Supporting open science in the Arab world

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Emily Choynowski

Emily Choynowski outlines the progress of the open research movement in the Middle East and North Africa

The Arab region comprises 22 member states across the Gulf, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although economic circumstances, and available human, physical and digital capacities vary widely across these 22 states, the region as a whole has the resources and capability to play a pivotal role in the global transition towards more accessible, sustainable and inclusive research and education models.

However, while many institutions and organisations are at the forefront of this change (for example the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and King AbdulAziz University in Saudi Arabia, the Qatar National Library and the Egyptian Knowledge Bank), there is a clear need for something more focused on the specific needs of research communities and research institutions just starting out on their journey towards openness.

That is why, at the start of 2022, the Knowledge E Foundation (a registered community interest company based in the UK) decided to develop and launch a new non-profit initiative, the Forum for Open Research in MENA (FORM) – to support the development and implementation of Open Science policies and practices in research communities and research institutions across the Arab region.

Overcoming resistance

FORM is my baby and my brainchild. At the time of its inception, I was working as Head of Publishing for Knowledge E (a higher education capacity-building company headquartered in Dubai, working with governments, funders and research institutions across the region). As a diamond Open Access publisher, I came across a significant – though perhaps not wholly surprising – level of resistance to open access amongst many researchers across the region, many of whom view it as synonymous with either predatory practises or low-quality content. This issue was compounded by a more endemic misunderstanding of the nature of Open Access and the broader concept of Open Science within the wider scholarly and scientific communities.

These issues arise, in part, because unlike other regions (most notably the European Union) which have a wealth of practical resources, well-established communities of practise and supportive funders, the Arab states currently lack localised resources and guidelines relating to key aspects of Open Science policies and practises. Moreover, the ability to develop and disseminate supporting resources is hampered by the fact that there is currently no complete and regionally-accepted glossary of Arabic Open Science terms. For example, I have attended conferences where ‘open access’ was translated into six different terms in the same panel, each version with a slightly different meaning. And without an effective lexicon of localised terms (and localised resources), it is impossible to adequately explain and promote open science concepts – which contributes to the misunderstanding and even, occasionally, mistrust of open science and its associated precepts and activities.

Building collaborative community partnerships

This, then, was the source of inspiration for launching FORM as an independent project funded and founded by the Knowledge E Foundation. Our mission is to support the advancement of open science practices in research institutions and research communities across the Arab region by facilitating the exchange of actionable insights and the development of practical policies. We seek to do this by (1) building collaborative community partnerships and encouraging cooperation between members and partners of FORM; (2) by developing accessible and localised resources relating to the implementation of open science policies and practises amongst our key stakeholder groups; and (3) by championing the development of right-to-left infrastructure functionality in key digital solutions to ensure usability by Arabic speakers. Our membership is institutional, and our goal is to form an international alliance of higher education institutions, research libraries and other research communities based within the Arab region, alongside supportive knowledge partners from across the world.

We are still a very young initiative, with a network of just over 1,800 individuals from 74 countries. The Arab States currently represent 61% of our network. However, we are also seeing strong growth in awareness of, and interest in, our activities in African nations who are not member states of the Arab League, while Asia and Europe account for a further 12% and 11% respectively – demonstrating the value of our activities for a diverse array of research communities and institutions beyond our core stakeholder group.

These activities include a pragmatic programme of community development activities – free online workshops and webinars designed to help our stakeholders in their transition towards more ‘open’ policies and practises. We have held six of these monthly events so far, collaborating with partners including the International Science Council, the Directory of Open Access Journals, and cOAlition S. With a focus on practical insights, these events have proved hugely successful – not only providing valuable learning experiences to key stakeholder groups, but also encouraging the development of a friendly and supportive community of open science advocates within the region. In addition to the community development activities, we have also formed a pan-regional working group to develop a robust Arabic Open Science glossary which will be freely available on our website and used to support our own resource creation. We are also launching a bilingual Open Access journal, focusing on the role, implementation and impact of open science policies and practises in higher education and research institutions across the Arab region.

Annual Forum for Open Research

Of course, these activities are predominantly focused on building grassroots support for open science within local research communities. But to ensure real, lasting change a more holistic approach is needed – combining grassroots advocacy with national and regional policymaking. This, then, is our key focus for the remainder of 2023 and we are hugely honoured to have the support and endorsement of UNESCO in this endeavour. Working closely with UNESCO, our goal is to expand the remit of the FORM initiative, to enable it to spearhead the development of Open Science policies at the governmental level across the region.

This is one of the key outcomes we hope to achieve during this year’s Annual Forum for Open Research. Held in a different Arab country each year, the Annual Forum allows librarians, researchers, funders and policy makers from across the region to exchange ideas and discuss the challenges they face and solutions they have developed relating to the implementation of open science policies and practises, and the building of open science communities. This year, the Annual Forum will be held in Abu Dhabi, UAE (22-25 October), in partnership with UNESCO, Khalifa University, and the UAE Ministry of Education. And, in addition to the usual series of presentations and workshops, we are gathering together senior policymakers from across the region gather to engage in a full day of policy-making discussions and round tables, as well as a high-level strategy session to establish key regional priorities and formulate an action plan to address them.

Of course, the transition towards more accessible, inclusive and sustainable research ecosystems takes time, and requires deep-seated socio-cultural adjustments at every stakeholder level. But we believe that FORM will facilitate this process for the Arab region by promoting understanding, developing supportive policies and building an inclusive collaborative community.And I hope readers of this article will consider joining us at this year’s Annual Forum, either in person or online, as we work together towards more open Arab region and more knowledgable world.

Emily Choynowski is Head of Research Development and Dissemination at Knowledge E