Building an open access African studies repository Using Web 2.0 principles
First Monday

Building an open access African studies repository Using Web 2.0 principles by Anna Winterbottom and James North

This paper describes the aims and design of an open access African Studies Repository (ASR) ( that is under development. The ASR is a relational database compatible with the open repository platform DSpace but incorporating the participatory online tools collectively known as ‘Web 2.0’. The aim of the ASR is to create a space where everyone who works on Africa, both inside and outside the continent, can store their work, access useful resources, make contacts, and join discussions.


Problems of communication in African Studies
Social software and academia
ASR features




African studies are pursued by a small but diverse and widely distributed group of scholars. A persuasive argument for open access is that it would contribute to equalising global power relations in academia by removing financial barriers preventing scholars in less wealthy nations from accessing peer–reviewed research. Levelling the ground between scholars is especially important in African studies. The ideal of postcolonial discourse of eliminating the intellectual barrier cast up by the tradition of unequal relations requires translation into changes in the way in which scholarship is disseminated and evaluated. Research reveals that more than equal access to resources is required to place scholars on a level plane. Despite scarce resources and bandwidth, uptake of open access has been good in low income countries. However, there is concern that, if scholars in wealthier countries remain reluctant to share their work, open access risks entrenching existing inequality of access and status. Attempts within the field to encourage scholars from wealthier countries to share their work have been restricted in scope. Institutional repositories are growing in popularity and interoperability between these repositories, enabled by the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) (, is an important means of widening the exchange of scholarly work. However, this exchange currently remains limited and obviously excludes those institutions without the human and technical resources to set up and maintain a repository. A country–wide initiative, the Connecting–Africa ( repository, has great potential for increasing the availability of work by Dutch Africanists. However, it does not achieve the goal of integrated publishing for the work of African scholars worldwide. The recently launched Aluka ( results from collaboration between libraries, archives, universities and other resources and is likely to prove important in the overdue task of digitalising material produced by African scholars and primary sources (Guthrie and Nygren, 2007). Aluka is based on institutional access, with fees waived for ‘appropriate educational and cultural institutions’ inside Africa (Guthrie and Nygren, 2007).

Open access repositories have been relatively slow to take on what are loosely described as Web 2.0 tools. These tools can be used to enhance scholarly communication and to provide rating systems independently of traditional publishing hierarchies. The repository would enable networking between users through the creation of personal profiles, an idea borrowed from networking sites such as MySpace ( and Bebo ( and pioneered in academia by services like Nature Network Boston ( Open source journals have adopted open peer review/commentary post–publication. With sites such as Dissect Medicine (, academics are beginning to adapt the idea of user ranking pioneered by the technology news site Digg ( A repository containing a range of published and unpublished work could use these systems to evolve a participatory system of quality control alongside traditional publication processes. Tagging, derived from social bookmarking sites, has begun to be applied to scholarly publishing with Connotea ( and Library Thing ( and is a planned addition to Aluka (Guthrie and Nygren, 2007). The African Studies Repository will use a system in which primary tags are added by an author while uploading the paper and secondary tags by users. Finally, Web 2.0 techniques can be used to develop innovative ways of displaying and delivering results. For example, mapping technologies like Google Earth and Common Census are being used in a range of scientific and social projects (Tulloch, 2007). TouchGraph ( visualisation reveals connection between a set of references or tagged pages. Both innovations could eventually be applied to the ASR, for example by allowing authors to add location–based tags, which would then be displayed on a map alongside the search results. RSS/Atom feeds can also be used to deliver updates on a specified set of search terms and are easily compatible with mobile devices, widely expected to become important in countries in which access to the Internet via personal computers is currently limited.

Web 2.0 technologies are especially relevant in a context where various disciplines are grouped together under the heading of ‘area studies’ and often fail to communicate with one another. Their integration into a repository environment will aid the equal exchange of research results.



