Constrained access – constrained voices

A would-be South African author’s story. 

A few years ago, as a fresh PhD graduate (Open University, UK) I was encouraged by the examiners to pursue the possibility of book publication. The theoretical work of my PhD drew on STS; the empirical work on my ‘home’ context of South Africa. My ultimate aim was to talk back to South African policy, particularly transport engineering. My motivation was, and is, saving lives. South Africa has some of the world’s worst road safety statistics. More than 17,000 are killed each year on South African roads, a fatality rate at least eight times that of the UK. 

A book series editor gave encouraging feedback about the potential of the thesis to be converted into a book but asked (not unreasonably) for more work to be done to situate the book in reference to a recently published book series on Philosophies of Engineering and Technology. Having duly scanned the contents I set about accessing the publications – five books looked particularly relevant. And here starts a pretty typical story of academic life in the South. A story which talks to the material constraints of developing academic positions in relation to the published work of the North.

Firstly, the books were not available at my local University. The Interlibrary Loans service reported that only one of the books was available in South Africa at all. There was the possibility of an overseas loan, I was told, but two problems there. Firstly the cost for an overseas loan was R800 per book (about GBP45 per book, although much more in purchasing power terms). Secondly the freight from the overseas university would take 1-6 months and there was no knowing how long I would be given access for. 

There is no arrangement for e-loans of these books, and no possibility of the University buying the books for what is, at present, a niche area, due to the ongoing funding constraints in the University. (As I wrote the first draft of this, the University of Cape Town was closed due to concerns over staff and student safety. Students protested the cost of education, amongst other things. Universities continue to be deeply concerned about a funding crisis). I considered buying electronic copies of books…but the electronic versions cost between 90-150 Euros. An impossible cost. I realised it would be cheaper for me to fly from Cape Town to London and sit in the British Library for a day than to buy the books. 

Sadly, though, a day would not be enough. So I wrote to the publisher and explained the situation, asking whether they would consider selling me the electronic books at considerable discount. Eventually they replied in the negative. I went through the book extracts which were online; found the authors and asked them one-by- one for pre-publication copies of their work. It’s problematic, how do I resolve accurate referencing in this case? And not all authors will necessary donate their materials in this way but, frankly, I was out of options. Some kind souls did upload pre-publication drafts. Most didn’t. 

Last option…I applied to a local NGO which gets funding to support non-fiction authors. I thought I had a good case. It turns out there are lots of good cases. Funding unsuccessful. So, surrendering to this material reality, and to the challenged university landscape, I have decided to focus my research work elsewhere. I have let that opportunity – of working with a very encouraging editor at a highly reputable press – go.

So, as we say here in South Africa ‘sterkte’ (strength) to Open Access enthusiasts such as those as Mattering Press. I am cheering you on from the South.

We would like to thank Dr Lisa Kane for this guest blog post. Kane is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town and an advocate for respectful streets. Check out her blog or her research gate profile.