Monday, December 15, 2014

The Open Access Interviews: Dr Indrajit Banerjee, Director of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division

The mission of UNESCO, which was founded in 1945, is to “contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.”
Indrajit Banerjee
An important plank in that mission is a commitment to help build inclusive and equitable knowledge societies. We should not be surprised, therefore, that UNESCO supports the Open Access movement, we should not be surprised that it was the first UN agency to adopt an OA policy, and we should not be surprised that it now makes its own publications Open Access.

Today UNESCO’s OA repository (OAR) provides free access to over 500 of its own books, reports and articles in over 11 languages, and in recent years it has created a number of OA portals, directories, knowledge banks and Open Access indicators.

In actual fact, argues Indrajit Banerjee, a commitment to both openness and to science has been implicit in everything UNESCO has done since it was founded in 1945. Immediately after the Second World War, for instance, it was one of the chief architects of the portion of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights aimed at safeguarding the rights of researchers. Specifically, Article 27 of that declaration asserts that everyone has the right to freely share scientific advancement and its benefits.

Subsequently, in 1974, UNESCO proposed a set of special recommendations concerning the status of science researchers; and in 1999 it organised a World Conference where a declaration on science and the use of scientific knowledge was agreed.

UNESCO’s advocacy for Open Access as such began shortly after the 2003 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), where the term Open Access was first adopted, and a definition of OA agreed. That year UNESCO had its first high-level success in OA advocacy, when it successfully lobbied for universal access to scientific information and knowledge to be included as one of the Action lines (C3) of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) process.

In 2009, UNESCO was requested by its member states to draw up a strategy for Open Access, a strategy approved at UNESCO’s 187th session in 2011. This contains a set of short, medium and long-term action plans (to be achieved within set time frames) to assist governments strengthen the processes for granting irrevocable rights of access to copy, use, distribute, transmit and make derivate works of research outputs in any format, within certain constraints.

The strategy also stresses that UNESCO should place particular emphasis on making publicly-funded scientific information (journal articles, conference papers and datasets of various kinds) freely available.

As a global organisation with 195 member states and 9 associate member states, much of UNESCO’s work takes place at the level of national governments and regions. To that end it regularly convenes high-level meetings in order to educate national governments about the benefits of OA. It also commissions research, reports, and guides on OA (often in partnership with other large organisations like the EU).

Given its broad mission, UNESCO views Open Access not as an end in itself, but as one of a number of important tools that can help achieve its wider objective. The toolkit includes other free and open approaches like Open Data, Open Educational Resources, and Free and Open Source Software, plus tools designed to facilitate and encourage sharing such as Creative Commons licences.

Above all, UNESCO believes that the success of OA depends on effective capacity building. In the context of OA this implies facilitating “a set of activities to improve awareness, knowledge, skills and processes relevant to the design, development and maintenance of institutional and operational infrastructures and other processes for implementing Open Access”.

And with its focus on creating inclusive and equitable knowledge societies, UNESCO approaches Open Access from the perspective of human rights and the eradication of poverty, and sees ICTs playing a vital role in achieving its objectives in these areas. Its two global priorities currently are Africa and gender equality. As such, it is determined to ensure that Open Access is implemented in ways likely to help, rather than further marginalise, developing nations, and in a gender neutral way.

In light of all this, as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals give way to the Sustainable Development Goals, UNESCO is keen to embed Open Access into the new goals, viewing OA as a vital tool for achieving them.

Given its international perspective, and its authority, UNESCO also believes that it is ideally suited to oversee a global debate on Open Access, a debate that — in light of the growing danger that Open Access could end up excluding rather than including the developing world — is now pressing. To this end, UNESCO hopes to organise the first international congress on OA.

To get a better sense of UNESCO’s interest in, and work on, OA, and what it feels to be the key issues going forward, I sent seven questions to the director of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division Indrajit Banerjee. The answers turned out to be admirably comprehensive, so I list a few choice quotes from Banerjee’s answers below. I urge everyone to read the full text.


·         The primary reason for UNESCO to be involved in Open Access stems from the fact that the organization believes in “Maintaining, increasing and diffusing knowledge by encouraging cooperation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activities”.

·         UNESCO’s role in the global Open Access movement is to foster OA at the highest possible level by continuing to build on the pillar of universal access to information and knowledge to empower local communities by bringing experts together and utilizing its global network of regional and field offices, Institutes and Centres.

·         Guided by the organization’s founding principle that universal access to information is the key to building peace, sustainable economic development and intercultural dialogue, UNESCO must continue to raise awareness, formulate policies and build capacities to promote Openness in content, technology and processes, with particular emphasis on scientific information.

