Praxis (a journal that champions open educational practices) end up behind a paywall? I had a quick look on the Informit website, which revealed that they are an Australian content aggregator website providing “...information management services to the education, government and corporate sectors“. In fact, the service apparently “…exists to preserve, enhance and distribute hard to find content.“, which is all well and good, but this isn’t hard to find content – our paper is the #2 result in Google Scholar if you search for “MOOC developing countries” in 2017.

I took to Twitter to ask ‘Informit’ what they were up to:

I didn’t get an answer at first, by my co-author Ravi Murugesan did (I guess first author status carries more clout!):

To be fair their response was quick and detailed:

There are some fair points here. Yes, the paper is available free online, but for some inexplicable reason one of those sources links to their ‘added value’ paywalled version, and gives no other options to access the paper.

And it’s fine for them to add metadata and categorise articles by subject, but that’s also what academic journals do. For example Open Praxis.

And about this ‘added value’ they are providing. It certainly isn’t adding value for us, and for those who stumble upon this page by accident. It is adding some value for Informit though, or as Ravi remarks:

With regards to the licence, I’m guessing they mean the creative commons licence the article/journal published with. But it’s the author who owns the copyright, under Creative Commons, as Ravi points out:

However, having said this, the copyright holder may not have the right to ask for the content to be removed. The CC-BY licence allows other users to more-or-less do whatever they like with the content as long as the creators of the work are credited, or in the words of the licence itself, “The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms…”.

But is this reasonable, fair use of the material?

There were differing views on Twitter:

Pippa’s example is the really interesting, similar-ish case of the enterprising ‘Samuel Barrack’ who repackaged a collection of World Health Organisation research papers and sold it as a book on Amazon. Because the works were licensed as CC-BY, this is perfectly legitimate and legal, even if the WHO aren’t particularly happy about it.

The WHO would undoubtedly have been able to prevent this by adding an NC clause. But would we have been able to prevent the paywalling of our paper via this means? (More about this in part 2). We didn’t have much time to ponder on this, because…


After the negative public feedback, Informit decided to back down and un-paywall our paper

So the whole of the Open Praxis journal is now fully OA with no paywalls for Informit. Whether this was due to Ravi’s request or bad press, we aren’t sure. Informit backed down before we got the chance to test out a). the boundaries of legality and ethics of this kind of usage, and b). the rights of the copyright holder once his/her work has been published via CC-BY.

Some problems remain, however – Google Scholar still points to the Informit version, which is an issue we will have to take up with them. Why did Google Scholar prioritise a commercial Australian aggregator website over the original, open source? This is potentially a very troubling precedent.

Also, Informit appears to have removed the whole issue of Open Praxis that our article was published in, so the Google Scholar link is hitting a ‘page not found’ 404 page, which is still going to prevent people from getting to the paper.

We’ll continue to work on fixing this, but in the meantime, this has got me rethinking the value of Creative Commons clauses (NC and ND)  – more in part 2 of this blog post…


Social media events as a model for ‘triggering’ cognitive presence

According to pedagogical researchers Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2001) the first phase of cognitive presence in their Community of Inquiry model is a ‘triggering event’ which includes the recognition of a problem and a sense of puzzlement.  This initiates further exploration into possible solutions, ideally through collaborative information exchange and integration, before applying new ideas.

I’ve always considered ‘controversial’ questions as a good way of introducing a topic, forcing participants to reflect on an engaging issue as the first way of approaching a topic – to make it more ‘real’ to them. However, this doesn’t always come naturally, and perhaps we can learn something from viral social media events as triggering events, as the HumanMOOC has suggested in it’s final week. But can we engage our participants in the same way? Most successful social media events take off because of a commercially created video, big news story, strange event or brilliantly clever idea – not very easy to replicate!

Well one thing that viral social media events have in common is that they provoke a response by touching on real human issues.  The best events have framed controversial issues that relate to issues that are relevant to everyone – for example the “10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman” video that exposed everyday harassment or the Dove “Choose Beautiful” campaign that touched on issues of negative self-image. Such questions demand a response because they are relevant to everyone. Depending on the topic, it should be relatively easy to find material (whether it be a youtube video or opinion article) on a ‘controversial’ subject relevant to the subject that has a human ‘angle’, whilst being careful not to use offensive material or trivialising serious matters.