Problems of communication in African Studies

Technical issues

Scholars in less wealthy countries face considerable barriers to accessing research and publishing their own work. These include limited resources, less than optimal equipment, and unreliable access to basic infrastructure, such as electricity supplies. Among these barriers is the issue of access to current research. While the number of specialist academic journals continues to rise, the average price of a science journal has risen four times faster than inflation for the past two decades, resulting in an ‘access crisis’ in which libraries are forced to cancel journal subscriptions. This worldwide problem is magnified in low–income countries; even state institutions are often unable to meet the rising costs of journal subscriptions. Although the Internet has largely overcome the problems, including delays and theft, associated with physical distribution of journals, the price barrier remains insurmountable in many cases. It is therefore widely thought that open access will be particularly beneficial to researchers in less wealthy countries.

Initiatives to bring the benefits of open access to Africa and to other less wealthy parts of the world can be broadly divided into those designed to increase the access of those in lower income countries to peer reviewed research; those intended to raise the profile of work by scholars from and of journals published in these countries; and, those designed to raise awareness about the availability of such resources. In terms of increasing access to peer reviewed research, open access journals in the field of African studies include the African Studies Quarterly (, African Journal of Environmental Assessment and Management (, and African Journal of Science and Technology ( Negotiations with publishers have resulted in journals and databases being made available for free or at heavily discounted prices through programmes like AGORA (, HINARI (, eIFL (, and PERI (, which together encompass major journal titles in medicine, agriculture, environmental and social sciences. Several publishers have also taken steps to increase the ability of researchers in developing countries to both access and contribute to academic literature by offering free or reduced price access to journals and/or waiving author charges. Initiatives that aim to raise the profile of journals published in Africa include African Journals OnLine (AJOL) ( Initiatives to increase awareness of resources include the Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) (, a U.K.–based charity that has worked with partners across the world to facilitate access to online publications through workshops, training, library capacity building, and skills development. Additionally, the eGranary Digital Library ( provides millions of digital educational resources to African institutions lacking adequate Internet access.

Barriers to publication

While the initiatives discussed above have had some success in increasing the ability of African scholars to access and publish in peer–reviewed academic journals, there is evidence that they have largely failed to close the gap between African and non–African scholars of the continent. Western scholars typically depend for academic promotion on publishing in high–impact journals published in North America or Europe [1]. A conference of Dutch Africanists noted that they ‘regret that over–emphasis on impact factors is forcing them to publish in journals that are not read by their fellow African researchers, due to the inadequate North–South flow of scientific literature. If they were to target their preferred reader groups, they would have to publish in African journals, which have low citation impact’ (van der Werf–Davelaar, 2006). Furthermore, while the uptake of open access initiatives has been good among African universities, many non–African scholars remain content to transfer responsibility for the copyright and distribution of their work to publishers and retain concerns over the supposed lack of quality control and lower status of material published online, including in open access journals. As van der Werf–Davelaar (2006) notes, if this gap in motivation to post work online remains between scholars in wealthy and less affluent countries, ‘the established control mechanisms of academic publishing will remain in place and the free and uncontrolled dissemination of research results on the Web will become synonymous with unprofessional practice and bad quality output, exacerbating the imbalance in scholarly publishing between North and South.’

There is, however, growing evidence that norms of copyright and distribution of scholarly are shifting in favour of allowing, or even enforcing, free access and use of research at an earlier stage. Several major funding bodies, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a number of the U.K.’s Research Councils now require scholarly research they fund to be made freely available within six months of publication. Open access archiving in repositories means that papers can already have been published, going through processes of peer review and having attracted the prestige for their authors associated with high–impact journals. A repository such as the ASR, which is open for anyone to use, should make a clear distinction between papers that have been through the process of publication in academic journals and those that have not. A repository environment that allows for comments and participatory ranking using tagging, however, allows the development of a secondary and more open system of evaluation alongside the traditional markers of authority provided by traditional publication processes.