·         In an era where the World Wide Web plays an increasingly vital role in the intellectual development of societies, information digitization has revolutionized the means by which we share knowledge. As the ‘intellectual’ agency of the United Nations, UNESCO has a central and critical role in encouraging the universal sharing of all forms of knowledge in real time to build inclusive Knowledge Societies. This may be through the classical form of dissemination, but more importantly by supporting the Open Access movement enabled through the power of the Internet.


·         We understand that OA publications are underrated because there is a lack of a policy that fully respects the effort behind the publications. There is a serious concern about peer review processes employed by OA journals.

·         There is an increasing concern that although the OA mode of research publication is becoming increasingly popular, it has not positively impacted the ability of researchers from developing countries to publish their research works.

·         The policy issues surrounding OA, adoption of policies (and/or mandates), implementation of policies (and/or mandates), monitoring and evaluation of these policies (and/or mandates) still need to be improved for most countries.

·         Furthermore, in the countries which have formulated and established OA policies/mandates, they have not been able to produce any solid evidence that OA is indeed having a positive impact on knowledge production and dissemination in the country. As the contribution of Open Access to the cost of research saved and the amount of knowledge gained are still not properly evaluated, the condition of “lead-by-example” is lacking.

·         We have also noted that within countries, those who can make a difference still lack a good understanding of OA and therefore do not fully support the OA movement, for fear of job loss and negative impact on its publishing industry.

·         Development, sophistication or understanding of OA is not evenly distributed, by geography or by subject. There is a strong need for the cross-fertilization of ideas and conditions for synergy to be properly discussed and explored in their entirety.

·         As the Global South catches up with the North in terms of scientific output, for instance, it allows for greater innovation in OA, and provides opportunities for developed countries to adopt some of the less costly OA methods that have emerged in developing countries. So, for instance, innovation in Latin America is enabling a lower APC cost base. New models like this could benefit the North.

·         At the same time, innovative methods from the North are being implemented in some developing countries. This cross-fertilisation could be very productive and so we are documenting the processes involved.


·         OA is central to UNESCO’s activities in the future. It is part of our Open Solutions programme and we are convinced that Open Access should be an integral agenda in any effort to create Knowledge Societies.

·         UNESCO must mobilize stakeholders to organize regional consultations and explore the possibility of organizing the first international congress on Open Access to scientific information and research. This international congress should analyse the existing national and international legal framework concerning Open Access and examine the necessity for the elaboration of a new international instrument.

·         UNESCO must also play a role in combining the context of Open Access within the broader understanding of Openness and link it with Open Educational resources (OER); Open Training Platform (OTP) and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).

·         UNESCO is also concerned about the role that Open Access can play in realizing Post-2015 Development Goals. Dedicated research is currently on going to identify the potential of Open Access within the broader context of SDGs.

·         As a specialized agency of the UN system, UNESCO is playing its part in analyzing the concern about poverty (and other human challenges) and is committed to making Open Access one of the central supporting agendas to achieve the SDGs.

·         Out of 17 goals proposed for the next SDGs, at least 10 goals need constant research inputs. Given that these goals must be achieved globally, there is an absolute need for any restriction to disseminate research outputs to be comprehensively addressed. So in the next 15 years, OA to research will play a fundamental role in supporting efforts to achieve these goals.

·         UNESCO is working with its partners to provide a closer look at the Impact Factor. While the existing bibliometric, scientometric and altmetric approaches are robust, their upstream usage has remained very limited.

·         The extent to which the Knowledge Divide is narrowed, and to which we are able to create societies that are truly Knowledge Societies, will determine the pace of development. OA has the potential to lessen the existing knowledge divide. This gap goes beyond the rifts in mere access to ICT. It refers to the gaps that exist across all the four building blocks of Knowledge Societies, namely: Knowledge Creation; Knowledge Preservation; Knowledge Dissemination; and Use of Knowledge.

·         Opening access to knowledge is thus a fundamental part of the approach that can open and address the many jagged facets of Sustainable Development. OA uses ICTs to increase and enhance dissemination of scholarship. Sustainable Development and the creation of Knowledge Societies therefore are two sides of the same coin. 

·         The theme of inclusive Knowledge Societies continues to be at the heart of UNESCO’s work to fulfil the WSIS objectives. Inclusive Knowledge Societies are societies in which people have ready access to information and communications resources, in languages and formats that suit them, and the skills to interpret and make use of them. The Organization’s future work will thus be to establish the context of OA within the broader framework of inclusive Knowledge Societies. UNESCO will continue to pursue this objective vigorously through its own programmes on OA as well as in partnership with other organizations and UN agencies.

The interview with Dr Indrajit Banerjee is available as a pdf file, and can be accessed HERE

Please note that the text in the pdf file is licensed under CC-BY.

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