The State of the Nation – South African scholarly publishing and the global knowledge divide

Down here in the southern hemisphere, the sun is shining and the south-easter is funnelling down the mountain. The 2007 university summer term has begun and absurdly young students are thronging campus; the President has delivered a carefully-modulated State of the Nation address; and the Finance Minister has spelled out a budget that shows South Africa
significantly in the black. In short, the real working year is only just beginning. So it is perhaps time, in a series of postings, to do
a my own State of the Nation overview of where South Africa stands at the start of 2007 in relation to my area of interest – the
dissemination and publication of African scholarship.

First, a background sketch. I hold an International Policy Fellowship from the Open Society Institute (Budapest) investigating policy for the dissemination of African scholarship. The project aims to map the complex and often contradictory policy environment that frames research publication in South Africa and other African countries. These policies tend to work in two directions: one for the leveraging of research to deliver national development goals – to which the South African government appears to be ready to allocate substantial resources – the other for the recognition and reward of scholarly publication. In particular, the project researches the question of whether countries like South
Africa and its African neighbours can start to turn around the global knowledge divide and raise the reach and visibility of African research using electronic media and the Open Access publishing approaches currently taking hold across the world.

If one looks at the current state of research publication in African countries, what stands out most strongly is the persistent marginalisation of African knowledge – particularly of scholarship about Africa, produced in Africa. Globally, research dissemination takes place within a system that has been in place for around the last 100 years, which has come to be dominated by increasingly
commercialised (and increasingly expensive) journals and by scholarly books produced primarily in the USA and Europe in a globally
unbalanced ‘publish or perish’ scholarly market. For example, to cite but one statistic – in 2000, South Africa, which far exceeds
any other African country in the ISI journal rankings, had just 0,5% of the articles in the combined ISI databases and 0.15% of the most
cited papers (see the SA Academy of Science Report on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa 2006) . Could we really say that this is a fair and accurate evaluation of the global weight and value of the research carried out in this country?

This publication takes place within a generally unquestioned value system in which quality is measured by publication impact in an international arena in which scholars and publishers from Africa are unequal players in the global research economy. For example, the leading international index in which journal publication is valued, the ISI, aims to index the limited range of journal literature that
asserts a disproportionate influence, on the assumption that a relatively small group of journals – or body of knowledge – will account for the most important and influential research in any field. The UK-based International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), while it prides itself on listing a substantial percentage of journals from outside the UK, nevertheless values them (through an Editorial Board consisting overwhelmingly of UK academics and none at all from developing countries) according to their relevance to UK scholars and libraries. These criteria tend to marginalise research knowledge from the periphery, research that does not address the mainstream interests of scholarship in the US and Europe, and also work to disadvantage disciplines that have particular local relevance rather than more generalised global appeal.

Add to this the physical difficulties and the cost of distributing print materials from the developing world into dominant US and UK markets,
as well as the difficulty of getting these publications accepted by the major libraries, and it becomes clear that the very criteria that the developing world uses for its traditional-model scholarly output are those that contribute also to its marginalisation in the global arena. Even more damaging is the potential for the distortion of research agendas – if scholars are to receive promotion and financial reward for publications that conform to US and UK research agendas, then research topics that might contribute vitally to local development issues risk marginalisation. Moreover, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on the assumption that overseas standards are better, in which local publications, perceived to be of poorer quality, do in fact often come to be of poorer quality, starved as they are of recognition, support and resources.

In tackling these problems, we are seriously handicapped by the fact that in the South African higher education system there is a tacit acceptance that scholarly publication is not the business of the universities – what Joseph J. Esposito in a recent article in LOGOS, calls ‘the
free-rider syndrome. A university… will actively encourage faculty to publish, but a press will be stinted because it is always possible
that a particular book will be published somewhere else.’ Also – and perhaps as a result of the free-rider syndrome, the policies and
practices governing scholarly publication have themselves not been subjected to much research or scrutiny. As a recent Australian government report observed: ‘Despite billions being spent by governments on R&D every year, relatively little policy attention
has yet been paid to the dissemination of that research through scientific and scholarly publishing.’

2007 might well be the year in which South Africa starts to pay more attention to these issues. On the international front, a number of initiatives are putting the issues on the front burner – the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) is in the process of creating an African Science and Innovation Facility; the World Bank has identified higher education as a key driver for African economic growth and poverty eradication; the funding agencies are taking an increasing interest in the potential for unlocking access to African knowledge through the use of ICTs and Open Access; and the steadily growing number of international initiatives for access to publicly funded research (the most recent being the EU meetings held last week). Locally, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s project on scholarly publishing is beginning to take shape, under the aegis of
the Department of Science and Technology (more on that in another posting), an increasing number of Open Access projects are beginning to emerge and the middle economy alliance of Brazil, India, China (and South Africa, tagging on behind) is beginning to impact. But a lot still needs to be done to get these debates a higher profile in the universities and in government.

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