Social factors

The informal exchange of methods and ideas between scholars across national boundaries has been central since the Renaissance ideal of the ‘Republic of Letters’. This process is important both before and after the enshrinement of these ideas in texts (Brown and Duguid, 2000). However, the social element of barriers to the free exchange of ideas across the African studies community and in particular the complete participation of African scholars in the study of their own continent is less often discussed than the technical impediments to free communication. This is despite the evidence of a two–tier system in which African and non–African scholars publish their work within different circles and the potential for discussion and equal collaboration is limited.

‘Area studies’ is a concept that inevitably includes a wide range of disciplines: politics, economics, history, human geography, and more. Although interdisciplinary communication is becoming increasingly accepted in academia, the scholars of a particular geographical area are often unaware of the work of others outside the traditional remit of their own subject area. Another problem is that scholars studying a particular area tend to be widely scattered. Despite the increasing tendency for collaborations between scholars and universities from the area of study and those outside [2], these partnerships are often driven by the needs and agendas of the foreign scholar, usually as a consequence of the source of the funding for the project.

International conferences are important centres for the exchange of ideas and the forging of scholarly partnerships. However, African institutions are less likely to be in a position to fund their scholars, especially those at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, to attend these conferences. Therefore African scholars are often denied the opportunity to exchange ideas and make contacts. In turn, few students from outside the continent below the doctoral level are able to visit Africa (Guthrie and Nygren, 2007). Borrowing tools from social networking sites would allow relationships to develop between students and scholars inside and outside Africa based around their scholarly work.



Social software and academia

The Internet has been a centre for social exchange since its inception and studies as early as 1998 were already showing that despite inequality of levels of access, participation in online communities were leading to shifts in power relations at local and global levels in African countries (Hall, 1998). The invention of hypertext enhances the intertextual nature of documents by placing them within a contextual web of associations. The technologies loosely described as ‘Web 2.0’ have, however, brought a new element to participation on the Internet. Characterised as ‘an attitude not a technology’ (O’Reilly, 2005), Web 2.0 relies on ‘radical trust’, allowing others to edit the content and code of a site, as exemplified by Wikipedia ( and open source software; on collaborative quality control, or ‘folksonomy’, allowing users to describe content in semantic ways, as demonstrated in Flickr ( or (; and to develop systems of democratic rating such as Digg ( RSS/Atom feeds can be used to enable personalisation of information delivery with Ajax desktops like Netvibes ( and Google Desktop ( Perhaps the most popular sites to have emerged in recent years, however, are those which allow users to create an individual presence for themselves and to interact directly with one another. Well known examples of such social networking sites include Friendster (, MySpace (, Bebo (, YouTube (, and Orkut ( Finally, Second Life (, the virtual simulated world that counts millions of users and famously has a higher turnover than many real countries, forges alliances and hosts enterprises that have a real world impact. Such sites demonstrate the importance of being able to create a personal presence online, as well as of the role of both recognition for work contributed and the ‘fun factor’ in encouraging participation in collaborative projects.

Academics are beginning to admit the importance of the social element of their work and to take on Web 2.0 tools to replicate the communication they have with colleagues in their own institutions with others around the world. It must be said, however, that the social sciences and humanities communities are lagging behind their contemporaries in the sciences in terms of the innovative use of new information and communications technology to enhance scholarly communication. The British journal Nature has begun several pioneering projects that use Web 2.0 concepts to encourage academic collaboration [3]. These include Connotea (, a social bookmarking service for scientists which allows users to view the pages of other members to whom they are connected by a shared set of tags. Further social elements to the site include the option to create a personal profile, add comments to the bookmarked pages, to contribute to the wiki about the site and to use the open source API to build extra applications for the site. Nature has also begun a social networking site for scientists in the Boston area, Nature Network Boston (, and established an island, Second Nature, in Second Life, which it is hoped will serve as a platform for online collaboration by scientists. Some within the open source community, notably open access publishers BioMed Central ( and the Public Library of Science (PloS) (, have taken on the concepts of participatory rating by introducing systems of open peer review or peer commentary.