Another thing that popular social media events have in common is that they provide a simple template/structure for responses, making it easy for people to be involved in the conversation. For example the ice bucket challenge, which followed a common format – a video of a person having a bucket of water poured on their head after nominating 3 others for the same fate. #Likeagirl and #thisgirlcan used Twitter hashtags as the driving message behind the conversation, whilst campaigns like #notinmyname or #bringbackourgirls would ‘humanise’ the hashtag by using a ‘selfie’ with a self-penned version of the hashtag.

So the most successful social media events are good at provoking a human response, but also very good at making it quick and easy for people to respond.

Learning from Twitter hashtag events

There is also a lot to learn from the smaller spontaneous Twitter hashtags that popup from time-to-time. For example #nicerfilmtitles, where people changed one word in a film title to make it nicer (Snacks on a Plane, The Bourne Diplomacy) or others more open to comedic or topical interpretation such as #2015in5words, or #11thCommandment.
These hashtags are very popular for short periods of time, and quite often get picked up by celebrity tweeters. What I like about these is that they allow people to participate very easily, either by changing a single word, or providing a short snappy sentence. It also encourages people to write concisely, which is an important skill in academic writing.

Thinking about how to apply this concept to my own work, our online course participants are international researchers, so we try to avoid using humour too much, as there are many cultural differences and it’s easy to be misinterpreted (for example, my British sense of humour can be rather ironic and surreal). Here are some ideas that might work better:

Summarise your idea

I like the idea of getting participants to summarise their research idea or a research gap in a certain number of words (perhaps 7 or 8). This could happen via Twitter, or could be done within a forum or a tool such as padlet. This would be a good model for how they communicate their research ideas in the future, and I think this could lead organically to follow-up discussions between people with similar interests. There could also be a follow-up exercise where participants write a longer summary (perhaps an abstract).

Summarise learning

This concept could also be used as a way of testing participants understanding of key concepts, for example “summarise what you have learnt this week in 7 words”. This tests learning, conciseness and gives the student a chance to be creative. It’s also fun!

I tried replicating this on the HumanMOOC Twitter conversation with a #humanizedelearningin5words hashtag. Not particularly catchy, and It didn’t quite go viral, but we got some interesting contributions:

Twitter also allows for attaching images for extra impact – expand the tweets above to see these!


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical Thinking and Computer Conferencing:A Model and Tool to Assess Cognitive Presence. American Journal of Distance Education.

“Watch This Woman Get Harassed 108 Times While Walking in New York City”, retrieved from Time website, 03/01/2016

“Here are Some of the Best Viral Campaigns of 2015”, retrieved from Small Business Trends website, 03/01/2016

Using social media and blogs to enhance social presence – a quick chat with some online educators

skepticalsquirrelIn week two of The #HumanMOOC, participants were encouraged to consider using social media to enhance social presence in online courses, using Twitter as an ideal example. I was sceptical. Like this squirrel.

There are a few basic steps my organisation takes in online courses to maximise social presence, for example:

  • Asking participants to fully introduce themselves
  • Making forum participation mandatory to get a certificate (at least 1 post per weekly forum)
  • Regularly encouraging the participants in the weekly news posts
  • Using volunteers as ‘guest facilitators’ to increase activity in the forums, so participants know they are likely to receive a helpful reply
  • Peer learning via peer assessment activities

I’ve also picked up some additional tips via the HumanMOOC, which I mentioned in a previous post.

I’ve heard social media mentioned several times as the most effective way to maximise social presence, but also probably the most difficult. What added value does social media or blogging add to online learning? Shouldn’t we concentrate on improving the interaction within existing forums in the online course?  I’d heard much about ‘dual layer’ online learning, but is this combination of different platforms just going to confuse people and discriminate against those people who just don’t want to have to sign up for another social media account? Are we at risk of just throwing technology and tools at problems? Am I being too sceptical of technology?

