Publishing and perishing in Africa

I was given pause for thought last week when, in a University of Cape Town Centre for Higher Education Development seminar on research ethics, Kevin Williams, of the Higher and Adult Education and Development Unit (HEASDU) mentioned that some of his respondents to an investigation of the ethics involved in higher education practitioner research had expressed doubts about the real intentions of researchers interviewing them. Were these researchers really interested in the importance of the research they were conducting, or was their main concern to get material that could be worked into journal articles and chapters in books, for promotion purposes? This might have been something of an aside in Kevin’s talk, but it struck a chord and made me think that there might indeed be an ethical dimension in our obsession with journal article counts and accredited publications.

I have had the question in mind as I have scanned a number of recent publications on the renewal of higher education in Africa and have noted with concern the persistence of the use of counts of journal articles published in ISI journals as the standard and sometimes the only measure for the status of African research in the world. In other words, in a continent in which the goal of public investment in research is explicitly to contribute to national growth and development, the measure of success all too often applied is the production of a lot of journal articles in foreign publications targeted at other scholars in the field. This is hardly a metric that is going to tell us anything about what our scholars are really contributing to the resolution of the considerable problems that challenge the continent.

The surge of  interest in African higher education is in good part owing to the publication by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) of a series of reports on the state of higher education in the SADC region, summarised in Towards a Common Future: Higher Education in the SADC Region. Drawing in part from this, Sci-Dev.net has published a series of articles on developments in African higher education. And the World Bank, backtracking from its damaging dismissal of higher education as a funding priority in the 1980s, in 2008 published Accelerating Catch-up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa1.

The message in all of these reports has a not very equal measure of good and bad news. The good news is that there is a concerted effort to turn around the deficits in African higher education, damaged by 20 years of funding neglect, on top of a poor colonial inheritance.

The bad news is that African higher education remains in poor shape, in need of radical infusions of funding and visionary planning. It is all too easy to forget that when the wave of independence rolled across Africa from the 1960s, there were very few universities outside of South Africa, and as  universities were rapidly developed in newly independent countries, these were based on the colonial model, designed to produce a governing and professional elite and to reinforce what were accepted as ‘international’ values.

This is only one of the reasons why I am concerned with the insistence on ISI journal article counts as the measure of research excellence. This is par excellence a colonial measure, designed to value research according to how it conforms to criteria set by a commercial conglomerate in the metropolis/the USA to define what is ‘mainstream’.  Africa, on the other hand, is about as far off in the periphery as one can get and, not unpredictably, does not score well in this index. What is often ignored that is that the value system that underpins this particular measure is competitiveness of universities and individual scholars  in the the not very level playing field of the global knowledge economy, where commercial enterprise and copyrights and patents are seen as the ways to make a difference.

There is no doubt that as long as this remains an accepted standard of excellence by the most powerful players in the global scholarly community, African scholars will have to go on playing this game. And this is an ethical issue. As Obama calls for shared values and the power of ideals over cynicism, power politics and greed, perhaps the way in which Africa can say ‘Yes we can!’ is in learning to value the knowledge it produces by its own standards. In those SADC countries in which 89% of scholars responded that their research interests coincided with national development targets, how can we develop measures for ‘Africa’s share of world science’ that measure this rather than participation in someone else’s science endeavours?

How can we re-cast the idea of what is ‘international’ – as Paul Zeleza has said, how do we learn to globalise our research and localise US research? Most importantly, how do we revalue the hierachies of ‘applied’ and ‘basic’ research to develop ways of valuing what we in Africa are really good at: high level and high quality research that responds to and learns from society? How do we get support for the more effective and more extensive production of research outputs that  this kind of research is already producing and that demonstrate genuine contributions to national and regional development?

What is certain is that if African universities were to provide open access for the considerable volume of publications already posted online by development research units and ensure that these are easliy accessible, this in itself could boost the contribution of African universities to development goals.

1. I am not including the url to the World Bank publication, by the way, because of its confused approach to its intellectual property rights management. I would have thought that the World Bank would want its African readership, in particular, to read this publication. But, although it exists as an e-book, that version is ‘available to subscribers only’. Otherwise you can buy it in print. Does the World Bank really want to make money from African countries by selling its publications, or restrict access to a text that is readily available in PDF format and costs nothing to distribute? The e-book is copyrighted with an ‘all rights reserved’ licence, that nevertheless states that ‘[t]he International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank encourages dissemination of its work and will normally grant permission to reproduce portions of the work promptly.’  Which being translated means that you need to apply  to the US Copyright Clearance Centre for permission to photocopy or reprint ‘any part of this work’.  You have to either write a letter or telephone – no email address available. Could someone please send an ambassador to the World Bank publisher to explain how Creative Commons licences work?

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