For many years, one of the most common criticisms levied against international agricultural research centers is that many of its intellectual products are usually relegated to the proverbial ‘shelf’ once a research project is completed and the required reports have been submitted to funders. Such a practice has deprived intended beneficiaries— resource-poor smallholder farmers—the opportunity to better their lot through scientific findings locked away in some obscure knowledge vaults.
However, with the leaps in modern information and communication technology, complemented by a strong clamor to make scientific findings of publicly-funded research centers freely available as being ‘global public goods’, the Open Access revolution came under way. In this “revolution”, all protagonists benefit, with farmers ultimately gaining the most. In 2015, IITA made significant strides towards bringing its archived research out into the open.
The beginning of the Open Access era at IITA
Open Access (OA) and Open Data offer huge opportunities to improve the impact of IITA’s research and development activities as well as increase its and its researchers’ visibility within and outside the science community. IITA formalized its adherence to the principle of OA by signing the CGIAR Open Access Policy in October 2013. This key document gives a clear and common definition and understanding of OA and its inclusions to which the 15 CGIAR Center signatories have to abide. The CGIAR Consortium Office, with funds from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took the lead in 2015 to streamline the OA implementation activities of all centers as much as possible, initiating three task forces: the CGIAR Data Management Task Force, the CGIAR Knowledge Managers, and the individual centers’ Open Access Implementation Working Group.
The Open Access Implementation Working Group drafted the IITA Open Access implementation plan. The implementation plan covers a whole gamut of activities: from strategy questions over timelines, major infrastructural investments, and internet connectivity issues to interoperability requirements, formats, transition period and embargo times, budgets, regulatory frameworks for Intellectual Property (IP), resource planning, and change management to impact assessment. This plan, together with the E-Research and Open Access communication plans, forms the basis for many OA actions for 2016, which has been declared as “IITA Year of Open Access”.
Related to Open Access, E-Research is one other focus area for IITA. E-Research is the umbrella that covers all activities and initiatives that deal with data management, information management, and knowledge management. For E-Research, in 2013, IITA initiated a process involving an inventory of institutional databases to identify critical issues and concerns. In this process, IITA identified four main challenges: financial support, quality of data, awareness and training of researchers and other staff, and the IT infrastructure. This analysis highlighted the need for coordination and integration of ongoing initiatives. To manage the process, an E-research initiative was set up. In 2015, E-Research was slightly restructured: the main body of E-Research is an Advisory Board that meets at least once every two months. All major work areas in IITA are represented. The Advisory Board makes strategic assessments and decisions on information management and their consequences on data management and data infrastructure.
The priority work areas for E-Research in 2015 included: Open Access implementation planning, SharePoint testing, HR data solution, agronomy database, IITA website revamp, metadata registry, M&E data integration, partner database, CG-Space deployment, and an approved data and information management policy.
Improving Open Access infrastructure
As a direct outcome of OA implementations, a new institutional repository was introduced called CG Space (https://cgspace.cgiar.org/handle/10568/68616). It is a shared DSpace implementation hosted by ILRI. CG Space stores not only scholarly publication data (journal articles, books, etc.) but also other textual and even multimedia content such as reports, field protocols, photographs, posters, presentations, and the like. This repository fulfills all OA requirements, such as being permanently, unlimited accessible without a login and free of charge, with sufficient metadata and enabling other machines or websites to harvested content. It also comes with an easier and flexible search and browsing functionality, shows use statistics about views and downloads, gives useful metadata and all this consistently across 8 CGIAR Centers, 7 CRP’s, 4 CGIAR programs, and 9 other CGIAR Space partners that participate in CG Space.
A week’s training at IITA-Ibadan equipped 8 staff and 5 individuals from partner institutions with the necessary know-how to run CG Space technically, use it, and manage its content. With a presentation to researchers, the repository was launched in October. As IITA’s Knowledge Center curates legacy publication data for upload, the institute’s collections on CG Space grow day by day.
Good news also from the Breeding Management System (BMS), a collaboratively developed database suite of the “integrated breeding platform” (https://www.integratedbreeding.net/). In 2015, the cowpea and soybean programs at IITA adopted the BMS in their research activities while other crop programs are in the process of also adopting the platform. BMS deployment workshops also held during the year
were welcomed by partners such as the West African Center for Crop
Improvement, the Soybean Innovation Lab, and private seed companies.
Making data “talk” to each other
During the year, IITA also undertook efforts to harmonize the “understanding” of human-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication by developing and using a common subject term set and by starting to collect and systemize research metadata. Metadata are data that describe files or data (i.e., data about “Author”, “Date published”, “File format”, “use restrictions”) or simply a scientific variable (i.e., “Yield per hectare”). The first 2400 metadata will form the base of a metadata registry. One can look at this register as a central reference defining how to describe frequently used research data. It goes beyond the “crop ontologies” (collaboratively defined types, properties, and interrelationships of crops respecting crop traits) (http://www.cropontology.org/) which are already in use for cassava or cowpea.
A twin project, the IITA term store, will directly benefit from that and supplies the register back with terms out of authority lists (standard reference lists defined by authorized bodies only) especially those ones from international standardizations.
Another major step in making research data fit for cataloguing was pushed by the CGIAR Consortium Office: the CGIAR core metadata schema, designed to harmonize and uplift the quality of metadata across all CGIAR centers. They are usually given as a set that belong together, often following an international standard, like the “Dublin core”. A metadata set which is a fixed conceptual system is a schema. A “core schema” defines the essential part of it.
Assessing our research data management
During the year, the CGIAR Shared Services held an intensive, 10-day audit of IITA’s research data management system, which covered a sample of seven existing projects and many research support units. The audit revealed strengths and weaknesses of how the institute deals with data. It resulted in a higher sensitivity for the importance of proper data management practices. As an outcome, a work plan of improvements is now one priority issue for 2016.