From April 15 to 17, 2015, I organized and taught a seminar on research in the context of open access entitled, Le “Libre accès” au service des chercheurs : comment réussir sa recherche à l’ère du numérique. This seminar, held at the École normale supérieure d’enseignement technique (ENSET) in Douala, Cameroon, was intended for B.A. and M.A. students in social and family economics. It is one of the spinoffs of the advent of open science in French-speaking Africa―a movement supported by the SOHA research action project entitled, Open science as a collective tool of empowerment and cognitive justice in Haiti and French-speaking Africa and directed by professors Piron and Diouf. You may well wonder what the link is between this seminar and the SOHA project, a network of African and Haitian researchers and students increasingly interested in open science. I will explain this below; but, first, I would like to introduce you to research in the context of Africa so that you can understand why I gave the seminar.
Documentary research: a luxury for researchers in Cameroon
Libraries, handouts and the Internet are the main sources of documentary information for researchers in Cameroon. In fact, all state-run universities have buildings that serve as central libraries. However, these libraries are merely “empty shells” in that they contain documents that are largely out of date, misshelved and sometimes completely irrelevant. Worse still, work by researchers at these universities is not catalogued and is thus impossible to find. In a movement of solidarity, teachers struggle to help their students by allowing them to photocopy old articles from journals the teachers subscribe to as well as dissertations and theses the teachers have written and books they bring back from Northern countries. Faced with libraries that do not fulfil their role and despite the makeshift support of teachers, Cameroonian students feel ill-equipped to conduct up-to-date, high-quality research. They therefore flock to the Internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs) in order to find the most recent information. Nonetheless, we are forced to admit that this massive use of the Internet does not seem to have resolved the problem of obtaining up-to-date information. The bibliographies of the papers the students submit still contain few recent references and many incorrectly cited references. Do our students not have full access to Internet resources? Do they not know how to do research on the Internet? Have they not been informed of the possibilities offered by the Internet?
Digital technology: an opportunity we cannot miss
In keeping with the digital trend, it is not uncommon to see programs offering at least one ICT course in Cameroonian universities. In reality, however, most of these courses simply introduce students to Word and explain how to do searches on Google and use Yahoo Messenger. As a result, our researchers simply enter text using Word, send e-mails via Yahoo, chat on Facebook and do research on Google, the only search engine they know. To their dismay, they are generally referred to articles they must pay to read, in a context where researchers’ economic situation is not very enviable, scholarships are rare and universities are unable to attract world-class professors. Should we allow ourselves to be blind to the fact that the ICT courses offered by our universities provide only the most basic digital literacy skills? The UNESCO ICT Competency Framework serves a useful benchmark in this regard.
And yet, there are so many opportunities that Cameroonian researchers could put to good use, including MOOCs (massive open online courses), open access (open archives, online open access journals), free open source software, e-libraries, e-learning, common property―in short, open science. I am convinced that, through research, Africa can put an end to its underdevelopment, assert itself internationally, enhance the reputation of its researchers and promote its culture.
These observations, coupled with my personal convictions about the importance of digital technology for Africa, are what formed the basis for the seminar in Douala. As you will see in the next paragraph, this seminar benefited from the resources of the SOHA project and from the project’s aim to open up science and consider knowledge as common property.
The Douala seminar: a helping hand from the SOHA Project…
According to an African saying, “you have to stand on the shoulders of a giant if you want to see further.” In the case of the Douala seminar, the giant was Project SOHA. As part of the project, the Université d’État d’Haïti organized a conference on open science and open access in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 27, 2015 (La science ouverte et le libre accès dans les universités haïtiennes : état de la situation et propositions). During the conference, Professor Florence Piron provided an overview of open science. One of the features of her paper was that it included a PowerPoint presentation bearing the logo of the CC-BY Creative Commons licence. This licence enables me and anyone else to download the content of this presentation, which is available on Slideshare. The licence also makes it possible to copy, distribute or modify the content for other purposes. The presentation is available here.
This logo is quite simply a helping hand extended by Project SOHA to enable everyone to have access to the same store of knowledge. I reached out and grasped that hand in order to organize a seminar in Douala based on the conference held for Haitian students in Port-au-Prince.
What the seminar had to offer
At the end of the seminar, the students set up the blog www.esfdla2015.wordpress.com to indicate their presence on the Web and to present the new skills they had acquired. They were able to create the site free-of-charge by using free, open source WordPress software.
Like the students in Haiti, the ones in Cameroon now know:
– what open access means
– what rights are granted by the Creative Commons licence
– where to look for high-quality, free articles
– how to publish their work (golden road, green road)
– how to manage bibliographic references with the free open source Zotero software. As shown by the videos indicated below, this free open source software has been a real hit with students:
Interview 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jgzc0jhL-yI
Once the seminar was over, I felt that the SOHA project could not have been given a more appropriate name: Open science as a collective tool of empowerment and cognitive justice in Haiti and French-speaking Africa: building the roadmap. As Haitians and Africans, we now have new power that will enable us to take action without having to deal with financial constraints and spatial or temporal barriers. Are we going to miss this chance to move beyond underdevelopment?
 Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou (Cameroon) teaches life and earth sciences and is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure de Yaoundé. He also obtained an M.A. in Education Sciences from Université Laval and is currently on leave to do his doctorate. Thomas’s research interests are free open source software, open educational resources, Web 2.0 and open science. He believes that the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) within the context of the free open source software movement can resolve many of the problems faced by education in Africa. Therefore, he is working with the members of the education community to explore ways to incorporate free open source ICTs into Cameroon’s education system. This reflection process should lead to the creation of the Pan African Association for Open Education (PANASSOPE) by June 2015. Thomas is a research assistant for the SOHA project.