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ICT Update Issue 72: Openness and visibility

Andrea_Jimenez's picture

ICT Update is not just about technology. This issue’s guest editor, Stephen Rudgard from FAO, is a major actor in opening agricultural knowledge online. He has asked a number of experts from different backgrounds to provide their perspective on various aspects of opening content.

There has been an increasing focus, globally, on various aspects of the ‘openness’ of information and knowledge since the early 2000s – open data, open access, open knowledge, open source, and so on. This openness involves, and is affecting, the world of agricultural information and knowledge as much as any other field of research and development. The impacts are being felt at individual, institutional and national and international levels, from policy development to the day-to-day behaviour of individuals.

Open access

Early moves in this process were made by the Open Access (OA) movement and the Open Archives Initiative (OAI). OA focuses on a more institutional approach to unrestricted availability on the internet of peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals, while OAI deals with technical aspects of web-based repositories. Two paths to ‘openness’ emerged in these early days, the ‘gold’ road and the ‘green’ road. The gold road refers to open access journals that provide articles online at publication, while the green road consists of online archiving of digital documents (usually digital drafts of peer-reviewed articles) that are freely accessible through an OAI-compliant repository.
The move from subscription-only publishing of scholarly articles to open access journals has been much slower than originally anticipated by many OA advocates, but the trend is clear and has been embraced by all corners of the publishing industry from for-profit to non-profit. The number of open repositories available online has also been steadily growing with the Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDoar) reporting more than 2,200 registrations by May 2013.


Openness also means investing in mechanisms that will increase the visibility of research results, which may otherwise remain hidden in the jungle of the internet. Owners of repositories say that they want to make their information fully available, and yet most are invisible to search engines such as Google Scholar. The use of international standards for metadata (or data about data, such as library cataloguing systems) to describe the content accessible from open repositories is a major factor for ensuring greater visibility.
Technological changes, including the emergence of ‘linked open data’, allow open repositories to publish local content globally. Linked data is a method for linking previously unconnected but related data, which has tremendous implications for sharing knowledge. It also allows repositories to participate in a wider community of data providers in which services can harvest content from multiple locations. This will help open repositories to increase the role they play within the academic communication process.
In the agricultural domain, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations provides the agricultural information management community with standards, tools and good practices to assist owners of open repositories to take advantage of the new generation of web-based technologies to increase visibility. This work is facilitated through the global community onAgricultural Information Management Standards  (AIMS).

The institutional dimension

The OA movement and the OAI initiative have been major factors in getting individual scientists and academics – and the organisations they work for – to accept and promote openness in the research communication process. Most research institutions around the world have national requirements to meet, which change over time. 

The national environment strongly influences the ways that institutional initiatives develop, both in the global arena and the more local arena of innovation with local stakeholders. However, institutions do inevitably develop their own information and knowledge environment within this broader national one. In this way they work to meet the specific needs of their varied stakeholders within their particular environment.

Institutional mandates

A global study of researcher attitudes to the openness and communication of research outputs in agriculture was conducted in 2011 by the partners in the CIARD  movement. The study revealed that individual views and behaviour in research communication were principally determined by institutional requirements concerning the communication of research. Researchers also felt that a lack of suitable policy direction significantly hindered their communication activities.

Organisations can enforce policies in various ways that request research outputs to be made ‘open’. Research funders such as the Wellcome Trust, for example, can insist that research outputs created as a result of their financial support should be made openly available. Governments or regional bodies such as the European Union can also enforce requests for openness.

The Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies ( ROARMAP) is a service that tracks the development of mandates of all sorts – whether funders, governments or other institutions. In January 2013, ROARMAP had accumulated a total of 162 institutional mandates worldwide. The AIMS community has published a list from ROARMAP showing organisations and institutions in agriculture and related fields that have adopted open access mandates including some major actors. Some examples are CGIAR, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Policies governing the deposit of research outputs into an institutional repository, or other ways of making them ‘open’, such as publication in open access journals, can be voluntary (requesting that deposit or publication should take place) or mandatory (requiring them to take place). The voluntary rate of self-archiving by researchers to make their work openly available in repositories is about 15%–20%, but that this can be increased with the use of mandatory policies. So, although voluntary policies were initially popular, new institutional policies are now usually mandatory. Most researchers do not object to being required to make their work openly accessible.

The CIARD movement

In 2008, many international and regional organisations active in opening access to the outputs of agricultural research founded the CIARD movement. In May 2013, representatives of organisational partners in CIARD attended a consultation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they agreed on a new broader focus of the movement in support of innovation in smallholder agriculture.

A wide range of actors at national, regional and global levels have contributed to CIARD’s achievements since its inception. A key achievement has been the global registry of open agricultural information resources and services, the CIARD ‘RING’. The RING continues to grow and is expected to exceed 500 organisational contributors in the near future.

The partners agreed that their organisations had started to act more coherently, and this is likely to improve as the movement expands. CIARD also reflects a growing international interest in opening access to agricultural knowledge for food security and rural development, including through the G8, the G20 and the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development.

The CIARD consultation drew on findings of partner meetings in 2011 and 2012 and on ‘visioning’ exercises held during the meeting to identify priority action areas for the coming two years and key elements in a work programme. The principal message in terms of advocacy and communication will focus on openness and integration of knowledge for wider appropriation and use in support of innovation systems aimed at smallholder producers.

CIARD’s self-assessment ‘checklist’ and the associated advisory ‘pathways’ will be rewritten to address three broad areas: organisational culture and capacity, availability and accessibility of information and data, and knowledge sharing. A mechanism will be established for continuing collaborative development of the pathways.

Again, sound institutional policies on openness have evolved since the early 2000s to the point where established good practices have been identified. The CIARD movement will now be generating a set of pathways to show how information and knowledge management policy frameworks and strategies can be developed and implemented.

Through the strategic approach that CIARD offers, stakeholders of all types (from policy makers to farmers, NGOs to the private sector) can become a part of this global effort towards information and knowledge openness.

Stephen Rudgard is chief of Knowledge and Capacity for Development at FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.