I was struck by an earlier tweet by one of the courses facilitators, quoting George Siemens:

In the context of my own work – coordinating online courses for developing country researchers, librarians and journal editors – there are sometimes significant literacy issues: English language literacy, academic literacy and digital literacy. Social media literacy just adds another barrier to overcome – Its difficult enough getting people to interact within a forum without asking students to learn more skills first, especially when they are already pushed for time. For these reasons, social media and external blogging don’t seem very appropriate tools to use. And while Facebook is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries, Twitter is still fairly obscure.

However, many researchers, academics and journalists worldwide do use Twitter, and it does have a lot of potential as a resource – we want to encourage developing country researchers to utilise tools that will give them the ability to communicate their research to a larger audience. Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009)¹ observed that Twitter is great for forcing students to write concisely, and also to be sensitive to the huge audience of an open online community. There is also potential to communicate and get feedback directly from authors and other contacts who they might not be aware are online. xxxx

Blogging also has some potential benefits for practising research writing. My organisation has considered blogging as an internal discussion/collaboration tool, or reflective exercise, but I’m unsure of the benefits of public blogging. Our courses already have (internal) peer assessment activities in which students write a reflection piece and practice writing a research abstract, then get feedback from their peers. Could be an alternative, or compliment this activity? Should the blogging be open and public? That might be an exciting option!

Using the #humanMOOC hashtag I cajoled some online educators and ed tech experts to answer some questions on their experiences of using social media and blogging in their online training. I thought this might also be a good opportunity to test out Storify as a way of recording interesting Twitter discussions:

Full Storify page here

In summary then:


  • Students are not always prepared for using social media in a professional/academic way.
  • Twitter can be confusing at first. There is a need to explain it’s particular conventions by way of modelling – using examples, perhaps through Storify (in a more exciting way than the above!), and getting students to share tips.
  • There are ways to get students more interested in using Twitter: Embedding a widget to display a Twitter feed in the course, highlighting accounts of known authors and other important accounts – perhaps via pre-create Twitter ‘lists’ (however, they need to sign up to see these).
  • Twitter as ‘microblogging’. Some people are nervous of posting things publicly – Twitter could be a first step towards more advanced public writing like blogging.
  • The Direct Messaging (DM) functionality in Twitter is a useful tool for directly communicating with people, and for students to communicate with each other.


  • Easier to learn and customise for students.
  • More popular than Twitter in some contexts – well known as a way of promoting oneself, or showcasing for personal development/CV.
  • Public blogging highly motivational as a way of encouraging writing.
  • Possible to make into a collaborative activity by use of a ‘hub’ such as Inoreader.
  • Some people very nervous about posting their work openly online, while still being a learner and making mistakes.
  • In many fields and regulated industries posting publicly might not be a good idea – really depends on context of course/subject/demography

What about developing country researchers?

So now to consider this for the specific context of an online course in research writing for developing country researchers. Would Twitter or blogging be an appropriate component on the course?

Twitter pros:

  • Great potential for connecting with other learners and researchers externally
  • Ability to communicate with other students informally outside of the confines of the course, or on their own projects
  • Twitter is probably the most popular platform for researchers to communicate their work to a global audience, which is an increasingly important aspect of research communication.
  • Encourages concise writing – a vital skill required for research communication
  • Potential for further collaboration with fellow students once course has finished
  • Potential for further content discovery outside course

Twitter cons:

  • Not popular or well-known in developing countries
  • Could model poor English
  • Steep learning curve – unusual conventions
  • High level of digital and social media literacy needed – having more than one platform can confuse some people.
  • Potentially addictive and distracting

Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons and there is potential for Twitter to be used in a course for research writing, especially if it is integrated into the structure of the course to show the importance of online research communication and collaboration. It could be argued that this approach is not inclusive, that it requires additional skills that not everybody will have. I think there is a fine balance, but it is arguably more important to offer students the additional skills they need to navigate the social media landscape so they can communicate with an international audience – they can then decide for themselves whether this tool is useful for them long-term.

