Tuesday, July 03, 2007

access and having a voice

my sitting down to blog was triggered by reading the following blogpost:

Why Geldof’s image of rotting Africa is ok by me Richard M Kavuma

the above post is a commentary on the (de)merits of the cover of a BILD Zeitung edited by Bob Geldoff, portraying an emaciated baby with headline: "30, 000 Menschen sterben in Afrika jeden Tag an Armut", roughly "30, 000 people die in Africa every day due to poverty". Kavuma goes on to question, then argue for, Geldof´s use of the image and (inadvertent) perpetuation of a stereotype; juxtaposing bad and good events, but letting the bad news gain the coverspot. well. i pondered in a similar vein recently when having bought the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine, guest-edited by Bono. Unlike Geldof however, Bono´s aim was to portray the more positive side of the continent, accompanied by lovely portraits by Annie Leibovitz. my wondering in boh examples incorporated thinking about "who gets to tell the story?" a Western voice or one from the global South. and this goes to my general thinking on this topic of late, browsing then shelves of local bookshops; wondering why there could not be a Tony Judt equivalent for a book on Africa.

there is always a tension between painting (or is it sticking to?) the dire picture as opposed to foregrounding the positive. and even when foregrounding the positive, that can be misconstrued somehow.

this reminds me that, and by way of example, someone had once said to me that in one of the chapters for the South African Masters degree that I did, I spoke "too highly" of Stellenbosch University; that in my writings I had come across as someone wanting to stress the superiority of the university (read for that, "superiority above other South African universities") ...that never entered my thinking i must say, simply because my mind doesn´t work like that. my very modest and good-natured aim had been altogether different, in that i was trying to highlight the positive and the long-time presence cf. absence of connectivity in South African universities. so let me explain.

in my study, in the part where i had conducted a structured record review of web sites hosted on the university´s domain (to see if they were making working papers available from departmental homepages), i had an intro which described/chronicled the general development of the "wiring up" of the university in question. in this intro, i had wanted to portray and emphasise the positive side; to indicate that universities in South Africa (not just the one under study) enjoyed connectivity from an early stage. this was some effort to counter the stereotype of a largely digitally-disconnected continent and academic populace. to counter, in effect, this notion of overall backwardness that often characterises opinion re connectivity in Africa. well. my point has always been that academics at higher education institutions in South Africa (bearing in mind that I am speaking only of South Africa here) do have connectivity, and as such, should have been, and should be, further along with self-archiving activity.

i think what we now see however is that scholars all over still display a wide reluctance to self-archive; which i find profoundly unfortunate. whenever i have gotten up to speak about Open Access, i had felt that, given an intelligent and reasonable scholar before me, that the arguments _for_ OA would prove convincing in themselves. that on the basis of thát, people would go on to share their work openly.

instead, what i see is that we get bogged down in some kind of thrust and counter-thrust; tilting at windmills and losing sight (often) of the larger issue of access. yes, doesn´t it come down to that? and access in turn facilitates having a voice. these can happen at two levels, or in two spheres that i want to particularly highlight here.

the one: there can be the need for physical access; yes, just simple hooking-up to the Internet, and thát can facilitate giving people voices, and the platform from which to highlight social or other plights. not to toot the horn of bloggers everywhere, but let´s face it, i´d rather have blogs than not have them, since it means i can gain information from channels other than big media giants.

two asides come to mind from the latter observation.

aside one: some people say that blogs are just self-indulgent fora for ppl with nothing better to do. that, their presence complicates the information landscape, and so, this complexity is held up as some argument proof for not having blogs. logically, the reasoning is flawed of course.

aside two: some people say that self-archiving, and the complexity conjured up by versioning (i.e. not knowing which version of an article is _the_ authoritative version) makes for an argument contra self-archiving. here too the reasoning is flawed.

we should rather be paying attention to how to make the landscape less complex, and find ways of navigating the landscape, rather than saying that the landscape should not, or must not change.

per chance, as i am typing this up, a mail has come in announcing one such effort to orient to the information lanscape. see "An ecological approach to repository and service interactions" wiki

the second: how about access to research literature? just because i cannot fully comprehend a piece because it is way beyond my ken, does not make my having access to the article a useless endeavour. for, the thinking that infuses an article, though unrelated to my study domain, may still prove useful. or. a mere ability to have a look-see at cutting-edge research in domains apparently unrelated to my own, can be useful too. whatever happened to serendipity? that finding of a book in a part of the library you hardly go to, except now the library can grow and not be physically constrained. it seems obvious. some would say even utopian... thing is, i just don´t get why anyone would make a sustained argument for a closed-off library. and maybe, with the thinking that one encounters in domains outside one´s own, one could add one´s voice to scholarly debates in one´s own field in a new way. (the ecology of repositories approach is but one such example. there is a neat raison d´être from the European University Institute in the reasoning given for their workshops on "Questions, Methods and Results in Social Science Research" (QMR)" when they say:

The basic principle underlying QMR is that researchers –both individually and collectively - can greatly benefit by learning what is being developed beyond the confines of their own specific research agendas. Specialization should not be a source of defensive ignorance. But being exposed to –and taking advantage of – multidisciplinary criticism requires that researchers from different disciplines get to know which questions or facts, which methods or theories, which results or open inquiries, are being addressed by colleagues from other disciplines.

to say these things seem so obvious that it nags the brain. well, i am reminded here again, in speaking of "access" and "having a voice", of my attendance of the union debate (see webcasts at the OII, and Tobias´ blogpost done during and after the event)
now, i like Tobias´post overall, but there is a slight discrepancy between reality and reporting, where he says "ok, we are well 2 hours in the debate and so far we haven’t seen any female members voicing an opinion…". when in fact it was that when the floor was opened up for Q & A, a number of women in the audience had raised their hands to speak, but they were continuously and apparently ignored (how else to explain it) by the president of the house. noticing this, i turned to Tobias and said "he´s not giving any woman the forum". then later, JZ in his argument highlighted this very same gender-differentiation aspect. and though he (JZ) had phrased things differently, saying that the Internet provided a forum for liberty, even humanity, and for a spectrum of dissenting voices, which was in stark contrast to the binary yes/no door contraption for the debating venue... (think: a double door, opens in the middle. at the end of the evening, a brass pole is placed vertically, down the middle, and people indicate their vote of for or against the motion, by exiting on the left or right).

further, i would add that,unlike in the physical space of the Oxford Union debate hall, where women that evening had not been given the forum to speak, the Internet, in such circumstances, could facilitate the raising of the voice of those who were previously made to be silent. and that overall, the Internet as such was a means for greater civic participation.

i feel then that a similar argument is to be made for opening up access to research. that those previously made to be silent (researchers who work outside of the global (Western, mainly developed world) scientific agenda) can have a voice and a platform from which to give prominence to their works. but even those "in the centre" can also expose their works beyond some incestuous inner circle.

we know, and experience shows; that the current-and-inherited scientific publication and dissemination system does not facilitate much if any of the latter.

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