The State of the Nation 2: Clashing paradigms in South African research publication policy

When I set out to explore the policy framework for scholarly publishing in South Africa, I did so with a burning question that I have carried over from my publishing career.Given the scenario that I sketched in my last posting, in which African voices are largely silenced by the conventions of global scholarly publication, what I would be looking for would be national policies that would grow the output and effective dissemination of African research in and from Africa, for African development, in the most appropriate media and formats. A publisher’s approach would be to look at the goals articulated in national higher education and research policy and then ask whether policy for research dissemination is encouraging publications that support those goals.

What I found was that there is strange clash of paradigms within the different policy documents and, more starkly, between the policies of different government departments.Before I get too critical of these illogicalities, I need to stress that South African policy is not unusual in this regard. Worldwide,discussion of research dissemination is a blind spot. As the authors of an Australian government report on research communication costs put it:’despite billions of dollars being spent by governments on R&D every year, relatively little policy attention has yet been paid to the dissemination of the results of that research through scientific and scholarly publishing’.

Effective dissemination of higher education research and the availability of that research knowledge to the country that funds it – particularly in Africa – can be quite literally of life and death importance. Just think of the need for rapid responses to the AIDS pandemic, continually informed by the latest research findings. Yet when the question of publication and effective dissemination arises in the policy documents, it tends to be in terms of a generally unchallenged set of presumptions about what constitutes effective research dissemination – articles in accredited scholarly journals and registered patents. And, while universities might spend large sums of money registering patents,there is a tacit assumption that publication is not something that universities pay for. This is, in part, what Joseph J Esposito in a recent article on university presses in LOGOS and the Journal of Electronic Publishing calls ‘ the free rider syndrome. A university must provide for students and faculty and will actively encourage faculty to publish, but a press can be stinted because because it is always possible that a particular book will be published somewhere else.’

The major policy framework for higher education research in South Africa is the research and innovation policy developed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).Starting with a background report commissioned from the IDRC in 1995, the department consolidated these findings in a White Paper on Science and Technology in 1996 and then updated this in South Africa’s Research and Development Strategy in 2002. To summarise somewhat brutally; the common theme across these policies is that South African research must address national development needs and contribute to employment and economic growth. The emphasis is on the value of collaborative and inter-disciplinary research in a rapidly-changing technological environment. While attention is paid to the need to build the international reputation of South African research, this is balanced out by a developmental focus that insists on a responsiveness to national need

As far as intellectual property is concerned, the Research and Development Strategy articulates the need to address the challenges posed by new technologies, and the question of biotechnology and indigenous knowledge. ‘International thinking on legislation is as fluid and fast-moving as the new technologies themselves’, there port comments. ‘We need to develop competencies as a matter of urgency or face exploitation and marginalisation with respect to our own resources. A clear approach to intellectual property that arises from publicly funded research is required’ (DACST 2002:22). However, the subsequent discussion of IP issues is far from clear,veering between recognition of the importance of public access and ‘appreciation of the value of intellectual property as an instrument of wealth creation in South Africa’ (68). These contradictions are not resolved in the strategy document and indeed legislative reform and policy formation concerning access and copyright have been in suspension in South Africa for some time.

If I were to hypothesise the outcome of these recommendations, as a publisher, I would look for a research dissemination policy that addressed the real needs of a country in a state of radical transformation, that incorporated the potential offered by new methods of knowledge dissemination, and that made provision for arange of publishing outputs to meet the needs of different audiences and constituencies. I would look for a focus on national, rather than international, dissemination in the first instance, to ensure that research findings could have the required impact. I would also look for funding mechanisms to support knowledge dissemination and for policies for public access. Lastly, I would look for an awareness of the potential for new dissemination models based on the advantages offered by new communication technologies to deliver effective research dissemination in the service of radically increased development impact.