Some possible Twitter activities for an online course:

  1. Find at least 5 authors in your field and ‘follow’ them. Retweet at least one tweet that you find interesting (optionally quoting the course hashtag)
  2. Find 5 journals you would like to publish. Retweet at least one tweet you find interesting, such as recent article or issue.
  3. Look for educational writing tips, for example via the #acWri hashtag and retweet.
  4. Connect with at least 5 other students on the course by ‘following’ them.
  5. Reflect and write about one interesting thing you discovered from the people you follow on Twitter.
  6. Tweet about an interesting journal article you have read, using a concise summary and linking to the article. If you can find the author on Twitter include their ‘handle’.
  7. Respond to the weekly question on the course hashtag.

Tasks 1 & 2 could be facilitated by creating list of relevant authors and journals to get them started

In conclusion, there may be potential for using social media with online courses, but with caution – we first priority is providing our students with a simple to understand, low-bandwidth environment which provides good quality learning and social interaction. As long as including Twitter does not distract from this, and is carefully integrated into the course through signposting, how-to guides, modelling, and a clear explanation of the purpose of the exercise; then it has potential to add value to the course – through added social presence, collaboration and content discovery.

Blogging pros

  • Excellent for practice writing and reflection.
  • Possible to share blog posts with rest of course via hub feed.
  • Public posting motivates students to do a good job.

Blogging cons

  • Our students tend to know English as their second language, so might not want to share their work publicly if language is not perfect.
  • Students may be reluctant to share certain work publicly in case it is copied or reused by others before they’ve had chance to properly write up their work for publication.
  • Students may be reluctant to publicly share reflections publicly on certain subjects on our course – publishing ethics, for instance.

I don’t think public blogging currently fits with the online courses we do. Our current research writing course has a ‘peer assessment’ component which has worked very successfully, but the work is not shared with the outside world. I suspect that students would not want to share this kind of work on public blogs, but it may be worth considering for other courses with a more intensive writing focus. There may also be a scope for internal blogging as a reflective exercise, and giving the students the option of blogging this publicly.

¹Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2).

5 ways to build social presence in online courses, from #HumanMOOC

I have survived into week 2 of “Humanizing Online Instruction” – the HumanMOOC! I will admit that I had some slight reservations at the beginning, and I was initially disappointed that the course syllabus and assignments seemed to be about throwing multimedia technology at online courses to make them more human, and so my impression of the course was a bit like this:


Now, I enjoy a bit of technology, and like experimenting with tools (as per my previous post), but I’m approaching online learning from a low-bandwidth (and simple ‘LMS’) angle and my original objective was more about picking up some general tips and ideas on how to ‘humanise’ online learning, which can seem quite lonely and boring at times.

However, having delved deeper and watched/read the discussions, common themes have emerged around putting pedagogy ahead of technology (or informing and leading the use of technology), and the small changes we can make to appear more human and add social presence and value to online learning. So here are five things that I have learnt that seem to go beyond ‘using social tools’ (or what should inform your use/selection of such tools).

  1. Creating a personable teacher profile
    Do we provide enough information on ourselves? How can students get a sense of our personality? What are our interests? What are we passionate about? Where can they find out more about us? Alec Couros looks more in depth at Digital Identity / Digital Presence here. One of the things I’ve done as a result of watching this is starting up an page.
  1. Showing you care
    How much does your course design and facilitation show that you actually care, and that you are really interested in seeing your students succeed? This reflective blog post from Lisa Hammershaimb suggests that teacher presence might be as simple as “…showing myself as caring enough to draw out the intentions and ambitions of my students?”. Ok, so maybe that’s not a ‘simple’ task, but how can you show you care about the student’s progress and what they achieve from the course? This might be particularly difficult in a MOOC.
  1. Humanising announcements
    Why not make general announcements/news more interesting? What is news in your world, or the world outside the course? What did you find interesting this week? In my zeal for all things low bandwidth, I never considered the effectiveness of including simple pictures in announcements – we could, for example, share a picture of our workspace (that might be brave for some people *hides McDonalds boxes and beer bottles*). We could also encourage participants to post a picture of where they work – this would be fascinating if you were running an international course/MOOC. Also, does your infectious enthusiasm for the subject rub off in your posts and announcements? You do have enthusiasm right? 😉
  1. Encouraging participant bios and digital stories
    In the courses I work on, we encourage participants to provide plenty of background information in their bios, but perhaps we need to give them more specific guidance. We also encourage them to post a forum welcome message to introduce themselves. This didn’t work brilliantly in the last course I did, perhaps because it wasn’t a prominent part of the first week’s activities. It would be great to flesh this out a bit – get them to share their ‘digital stories’. Where are they in their career/learning, what do they want to get from this course? What could other learners potentially identify with?
  1. Presenting yourself as a co-learner
    Does it help us to seem more human (and therefore more approachable) if we can show that we are also co-learners? Definitely! A good way to do this is to invite ‘expert’ guests onto your course for interviews/guest posts/guest facilitators/ask the expert sessions. On a course we recently run, we were lucky to be able to call on a team of about 20 volunteer “guest facilitators”¹ with various levels of knowledge and experience in that field – I think we all ended up learning from each other, and that only helped the learning experience for the students.

I’ve picked up many other tips on #HumanMOOC (follow the Twitter hashtag for loads more), but for now these are my goals for adding social presence to online courses

¹ This might be unrealistic for many – we are a charity ( with a very helpful network – the volunteers were either mentors on our website database or trainers we have trained in our previous face-to-face online courses. I know of other MOOCs who have enlisted experienced/post-grad students or particularly enthusiastic participants of previous courses!

Instructor videos in online courses – pros and cons

So week 1 of the Human MOOC required participants to do some reflections on the pros and cons of using instructor videos in online courses. We were also required to show competency in demonstrating “usage of [an] interactive educational tool to connect with learners”. One of the reasons I like (and am simultaneously terrified of) this MOOC is the choice of ‘stream’ of ‘garden’ path. The stream path offers set exercises to complete. The guidelines suggested using two tools – an audio tool called ‘voice thread’ and an ipad app called ‘FlipGrid’ where you can have collaborative discussions with short video clips.

The online courses I’m involved in are for participants in developing countries, so we have to be very conscious of bandwidth. Whilst some of our participants could have excellent broadband (and we know some have), many have poor or intermittent connections. In our last research writing course we had participants from Yemen, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Fortunately, the ‘Garden’ path means being able to interpret the exercises using whatever tools we decide are appropriate. So I thought I would use the most low-bandwidth tool I could find. One tool that I have been meaning to properly trial is called ‘Tricider’. This allows people to collaborate and argue/prioritise about different ideas. So I thought this might be an interesting platform to collaboratively ‘reflect’ on the pros and cons of instructor videos.

Firstly, I set up a free Tricider page, set a question and added some basic pro/cons ideas.  I then sent out an invite on the #HumanMOOC hashtag (one of the best things about HumanMOOC is the discussion happening between participants outside of Canvas, where the course is based).

I got some great comments and ideas from my fellow participants (most of which know a lot more about online pedagogy than I do). It was kind of like a focused crowdsourcing of a group of online educators :). Here are the results:

Ok, now the first observation is that Tricider might not be the best tool for a simple ‘pro/con’ argument over a single point (How essential are videos in online learning). Perhaps I could have worded this differently, or perhaps set up two separate Tricider pages with “What are the advantages of videos for online learning?” and “What are the disadvantages of using videos in online learning?”. Tricider worked well as a collaborative tool, but the results don’t display as nicely as I would have liked, so here is my breakdown of what I feel I have learnt from this ‘reflection’:

Some Pros of using videos:

  • Video is a powerful visual means to express our identity – it would be a waste not to utilise this medium if we have the opportunity.
  • Video can be more nuanced than text communication – i.e. through facial expression, tone of voice etc.
  • It can be culturally important to have non-textual communication, or at least see the face of the person you are communicating with.
  • Video isn’t necessarily time consuming. If done properly, short videos can be reused again in future courses.
  • Videos do not necessarily need to look ‘nice’ to be effective. A simple video shot on a webcam can be just as human, perhaps even more human than a polished video production.
  • Making mediocre quality videos can also encourage students to try it out themselves!
  • Videos can be a window on the instructor’s passion for the subject, which may not come through in text.
  • Videos aren’t necessaily encouraging passivity – they can be signposts/triggers to exploration and inquiry (if done ‘well’, of course).

Some Cons of using videos:

  • Human presence can be achieved without video (e.g. images/audio).
  • Video is not necessarily a replacement for F2F presence – social interaction online can be as good, e.g. lively forums, social media and other asynchronous activities).
  • A short ‘hello!’ video can make teachers think they have ticked the ‘human presence’ box before the course has begun.
  • Video can be high bandwidth, so not ideal for developing countries – audio can be used as an alternative (but we could also provide both).
  • Making videos can be time consuming (especially for first-timers and people outside their comfort zone)*.
  • Videos can have a limited lifespan and can be difficult to change content (sure, you can make re-useable videos if done well, but does this risk making them ‘generic’ and therefore less human?).
  • Writing does not have to be impersonal! Simple text writing can have character and humanity (although this too requires skill).
  • “Some topics lend themselves to visual presentation” – this is certainly the case with the research writing courses my organisation runs. Scientific writing methods tend to be quite a fact-based academic subject that’s best explained through text examples, quotes and links.

In conclusion I would say that video can be an excellent addition to online learning, if well thought-out and well planned. However, you have to weigh up the ROI of spending the time to make video content. My organisation is very small, with limited time and resources, and in context of training developing country researchers, videos are an optional addition that could be worth trialling further if they add value to the course. Our courses are designed to be extremely low-bandwidth and so we will need to focus on social learning through activities that encourage learner-learner interaction, while continuing to improve and build on our teacher-learner collaborative activities such as peer assessment exercises.

* I have recent experience of trying video for the first time on a MOOC with over 1000 participants. Myself and my colleague in India attempted to record a Google Hangout hosted video introduction, which ended up taking nearly two hours, due to the number of takes. Here is an outtake from our attempts (the idea was for us to introduce ourselves one after the other):

The ‘super-wicked problem’ of climate change mitigation in South Africa


Soweto, South Africa (A.Nobes, 2015 CC-BY)

(This blog post is a task for the “Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries” MOOC being run by the University of Cape Town. The objective is to give an example of a ‘super-wicked problem’ and possible solutions).

After the landmark consensus to cut the global official warming target to 1.5c at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21), all countries are under increasing pressure to convert these commitments into action.

In the case of South Africa, as with most developing countries, this may hinge on making some big political decisions at the domestic level, as well as relying heavily on international aid and investment. South Africa is extremely energy intensive for a developing country – mostly generated from coal, which goes mainly into electricity and industry, or imported crude oil, which goes straight into fuel for transport, and so if South Africa wants to meet its INDC targets by 2030 (the Peak Plateau Decline Trajectory) it will need to switch pretty rapidly from coal power stations to green energy or nuclear power, and also switch its transport system to mostly electric by 2025.

This is a big undertaking in itself, but as Hilton Trollip from the University of Cape Town pointed out in his recent interview with SciDevNet, there is a profound difference in opinion between climate scientists and big industry on whether this is actually possible without making sacrifices elsewhere. According to Trollip, economic modelling has demonstrated that it is possible to have economic growth, employment and income distribution AND reach their environmental targets. However, industry voices argue that there has to be a choice between either environmental action or poverty alleviation (through economic growth).

Trollip calls this a battle between political statements vs. actual evidence. Big industry has more power over policy than climate scientists. Civil society groups are still in their infancy – they have won some small concessions – but just don’t have the power yet to challenge big industry and the political status quo.

International aid is a double-edged sword.  Funding for climate research comes exclusively from aid countries, but this is ultimately unsustainable. Those countries also push for economic development as the way to alleviate poverty, but through investment of their own firms in the country. For example, DFID has increasingly been pushing private sector investment as a way of increasing economic growth – this merely subsidises big business growth into developing country markets, and increases their influence over policy decisions in country. The private sector exists to make a profit, and therefore tends to invest in short-term profit through coal and oil, and does not necessarily invest in the domestic job market or community.

