The State of the Nation 3: Journal publishing in South Africa – the green or gold route in the country of gold?

Quite a spat has broken out in open Access circles about whether it would be better to take the ‘green route’ to open access mandating open repositories, or more effective to go for the ‘gold route’ of developing open access journals. Stevan Harnad was infuriated by Jan Velterop’s statement that ‘the “cure” of open access publishing is to be preferred to the “palliative” of self-archiving’ and has written an angry reponse. I have followed with interest the preceding, more considered, debate in Velterop’s blog, The Parachute and Harnad’s Open Access Archivangelism, because I am, like Velterop, a publisher by background and appreciate his intelligent ability to balance the need for access and the realities of publishing and because I admire Harnad’s intellect and passion for the cause of Open Access.

The debate made me step back and rethink my approach to green and gold (the colours of our national sports teams, by the way) in this major gold-producing country. The ‘green’ route seems to have become the accepted orthodoxy as was evidenced n the Bangalore workshop late last year, which produced the Bangalore Open Access Policy for Developing Nations. This makes sense, as it is quick and easy way of providing access to scholarship published in international journals that is otherwise often inaccessible in its country of origin. This means a win-win for the universities that push for publication in accredited journals for the sake of personal and institutional prestige. I have noted that there is also a considerable emphasis among the funding agencies on the need for repositories as the first and best way of providing access to developing country research.

However, the debate between Harnad and Velterop has made me think that, when it comes to the very particular case of Africa, should we not make the growth of open access journals our first priority? In a perverse way, Africa’s potential to leap the technology divide and adopt more radical transformational of scholarly dissemination could be helped by its very low profile in the existing publishing systems. In a world in which the use of ICTs is drastically altering modes of knowledge dissemination, and in which scholarly publishing looks to be thoroughly shaken up, there is a paradoxical advantage in the marginalisation of African scholarly publishing. This is due to the fact that Africa has a very limited investment in the traditional print-based scholarly publication system and this frees policy-makers to engage with new trends in ways that their more privileged counterparts min the North may be constrained from doing.

The recent lobbying efforts of the large journal publishers against open access policy initiatives in the USA, UK and Europe are evidence of the conservative power of entrenched commercial interests. (Richard Poynder analyses the impact of this phenomenon in the EU in an interesting and provocative blog, not to be missed – Open Access: the War in Europe.) The vested interests that are at stake are substantial: for example the EU Communication on its proposed Open Access policy estimates that, of the 2,000 scientific publishing houses globally, nearly 800 are based in Europe, publishing close to 50% of research articles worldwide. These scientific publishers employ 36,000 people in the EU plus 10,000 freelancers. This is a constituency that cannot be ignored by governments in those countries with substantial scientific publishing industries.

In the same way, in northern countries where the majority of scholarly output is channelled through the dominant journal system, there is a backward drag on the transition to open access journals (the ‘gold route’ to open access). In a transitional period it could well be that institutions will land up paying twice, supporting open access publication, yet still having to maintain subscriptions to toll-access journals. As a result, the conventional wisdom in open access circles seems to be that the most reliable way to create access to research knowledge, in the first instance, is to mandate deposit in open access repositories. This is what Stevan Harnad argues.

I would suggest that this is not necessarily the case in Africa, where scholarly publishing is under-developed and, moreover, is clearly marginalised and disadvantaged by the global systems for the ranking of scholarship. South Africa is by far and away the highest-profile African country represented in the ISI system both in terms of the number of South African journals listed in the ISI and the number of articles published in ISI journals. According to the important Report on a Strategic Approach to Scholarly Publishing in South Africa by the Academy of Science of South Africa, commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology and published last year, 57% of South African journal articles published in ISI and locally-accredited journals between 1990 and 2002 appeared in in South African journals and 43% in international journals. Only 15% of the articles published appeared in South-African journals that are also listed in the ISI indexes (ASSAf 2006; 33). In other words, there are very few journals accredited in the international rating system, although a fair percentage of journal articles do get published overseas.

African countries do tend to focus their research publication policies on the need to get exposure in overseas indexed journals, for the sake of raising the international profile of African research. While this is happening, the majority of African print-based journals lead a hand-to-mouth existence, using voluntary editorial labour and with low subscription levels.

In particular, these publications, in common with African scholarly output in general, struggle to reach beyond national borders. As an ex-university press publisher, I am only too aware of the resistance of USA and UK libraries to taking publications from African publishers. This leads me to wonder if the creation of repositories alone is going to be enough to drive greater recognition of African scholarship. The HSRC Press, with its open access monograph publication programme, has demonstrated the importance of aggressive marketing to get local and international attention. In other words, publishing activities are needed.

Print runs for South African print-based journals are low: 54% of South African journals have print runs of below 500 and only around 20% have print runs of over 1,000, according to the ASSAf survey. Even the relatively well-resourced South African journals (at least by African standards) have had little success in achieving satisfactory levels of international subscriptions for their print editions. According to the ASSAf survey, 45% of South-African published journals had fewer than 25 international institutional subscriptions and only 6.2% have more than 200 international subscribers.

Given these leavels of international exposure, there is an obvious advantage in the increased and uninhibited reach of open access electronic delivery and it is interesting to note that there is already a high percentage of journals (about 70%) that already offer electronic access.

In these circumstances, the report argues, it is not surprising that government policy in South Africa appears to favour the growth of South African publications relative to publication in international journals.

The authors of the ASSAf report comment that South African policy-makers would tend to support policies that foster the growth of locally-produced journals and particularly, policies that would grow the percentage of journals that are both South African and on the international indexes.

It is also likely that such policy initiatives in South Africa would support open access publication. The South African government is committed to open systems and has recently adopted an open source software policy for government departments, according to a recent report in Business Day newspaper. The Academy of Science Report endorses open access journal publication (Recommendation no. 6) as the way forward and the Department of Science and Technology appears to endorse this recommendation.

Bearing in mind that South Africa has only 23 journals listed in the ISI indexes(most African countries have none and Kenya and Ethiopia have one each), it becomes clear that the African continent as a whole is hardly at all invested in the global scholarly publishing system. Add to that the fact that journals are not necessarily the best vehicle to disseminate African research effectively for development purposes and it would seem that Africa has real potential to leapfrog technological gaps using the ‘gold’ route – in fact this might be an imperative rather than an option.

When it comes to a choice between the ‘green’ and ‘gold’ routes to open access, one also needs to bear in mind the scale of things one is talking about. If South Africa were to adopt a policy to deposit pre-or post-prints of all journal articles published in foreign journals in the ISI indexes, this would represent, at current publication rates, around 3,500 articles a year – hardly an insurmountable task. So perhaps we could be greedy and go for both the green and gold routes for journal articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *