GraySouth – a new version of my blog. Publishing development research in Africa

IMG_0131My blog has been offline for a while in the wake of problems with its domain name registration. Resolution of the problem involved changing the domain name, so the blog now starts a new phase of its life as GraySouth a name that  echoes my Twitter handle.

The last blog I posted on my Gray-Area blog site was on the neo-colonial underpinnings involved in the emergence of the current scholarly journal system in the wake of World War II, a story of the entrenchment of British nationalism and language hegemony delivered through the growth of commercial scholarly journal publishing. This ultimately led to massive expansion and consolidation of the journal business, leading to the domination of the market by five hugely profitable mega-corporations, able to hold higher education to ransom with ever-increasing subscriptions.

Underpinning the growth of commercial journals has also been, of course, an increasing adherence to a neoliberal commercial view of how the world works and what values should provide the foundations of a publishing system that supports and is supported by, big money. The talk in this context, when it comes to evaluating the success of the university system, is of ‘outputs’, which do not mean the variety of real outputs that universities produce in the process of teaching, research, social, developmental and creative contributions to society, but rather are a code for journal articles and patents that are perceived as contributing to global commerce. What is striking in the discussion of global rankings and journal prestige is how seldom this shorthand is recognised for what it is.

I was due to follow up with a blog on the rise of bibliometrics and their subsequent adoption as a somewhat imperfect way of judging the performance – and influencing the careers – of the authors of journal articles. Eugene Garfield, the creator of the system of metrics, developed a way of  evaluating the status of  the leading journals according to the number of times the articles in each issue of the journal had been cited annually two years after the publication of a particular volume. This was a useful way for librarians to sift the rapidly escalating numbers of journals in order to choose their subscription choices. What was more far-fetched – and not entirely approved of by Garfield – was a very flawed way of making these metrics reflect the prestige of individual authors.

One outcome of the progressive entrenchment of these metrics has been the creation of a captive market in which scholars compete to publish in the highest ranking journals, adapting their scholarship to the ‘international’ focus of these journals. Predictably, ‘international’ in this context meant alignment with the neo-colonial ambitions that underpinned the rise of the commercial journal empires – the English language and the interests of the North Atlantic allies that won the second world war. A vicious cycle resulted in which the journals became ever more powerful and bloated and scholars from countries like South Africa ever more ambitious to be published in these prestigious publications. Given that the system has traditionally depended on strict copyright control, this has essentially meant exporting our knowledge, just as we export our mineral wealth. This heritage of the British nationalist ambitions underpinning the postwar rise of the commercial journal system have thus become an obstacle to the current pressure in South Africa for the decolonization of our universities and for the production of research that supports national development goals. And yet, I suspect, it is not recognised as a key tool in the colonisation of our universities and of our knowledge production as well as a distorting factor in the profile of academic staff in the institution.

A vivid illustration of the impact that this thinking can have on the production of research is to be found in the recent ebola epidemic in West Africa that raged from 2014 to 2016. More than 28,000 people contracted the disease and 11,000 people died in this epidemic. A massive international effort was required to bring the epidemic under control and to limit the death toll even this much. Although the disease had been known since 1976, little research appears to have been done on vaccines or cures until the 2014-16 outbreak, which incidentally also affected a handful of Western medical workers. As the WHO reported in 2016:

There is as yet no proven treatment available for EVD. However, a range of potential treatments including blood products, immune therapies and drug therapies are currently being evaluated. No licensed vaccines are available yet, but 2 potential vaccines are undergoing human safety testing.

It is hard to imagine a situation in which a disease this deadly affected the US or Europe and yet little or no research had been done on it close on 50 years later, leaving the countries concerned vulnerable to a major epidemic. It is not just a matter of African countries having impoverished research systems, lacking the means to tackle expensive and high level biomedial research, but of a lack of will in the university system to take a truly global view of research imperatives. This in undoubtedly made worse by the willingness of developing country governments and their universities to chase ‘global’ prestige and rankings through publication in highly ranked journals that have achieved these rankings by sidelining research from the two-thirds of the world that does not count as global. South Africa is surely the country with the most capacity to take on such a task, but it has also been – at least at the national policy level – also the country most hooked on ‘global’ prestige

Many of the posts that I have written have dealt in one way or another with these issues of the politics of the dominant journal publishing system and the impact of the j0urnal fetish (for the sake of prestige and promotions) on the more complex ambitions of a research system like South Africa. The focus of my blog has been in good part on the publication of what it being marginalised – research that is concerned with the most immediate issues that face the country – of local imperatives, and of  local perspectives on global issues, such as climate change, agricultural development, poverty alleviation. And in particular, what communication modes are being used – and are needed – to communicate such research. Inextricably linked to this agenda is the need to revise the way in which researchers and their research are evaluated and what ‘outputs’ (which are also inputs in this world of national and community imperatives)  are being valued. And essential to this focus is how open copyright licensing – open access to publications on a wider scale than just journals – can increase both access to knowledge from the rest of the world and the participation of our scholars in the global dialogue. At the heart of this kind of publishing is collaboration in the interests of greater effectiveness and real impact.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the obsession with journals, now bolstered by the growth of digital journals and open access publication, has obstructed the potential for radical new models of scholarly publication and dissemination. We are stuck in an online simulacrum of a 17th century publishing model, updated in the mid-20th century.

Looking forward, I see signs that there is a renewed interest internationally and also in South African research policy in the production of research for Sustainable Development Goals, for research aligned with national and local imperatives, for greater attention paid to communities and their knowledge. Whereas European countries might measure this in terms of the journal articles published on such issues, South Africa has long had a more complex, yet under-recognised, approach to publishing development research outputs – not just ‘applied research’ and ‘grey literature’ but a more sophisticated mix of high level and rigorous research and carefully targeted publication outputs. This needs more extensive exploration and support and better alignment with the core research values of the institutions.

Photo: Eve Gray CC-BY


Leave a Reply

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