South Africa needs to make urgent and radical changes to industrial and transport infrastructure, which will require significant policy change, but there are different actors with different priorities which conflict with each other – climate scientists, politicians, aid donors and big industry. This adds up to a ‘super-wicked’ problem with no obvious solutions, which likely means that neither policy change nor genuine poverty alleviation will occur anytime soon.

Donella Meadows’ “Places to intervene in a system” identifies 12 leverage points for change in complex systems – for example the ‘power of self-organisation’. It’s possible that people will self-organise and mobilise, as they are already doing through civil society, but in bigger numbers – but this is difficult to predict and also engineer! The 2nd most powerful leverage is in changing the ‘goals of the system’. The goals of profit and economic growth mean that the private sector dominates the system and becomes the barrier to change – it is not in their interest to put radical change before profit. Changing the economic system may not be realistic, however. We may need to go beyond this and challenge the paradigm that human prosperity and security is through economic growth. The commitment of 195 countries to reduce emissions at the Paris climate conference may be the closest we get to a paradigm change – that even our world leaders now recognise a more urgent priority which trumps economic growth. However, it remains to be seen whether these grand statements will be enough to force urgent system change in developing countries like South Africa.


Pamela Duncan (2015) “Critical mass of states will reach emissions peak by 2030 under climate deal”, Guardian,

Lou Del Bello (2015), “Climate scientists battle South African industry”, SciDevNet,

Mark Anderson (2015), “DfID to pump £735m into investment arm for private sector projects” , Guardian,

Alex Scrivener (2015), “Does the UK government really believe multinationals are the answer to global poverty?” ,Guardian,

Meadows, D. (2009). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Solutions. Vol 1, No. 1. pp. 41-49 –


I hate blogging

No, I really do. I’ve started about four blogs now, with great enthusiasm and grand visions, only for them to slowly fade away due to neglect, busyness or writer’s block.

The latter is the worst. I think my mental block with blogging is that I’m not sure who I’m speaking to, or for what purpose I’m writing. As it’s unlikely that anybody will read this (unless I pick up some kind of following, which is unlikely unless I overcome said mental blocks…. (I think there is a vicious circle in here somewhere)) blogging feels like I’m talking to myself.

The reason I mention this (Why am I justifying myself? who am I talking to???) is that I have recently started a MOOC – Humanizing Online Instruction: The #HumanMOOC in an attempt to understand more about ‘humanizing pedagogy’ (a phrase which I first heard at the ICDE Conference at Sun City back in October (which was great by the way)). Some of the lovely enthusiastic teachery participants on there are very keen on this blogging thing.

I also have another problem with blogging – it doesn’t seem much like a collaborative activity to me. Apparently, there are ‘blog hubs’, although I haven’t seen many. Sure, you can reply to a blog post, but it’s not the same as on a forum, or on Twitter, where you can easily switch between conversations in a social group. And I much prefer the shorter form of electronic written communication – the nature of blogging makes me feel under pressure to write something ‘extended’ or ‘noteworthy’ and the writer’s block kicks in (as opposed to the pressure to write something profound in 140 characters in Twitter, which is a different kind of pressure, and which leads to me taking half an hour to write a single tweet, which I’m still not happy with, and then I remember I’ve got to include a @handle and a damn #hashtag!)

Also, I suspect that the key to blogging is spontaneous writing. If I sat down and planned what I was going to write I would end up with a nice plan but no blog post. And unfortunately, when I start spontaneously writing I lose sense of structure. A bit like when I start speaking publicly.

In conclusion, the jury is still out (that little tiny jury in my head with little versions of myself (that reminds me, I need to watch Inside Out at some point – heard lots of good things about that)) for me on blogging. I think perhaps the key is: spontaneity, which is both Very Difficult To Spell and also Not At All Natural To Me. And also a change in mindset: perhaps I should start all blog posts with a question or a challenge, so I have some kind of purpose. So I feel I’m talking to somebody else outside of myself (or said jurors in my head).