This is, however, far from being the case. In a generally enlightened policy environment, publication is the Cinderella that is left abandoned in a dark 20th century kitchen. The White Paper on Science and Technology stresses the importance of developments in ICT. However, read in the context of the whole document, particularly when it comes to discussion of research dissemination, one begins to wonder if the global information revolution being spoken of here is not a matter of information technology minus the information that it is designed to transmit. In other words, the generally technocratic approach of the White Paper does not grapple with the need to communicate and transmit research information in order to achieve maximum impact. It is as if a pipeline is being designed and developed without the provision of the water that will run through it. This carries through into later policy documents so that,startlingly, dissemination and research outputs appear only as a matter of mechanical counts: the number of reports, journal articles and other publications, and patents registered.

It has been left to the Department of Education (DoE), then – at least thus far – to articulate more detailed policy on research publication. The DoE focused on the creation of an overarching policy initiative for higher education reform in South Africa : the formation of the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in1994, which framed the discussion that ultimately led to the White Paper on Higher Education (1997) and the National Plan on Higher Education (NPHE) (2001). The policy-making process was characterised by wide-ranging discussion and debate, with an emphasis on consultation and transparency. Here, again, the framing discourse was developmental and the key issues were equity,diversity, redress and the creation of research strength.

Preliminary remarks in the NPHE on research and research dissemination sound encouraging: a strategic objective is ‘to promote the kinds of research and other knowledge outputs required to meet national development needs and which will enable the country to become competitive in a new global context’ (NPHE:60). The document complained of a lack of coherent policy on research outputs,promising policy development to address this issue. It raised the need to respond to the global transformation of knowledge dissemination through ICTs and talked of the need to build networks to fuel the growth of an innovation culture (NPHE:61). The problems identified are those of declining research publication output and the dominance of ageing white researchers as authors of publications.

When the Department of Education delivered the promised policy on research dissemination in 2003, in its Policy for Measurement of Research Output, it did pay lip service, in its preliminary comments, to the need ‘to sustain current research strengths and to promote research and other outputs required to meet national development needs’. However, the policy document then goes on to spell out a ‘publish or perish’ reward system that recognises and rewards peer reviewed publication in journals appearing in the ISI and IBSS indexes and a somewhat problematic list of locally-indexed journals, in part inherited from the apartheid era.Although peer reviewed books and conference proceedings accepted by an evaluation panel are also rewarded, they appear to have a lesser weighting in terms of financial rewards.

The wording of the policy insists on ‘originality’, rather than tackling the implications of the collaborative research approaches recommended in the research policy framework. The target audience of these publications is identified as ‘other specialists in the field’,therefore rewarding individual rather than collaborative effort and dissemination within the scholarly community rather than the wider dissemination that would be needed to deliver the development goals of the R&D and Innovation policy framework. In other words, the policies framing rewards for research publication remain firmly in a collegial tradition in which the purpose of scholarly communication is turned inwards into the academy. The system is related to personal advancement in academe and the prestige of scholars and institutions in the international rankings rather than grappling with what it might mean to couple this with gearing research dissemination towards broader social goals.

The fact that the DoE rewards the delivery of these publication targets with substantial financial grants means that the drive towards publication outputs in higher educational institutions focuses almost obsessively on the production of journal articles in accredited journals, with international journals carrying higher prestige than local journals. Given the ever-rising cost of commercial journals, over-stretched library budgets and a weak exchange rate, this can mean, particularly for the less well-resourced universities, that a good deal of South African research is not readily accessible to South African scholars, let alone the community at large.

Moreover, the long delay before publication, the outcome of the peer reviewing process and the way the journals are assembled means that journal information is all too often a matter of record – the history of an achievement rather than currently useful information.This is particularly the case in fast-changing technologies, but is no less the case in the human and social sciences, where the information being transmitted could often meet an urgent need, for example in dealing with the social impact of HIV AIDS, environmental crises, or with violence against women and children.

There are signs of hope that this impasse can be overcome. In there cent survey of scholarly publishing conducted by the Academy of Science of South Africa and commissioned by the DST, there is a clear commitment to boosting the quality and impact of local publication and to Open Access. South Africa is a signatory to the OECD Declaration on Access to Knowledge from Publicly Funded Research and this is tagged in the DST policy documentation as an area to bead dressed. I will write more on this in a subsequent posting.

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