‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Thomson Reuters’ myopic vision of African research capacity

T S Eliot’s damning metaphor for the narrowness of social conventions came to mind when I read Thomson Reuters’ Global Research Report Africa, ostensibly a report on the state of African research, but in fact a very limited analysis based solely on the performance of African countries in the Thomson Reuters ISI journal indexes. I was alerted to this report by University World News, which has now published two totally uncritical articles on Thomson Reuters’ ‘global’ analysis of African research.
This is insidious stuff. The Global Research Report Africa is indeed measuring out the lives of African researchers in coffee spoons, basing itself on an unproblematized assumption that the number of journal articles published and citation analysis of these articles can be an adequate measure (let alone the only measure) of the state of national research systems in Africa. It uses scientific-sounding language to equate these ‘outputs’ – ISI-listed journal articles – with research capacity and then in turn equate this measure with the potential for improved global economic performance for African countries.
The intent of this this report is pretty clear. The report starts off with an explicit statement: it is designed ‘to inform policymakers and others about the landscape and dynamics of the global research base’. Although its concluding remarks have a modest disclaimer, that ‘it would be inappropriate to suggest that the preliminary analysis in this report can provide a clear direction’, nevertheless the intent is again made clear – to ‘help provide a further context to that set by the OECD’s economic reports, while also furnishing background against which to view the pertinent regional dispatches in the UNESCO Science report 2010…’ We should not forget either that the criteria and analysis for the Times Higher Education university rankings are now to be managed by Thomson Reuters. Is the company positioning itself even more strongly as the sole arbiter of scholarly excellence and the sole source of data for the measurement of research development?
While the sweep of the contextualising information in the report about the complexity of Africa and the challenges hints at a wide-ranging engagement with the issues, the narrow focus of the data that underpins the analysis of research performance is wrapped in obfuscating language that hides the reality – that what we are talking about is a list of journals selected by one commercial company, with little transparency either in the selection process nor in the criteria used in citation analysis.
Worse, the journal indexes that underpin this data analysis are notorious for their bias towards the ‘global’ science of North America and Europe and the consignment of Africa and other developing regions to the periphery. Just one recent example: in a scathing critique by Zoe Corbyn of the hegemony of the big journals, published in the Times Higher Education Review, Corbyn quotes Nobel prize winner Sir John Sulston describing the journal citation system as ‘the disease of our times’. In the same article, Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, is cited as describing how, if he chose to publish African authors in the Lancet, this might reduce the citation impact of his journal in indexes like the ISI. The most cited articles in medical journals, he argued, are studies of randomized trials from rich countries and if he published African authors on burning African issues, these articles would score fewer citations:

The incentive for me is to cut off completely parts of the world that have the biggest health challenges … citations create a racist culture in journals’ decision-making and embody a system that is only about us (in the developed world).

This forms part of a rising tide of criticism that recognizes that the indexing systems that underpin competitive rankings of scholars and scholarly systems, with their claims of ‘universal’ excellence are neither universal nor some kind of natural good. They are, rather, the product of a closed system, with its own rules of the game, dominated by a commercial company that depends upon the control of intellectual property.
This is also an environment with a set of values and interlinking hierarchies, not always acknowledged by the universities that participate in the system, that identifies knowledge that is relevant to the global North as ‘universal’; ranks developmental and applied research below basic research (ignoring that the two can be co-terminous); and perceives the public good as best achieved through commercialization via intellectual property protection and patenting rights for the commercial exploitation of scholarly publication.
The easy assumptions lying behind the Global Research Report Africa therefore have to be set – as just one example – against the World Health Organisation’s prolongued and intensive debates about the reform of global approaches to dealing with neglected diseases in the developing world. The WHO’s Strategy and Plan of Action for Public Health and Neglected Diseases proposes a more collaborative and less IP-driven approach to dealing with many of the health crises in the developing world.
The South African Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, seems aware of these issues, acknowledging the limitations of the focus on journal citations that underpins much African policy development. As he said in a speech at the University of Johannesburg in 2009:

Our universities, in particular, should be directing their research focus to address the development and social needs of our communities. The impact of their research should be measured by how much difference it makes to the needs of our communities, rather than by just how many international citations researchers receive in their publications. Therefore, in awarding excellence in research due consideration should be given to how much change has happened as a result of research from our institutions of higher learning, including improving the living conditions of the majority of our people…

In fact, a number of African universities, research councils and research centres have, for some time, produced online research and technical reports, policy papers and community-focused resources that are targeted at achieving development impact in fields such as agriculture, poverty relief, public health and community law. However, what tends to happen at government and institutional level is that, when it comes to policy for scholarly publishing, this wider range of communication outputs is sidelined in favour of the pursuit of citation metrics for articles published in international journals as the single measure of successful performance. This appears to be a catch-22 situation. While regional and national policy demands that the universities contribute through their research to social and economic upliftment – and universities are often criticised if they fail to achieve this goal – the publications that would be the most effective means of mediating research results for development impact are disregarded.
This narrow view of what constitutes valid research output ignores the expanded horizon of scholarly communication in the 21st century. It also ignores the potential for expanded conceptions of research communications, in a networked digital world, to address social and development needs, in ways that traditional and formal publication genres have not been able to do. This potential is being recognised in the increasing attention being paid to national and international policies for access to research, and by the adoption of open access licences, and expanded and open research publication programmes, by leading international universities such as Harvard, Stanford, California and MIT. Catherine Candee, of the University of California, discussing the university’s research publication strategy, ses this as an essential component of a university’s role in a digital world:

In the digital realm, there is no reason to plan to enhance scholar to scholar communication without considering how to improve the knowledge, the creation and scientific output of the university to the public. This is not just for the individual public interest and good – universities must aim to meet the challenges of modern society. How better than to ensure that we have an adequate publication and communication system?

Given Minister Nzimande’s awareness of these issues, could we hope for a revision of national policy that would balance – or supplement – the South African government’s reward system for journal publication with a wider-ranging recognition of the potential that would be provided by the encouragement of a broader-ranging communicative environment in our universities and open access to the range of research outputs produced by South African researchers. Then in turn, we need to create, as he suggests a way of measuring the contribution universities really make to improving the living conditions of people in Africa and rewarding them accordingly.

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  1. Pingback: Highlights from BioMed Central’s Open Access Africa 2010 can now be viewed online « Kenya Library & Info. Services Consortium Blog

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