Ok, I’ve given it a go. I’ve blogged something for the first time this year.

p.s. It seems like nested brackets…

Religion as a Memeplex of Skilful Means

Here is an extended abstract of my future article

Recent legal attempts by scientologists, ‘pastafarians’ and ‘jedis’ to have their beliefs recognised as ‘religious’ have put the spotlight on how vaguely ‘religion’ is defined in law, and how experts struggle to describe and categorise the diversity of beliefs in the modern world. Formal definitions put forward by theologians and social scientists are often too god-centred, or too vague to apply meaningfully to individual cases. ‘Religion’ has now become an umbrella term and a refuge for those with any passionately-held beliefs to seek protection and immunity from discrimination and abuse. At the same time it is also seen as an easy source of potential tax breaks, and inevitably it is often an object of mockery and parody.

I propose that we need a more comprehensive definition of religion that can satisfactorily address the challenges of understanding religion in the 21st century, and to provide a consistent picture for lawmakers, philosophers and scientists as to what the substance and function of religion is, and what it is not.

By looking at recent and historical case law verdicts, certain key themes emerge – these cases, which often concern discrimination and coercion claims, skirt the boundaries of what ‘religious beliefs’ mean to passionate individuals. What seems crucial to identifying genuine religion is not only whether beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held, but also the strength and centrality of those beliefs for those individuals (i.e. their ultimate concern), which has a significant impact on how they act or indeed refuse to act. However, religion should not be seen as purely subjective – it cannot be something that exists just in the minds of one person.

By looking at the existing definitions by theologians and social scientists, the challenge to traditional theocentric definitions caused by non-theistic religions and new religious movements is obvious. However, the most insightful definitions, like those of the law courts, touch on both substantive and functional aspects, and several key themes emerge. Firstly, religions are systems of multiple symbols and ideas. Secondly, they contain an unverifiable and counterintuitive element at their core. Thirdly, they ultimately influence human motivations and actions on a very profound level.

I argue that the key to pulling all these threads together into a logical whole is found in combining two concepts; one ancient and one modern.

To begin, I discuss the Mahayana Buddhist concept of ‘skilful means’ – a uniquely pragmatic, goal orientated method of teaching. I look to Shin Buddhism as an example of a religion that seems to be self-conscious of the fact that once all the usual religious and symbolic content is stripped away, only skilful means remains. I discuss the origin of skilful means as a self-conscious revelation; how it uses unverifiable claims to achieve a goal, or transformation; and how all religions are to a lesser or greater extent types of transformative teaching tools, and therefore all types of skilful means.

The modern aspect of the definition I propose is that of the memeplex – a successfully self-grouping and self-replicating systems of ‘memes’ (uniquely human ideas, which are often altruistic and cooperative at their core). Once accepted and established in the human mind, the memeplex is self-sustaining and self-serving, and has an extremely powerful hold over the individual, and ultimately groups of individuals, often causing them to act in counterintuitive ways.

Drawing these ideas together, I propose that religion is a memeplex of skilful means. By this I mean that it is a self-replicating system of ideas and symbols with unverifiable claims or narratives that are designed (or naturally selected) to transform the behaviour of individuals and groups of people in significant and permanent ways, usually to the benefit of the system itself.  This definition describes both substantive (multiple related ideas and their unverifiability) and functional (transformative, group cooperation) aspects of religion. I also argue that thedefinition is neutral towards religious or supernatural claims.

Finally, I demonstrate that this definition provides a tangible means to analyse new and existing philosophies, movements and cults. The definition can be broken down to a three-point checklist providing a basic level guide to whether something can and should be considered ‘religion’. I apply this critically to contemporary movements from Scientology and ‘Pastafarianism’ to more contentious examples like nationalism, football and even Christmas. To assist in categorising these phenomena, I propose a matrix of religion and non-religion, where some of these beliefs can also be categorised as ‘memeplexes of non-skilful means’, ‘non-memeplexes of skilful means’, or ‘free memes’.