Since their launch in 2016 there has been much interest from universities and publishers in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Many universities have structured research priorities around the SDGs or set up research centres and institutes to focus on ‘grand challenges’. The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings seeks to measure university engagement with them. Meanwhile publishers have also embraced them, as the SDG Publisher Compact, which asks publishers and publishing organisations to commit to specific Goals, and which now has over 260 signatories worldwide, shows.
The SDGs address a wide array of global problems and challenges that the 21st century world faces, and research and knowledge – the fundamental infrastructure underpinning humanity, according to Jean-Claude Guédon in this recent OASPA conference presentation – is critical to our ability to solve these problems. But it is not just our ability to produce this research that is important, open access to research that addresses the kind of grand challenges that the SDGs set out, is also essential. But how are the SDGs and open research linked?
Firstly, understanding and providing solutions for global challenges urgently requires an engagement with researchers in the global South. This is of course – as the decolonial turn has demonstrated – necessary to address an unjust imbalance in a knowledge production ecosystem that prioritises the Western academy and its worldview. Further, those in the global South are increasingly on the frontline of the impacts of global challenges, and, as evidence shows, problems such as climate change have largely been caused by the actions and lifestyles of those in the global North. Scholars and experts in the South hold essential knowledge on addressing the SDGs, and indigenous perspectives, such as the South American concept of buen vivir, provide visions of alternative futures that could be more sustainable and equitable. Only open access to research (and ‘open’ here must mean fee-free access for both authors and readers) ensures a truly global and equitable scholarly conversation can take place, as data suggests.
Secondly, research on society’s biggest challenges needs to be focused on providing solutions and it is increasingly recognised that co-produced research, where a range of different stakeholders are included in the development and implementation of research projects, and where different types of expertise, beyond academic expertise is valued, can be more impactful in terms of policy-making and service delivery. The N8 Research Partnership’s Report, Knowledge That Matters: Realising the Potential of Co-Production concluded that ‘the findings of the research presented in this Report demonstrate that by better partnerships between academics and non-academics it is entirely possible to achieve [both] research excellence and significant public benefit’. But including those outside the academy, and ensuring research findings can be discovered and implemented in wider civil society, requires openness.
As the pandemic has shown, discourses around global challenges can breed ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories and misinformation. Peter Cunliffe-Jones, founder of Africa Check, the first independent fact-checking organisation in Africa, and lecturer on trust and freedom in the media, argued at this year’s Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers conference, that open access is one of the key tools in the battle against ‘information disorder’, and it is increasingly seen as a key means to ensure people have access to facts and quality information. A recently-launched search engine, Consensus, uses machine learning, and draws on research in open repositories, in order to ‘develop technology that will make it easier for users to understand which claims are grounded in scientific evidence’.
Finally, research on the societal challenges that the SDGs encapsulate requires interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. Solutions to these issues cannot be solved by single disciplines working alone and scientists, social scientists and humanists need to work together – and increasingly are doing so – to address global issues. However, publishing remains siloed by subject area, with journals focused in on specific disciplines, or sub-disciplines, rather than looking to reach out and make connections across boundaries. It’s therefore interesting to see new initiatives, such as Bristol University Press’s new Global Social Challenges Journal, seeking to change this. In making the journal open access, the publishers have perhaps foreseen what recent research from the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative has concluded – that openness results in increased diversity of citation sources by institutions, countries and regions – but significantly, also by fields of research.
Given that SDG research and open science are intimately connected it is unsurprising to discover therefore that the Goals themselves enshrine the need for open access within them. As Fiona Bradley, Director of Research Services and Corporate at the University of New South Wales makes clear in this fascinating webinar, librarians were very much involved in the development of the SDGs, taking credit for Target 16.10 to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’. As Bradley states, while the Goals don’t specifically use the phrase ‘open access’ there is an obvious connection. She says, ‘public access to information through means such as open access helps people to exercise civil and political rights, be economically active, to learn new skills, to enrich their cultural identity and to take part in decision making’. The setting up of the 2030 Connect platform – an open access knowledge platform for the SDGs – reinforces the UN’s commitment to open research and demonstrates, according to Bradley, ‘a very high level recognition of the value of OA in helping to meet global challenges’.
At a more local level, a small, open access publisher like University of Westminster Press is doing its bit in publishing research related to the SDGs. Journals such as Active Travel Studies, Anthropocenes, Silk Road and the Journal of Deliberative Democracy all address aspects of the Goals. But it is clear that of equal importance is the Press’s commitment to publishing this research, with no fees for authors or readers, in a way that makes it widely accessible, without barriers, to as broad a readership as possible. And open access publishing, along with University of Westminster’s wider commitment to open research, is the only way to do that.
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