Research Publication Policy in South Africa

I have now completed my year as an International Policy Fellow of the Open Society Institute (Budapest) and the Policy Paper resulting from the year’s investigation, Achieving Research Impact for Development: A Critique of Research Dissemination Policy in South Africa , is now available on my IPF website. I hope that this detailed evaluation of South African research policy and the recommendations for policy change will trigger debate among South African academics. Here is the Abstract, which outlines some of the paper’s findings:

This paper reviews the policy context for research publication in South Africa, using South Africa’s relatively privileged status as an African country and its elaborated research policy environment as a testing ground for what might be achieved – or what needs to be avoided – in other African countries. The policy review takes place
against the background of a global scholarly publishing system in which African knowledge is seriously marginalised and is poorly represented in global scholarly output. Scholarly publishing policies that drive the dissemination of African research into international journals that are not accessible in developing countries because of their high cost, effectively inhibit the ability of relevant research to impact on the overwhelming development challenges that face the continent.

In this study, South African research policy is tracked against the changing context provided by digital communication technologies and new dissemination models, particularly Open Access. These impact not only on publication but also on the way that research is carried out and they bring with them a growing recognition
of the value, particularly for developing countries, of non-market and non-proprietary production in delivering research impact. The paper thus pays particular attention to the potential for new technologies and new publishing models in helping to overcome the global knowledge divide and in offering solutions for what might at first sight appear to be intractable problems of under-resourcing and a lack of sustainability for African research publication.

The argument of the paper is that there is, in the formulation of research policy, a largely uncharted clash between South African national research and innovation policies focused on development and access on the one side, and the traditionally-accepted model of academic publishing on the other. The traditional publishing model has, as its core value, enhancement of the reputation of the individual scholar and his or her institution. In following this model, South Africa is typical: there is a signal failure of research policy to focus on the question of
the swift dissemination of research results, through Open Access publishing, especially to places where these results could have a useful impact – caused by a set of largely unexamined assumptions about academic publishing. It is in the developing world, and perhaps most markedly in Africa, that the negative effect of this
set of contradictions is demonstrated most clearly.

The paper charts a set of conflicting expectations of academic institutions and their values in research policies. On the one hand, the government has an expectation of social and development impact from the university in return for its investment in research funding. At the same time, there are increased pressures towards privatisation of the universities, with a decline in traditional financial support from the state and, linked to this,
pressure on the university to demonstrate results in the form of greater Intellectual Property Rights enclosure. Thus, while South African research and innovation policies stress the need for development impact, performance measures focus on patents or publication in internationally-indexed journals, effectively inhibiting the effective
dissemination of research and thus greatly retarding its potential development impact.

The paper makes recommendations at international, national and institutional levels for addressing this situation, arguing that Open Access and collaborative approaches could bring substantially increased impact for African research, with marked cost-benefit advantages.

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