Open access repositories have also begun to take on some of the concepts of user participation at the centre of the Web 2.0 movement. As well as offering open source code, DSpace ( and Fedora ( host wikis for users and developers. Our aim is to build an open repository incorporating more of the Web 2.0 principles included in social networking sites to provide innovative methods of networking, collaboration, and criticism.



ASR features

The features that we describe below are characteristic of our vision of how the applications are being developed and deployed by a new generation of Internet users now. Trust in users to participate in moulding the service to their needs and to those of a changing world both on and offline is central to the concepts of both Web 2.0 and open access and we hope that those who use the ASR will help us to develop our vision and modify it to suit their own needs.

Registration and creation of personal profile page

All articles uploaded to the database and authorised for public viewing by their creators will be available for browsing by users without registration. To add a comment or to tag an article will require registration.

During registration the user will be asked to supply their username and e–mail. They will also have an option to supply information such as their current and previous institutions and affiliations, country of residence, and areas of interest and expertise. This information will be saved to a personal profile page, where documents that the user has uploaded will also appear, with the tags that have been applied to them by the author and user users. Also on the personal profile page will appear a list of tags that the owner of the profile page has applied to other documents. Clicking on any of these tags will reveal a list of the articles that the user has applied this tag to, links via usernames to other users who have used the tag and to other articles that the tag has been applied to. Finally, the profile page will contain a list of contacts (‘friends’) with links to their profiles, again, via their usernames.


Uploading a document will require its owner to complete some required fields supplying information about the document. These will include: the language in which the paper is written; where and when the document has been previously published; and whether it has undergone peer review resulting in recommendation for publication. The author will also be prompted to add descriptions of the document (‘author tags’), giving information about the area(s), topic(s), and period(s) covered which will be stored with the article in the database. Each time they upload a document or add data to their profile, the user will be able to choose from three levels of privacy: to allow unrestricted viewing (the default setting), to share the document with specified ‘friends’, or not to allow viewing of the document. These setting can be changed at any time. Like Google Docs & Spreadsheets ( and Flickr, this allows the user to share drafts with a select group, or to store an article immediately online while waiting complying with journal restrictions on making it public until the specified time.


The ASR will provide a simple search in which typing any word in a single field will retrieve articles which contain the specified term in all tags, words in the title, or author names. The advanced search will provide opinions to limit the search to one or more of these fields. It will also give the user the option to limit the search of tags to those added by the author or to widen it to include those added by any user. Finally, it will be possible to restrict the retrieval of results based on the extent of use, copying, and redistribution that is permitted [4].


Retrieval will follow a Google–type format, including a link to the article with the addition of further links to the author’s personal profile and to any groups or discussions that have been initiated that use the search terms. Results will be displayed in order of relevance to the search terms and the number of tags. Eventually, the ASR will include additional opinions for display such as a side panel showing map locations that have been tagged in relation to the articles displayed. Another aim is to allow users to sign up to receive an RSS feed containing links to articles that are newly tagged with the specified search term. Articles which have been restricted by the author to viewing by friends only will not be displayed unless the user searching is logged in and identified as one of the author’s friends.

Viewing, saving and tagging an article

The article will be displayed in the centre of a window with options to download or tag it. In a similar format to Flickr, side panels will show all the tags applied to the article and links to the profile(s) of the author(s). Clicking on a tag in this side panel will reveal a list of usernames which are link to the profiles of users who used this tag. There will also be an option for logged–in users to add tags to the article. These tags added will appear both with the article and on the user’s profile page.

Comments added will appear in a blog-type format similar to the Guardian’s Comment is Free ( service or the BBC News’ Have Your Say ( A link named ‘comment on this article’ at the top of this section will allow logged–in users to add their own comments. Usernames with links to personal profile pages will appear with the comments. There will be an option to ‘report’ any articles or comments deemed offensive or unsuitable to the site moderators. A complaint will ‘quarantine’ the work, by adding a warning to users that it has been reported as offensive or unsuitable. This will also give the author of the piece of work and other users an opportunity to express their opinions about its suitability or otherwise. The editors would then make a final decision on whether it should be retained or deleted from the database.

Creating groups and shared projects

A simple way to create a group of people with similar interests is to use the ASR wiki ( to set up a page for that group with links to the personal profiles of members, their tags, and articles and resources external to the ASR that are relevant to the interests of the group. The wiki can also be used to work on collaborative projects, such as the creation of dictionaries in African languages [5]. The beta version of the ASR requires the user to complete a separate login process for the ASR to that enabling access to the main site, but the eventual aim is to integrate the two so that a user who is logged into the main site will have automatic assess to the wiki.




The African Studies Repository is intended to develop to promote real and equal dialogue and collaboration between Africanist scholars inside and outside Africa, as well as to widen access to work relating Africa. As a collaborative project, the ASR will develop with the needs of its users and work with other organisations to promote easy transfer of material to and from institutional and subject–based repositories. An important aim of the ASR is to demonstrate the applicability of ‘Web 2.0’ collaborative technologies to the academic environment. In developing the ASR we hope to provide a platform that can be adopted and adapted for use by scholars in other disciplines. End of article


About the authors

Anna Winterbottom has an MA in African and Asia History and research experience at the British Institute in East Africa. She currently holds a Royal Society scholarship for doctoral study at Queen Mary University and writes about open access and in technology in academia for First Author (

James North is a member of the Web development team at new media agency Rechord Ltd. ( Amongst other things, he is working on a project for the Policy Studies Institute’s Sustainable Development Research Network (, a project which will incorporate some of the social networking features developed for the ASR. James is responsible for the technical development of the ASR.



1. Impact factor is a measurement of quality awarded to academic journals determined by the number of citations received by the journal in which a study is published in the previous year. The wider circulation that American and European journals are able to achieve, the greater funds that they have for advertising and editorial input, and the English language bias in publishing means that these journals typically achieve high impact factors than those published in other countries.

2. Examples of collaborative ventures between African and non-African universities include the long–running partnership between University of Ouagadougou and the University of Groningen [Rijksuniversiteit Groningen or RuG] (van der Werf–Davelaar, 2006).

3. Nature ( is a subscription–based journal, but has launched several of these projects on an open source/access basis.

4. For an explanation of the different types of copyright licensing that are now available, see Creative Commons (

5. A successful example of a dictionary created and edited through collaborative endeavour is the Kamusi Project (, an online Swahili–English translation with multiple editors.



John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, 2000. “The Social Life of Information,” First Monday, volume 5, number 4 (April), at http:/, accessed 12 November 2006.

Kevin Guthrie and Tom Nygren, 2007. “Aluka: Building A Digital Library Of Scholarly Resources From Africa,” at, accessed 4 March 2007.

Martin Hall, 1998. “Africa Connected,” First Monday, volume 3 number 11 (November), at, accessed 4 March 2007.

Tim O’Reilly, 2005. “What is Web 2.0 Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” at, accessed 12 November 2006.

David L. Tulloch, 2007. “Many, many maps: Empowerment and online participatory mapping,” First Monday, volume 12, number 2 (February), at, accessed 04 March 2007.

Titia van der Werf–Davelaar, 2006. “Facilitating Scholarly Communication in African Studies,” D–Lib Magazine, volume 12 number 2 (February), at, accessed 12 January 2007.



Editorial history

Paper received 4 March 2007; accepted 26 March 2007.

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Building an open access African studies repository Using Web 2.0 principles by Anna Winterbottom and James North
First Monday, volume 12, number 4 (April 2007),

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