02 January 2009

How accessible is your agricultural information?

The Internet, with mobile phones, are revolutionizing the ways we communicate, and how we can share, access and exchange information. Each workshop and conference, each Google alert and newsfeed, each social networking web service reveals more and more of the diversity and richness of the information that surrounds us.

We can access more agricultural information than ever before ... or can we? Despite the best efforts of the open access movement, digging deeper for specific research information, for example, reveals many reports and articles to be much less accessible than we would hope, data that are tricky to identify and obtain, and much knowledge embedded in people and networks.

Access to agricultural information is limited in various ways, including:
  • articles published in commercial journals are frequently not available, unless a fee or subscription is paid.
  • researchers often choose to disseminate their results in limited-access high impact journals, because they are assessed on these, rather than in other forms - like radio, video, extension, blogs, etc - where the message might be more accessible to more people.
  • research projects often give insufficient attention to communication and dissemination, or focus only on the 'final' outputs, so much of the total learning is never captured or passed on.
  • many organizations do not have complete repositories of the outputs of their staff and they select what they put in their online libraries or web sites.
  • outputs are frequently saved in and published online in proprietary 'closed' formats that not everyone can open and read.
  • licenses for research outputs often discourage re-use of the content and use cumbersome permission procedures.
  • full text on web sites is often, inadertently, hidden from search engines.
  • many information systems do not use common standards so metadata can't be easily shared, harvested and exchanged; it cannot travel.
There is a surprising widespread lack of awareness of these and many other limitations that keep agricultural research information inaccessible. Research managers and many information specialists think their outputs are accessible, until they look a bit deeper at their own organizations and programmes. There's also much confusion and a surprising lack of sharing and solid collaboration on the 'pathways' to greater accessibility - for there are many, and many that really work. Perhaps researchers and information services that 'compete' for impact and visibility are reluctant to share strategies as well as the tips and tricks that will make agricultural information truly accessible?

These issues were recently discussed - and reported on - as part of wider CGIAR annual meetings. A movement to address accessibility issues across the CGIAR centers is gaining momentum. We look forward to concrete progress in 2009.

Other organizations like FAO and GFAR are also getting together through the CIARD initiative that seeks to be a catalyst for exchange and action; several experiences and pathways have already been shared on this blog. A recent workshop on research communication in Africa touched on these issues, and was reported by both IAALD and Euforic. The UK Government through DFID has been pushing communication as an essential part of research for development - read more on the R4D blog.

How accessible is your agricultural information? The CGIAR discussions built on a ‘Triple A’ approach that focuses on the availability, accessibility and applicability of research outputs. Something similar is being developed through CIARD and its manifesto for change. 

It's up to each of us and our organizations to examine how truly available, accessible and applicable our own information, data and knowledge really are ... and to work with others to ensure that agricultural knowledge does not remain on the shelf, in our heads, or stuck on an intranet! Information needs to be open, to be helped to travel, to be put to use.

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