Category Archives: Scholarly Publishing

A Neo-Colonial Enterprise – Robert Maxwell and the Rise of the 20th Century Scholarly Journal

4980421657_5278242c15_zHow to become a Professor

In one of the many discussion forums on the decolonization of the university held between academics and students in South Africa over the last months, a report of the following – apparently trivial – exchange struck me forcibly. The context was a discussion about the persistence of neo-colonial concepts of  university curriculum and research, and the sense of alienation experienced by many students in the face of distortions caused by this bias in institutional culture.

The exchange went like this: a student asked university staff members how, post-doctorate, a lecturer comes to be promoted to professor. There was a short silence, then the replies came in: ‘It takes time’ … ‘You publish journal articles’ …. “articles in international journals’. Murmurs of approbation. Then another voice concurred and yet another, after a pause, said, “You also need to get a high rating from the National Research Foundation” (which of course also depends to a good extent on the volume of journal articles produced by the candidate and the ranking of the journals concerned). Only then did someone talk about more complex issues of performance in the exercise of teaching and learning and public engagement, as well as administrative and managerial duties. And then the discussion moved on.

It would thus appear that the default perception, in the eyes of South African academics at one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities, is that academic promotions depend primarily – or almost entirely – on publication in [international] journals. In other words, promotion, prestige and publication are intimately linked and only one form of publication output really appears to count – the journal article. In addition, the hierarchy of values places ‘international’ over ‘local’, relegating issues of national concern, however urgent, to a secondary position, behind the lofty aspirations of becoming ‘international’.

The question is how something as esoteric and obscure (in the eyes of outsiders) as publishing journal articles could play such a central role in promotions and in university rankings and prestige. And also how the emphasis on international publication (meaning publication in journals in the US and UK/Europe) lines up with the development imperatives that provide such challenges for South Africa in its local context.

In all the issues that have arisen around questions of the decolonization of universities, this is probably the most ignored in public discussion. Yet I would argue that this competitive race for publication in prestigious overseas journals that is evident in South African academic promotions is a very powerful factor in entrenching the dominance of the research concerns of the North Atlantic powers and of the English language as the medium of communication for scholarly publication worldwide. Through the conjuncture of these two driving forces – the dominant power and its language – the persistence of neo-colonial hierarchies and values is entrenched, in a very familiar paradigm.

This blog – the first in a series exploring the role of scholarly publication – seeks to provide some insight into the historical origins of this rather extraordinary publication and ranking system by looking first of all at the genesis of the current journal system, a 20th century post-war development that – anachronistically – lingers on to this day. It is in political aspirations and the business models that emerged in the wake of the Second World War that one finds the mechanisms that tied journal development to the English speaking North Atlantic allies and turned journals into big business, entrenching neo-liberal economic thinking into the supposedly esoteric sphere of scholarly publication.

The rise of the 20th century journal system and the origins of its values

This situation can be most readily understood by looking at the genesis of the current journal system, in mid-20th century post-war developments – and not, as many would like to think, in a proud collaborative yet competitive scholarly tradition forged in 17th century London, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, first published in 1665 [1] . Scholars often hark back, when they justify the preeminence of journals, to the idealised and disinterested aims of this original establishment of what became the journal system in the English-speaking world. As the Introduction to the first issue of Transactions expressed it, this was an exercise in collaborative knowledge sharing for the sake of the growth of scientific knowledge, admittedly with an element of national aggrandizement included. The aim was ‘All for the Glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind’.

The tradition of Transactions, so often invoked in relation to the modern journal corporations, identifying the business as an altruistic contribution to knowledge. However, there have turned out to be at least two traps in these aspirations that are at odds with the realities of the current journal regime and render any comparison with current journals largely false.

One finds the motivation for the new publishing business models that emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s in national aspirations for strategic control of the fruits of new scientific knowledge for the purposes of national dominance and economic development.  This link with national aspirations embedded a commercial ethos in this supposedly esoteric sphere, entrenched the English language as the language of science, and the English-speaking North Atlantic allies as the leading powers.

The modern journal system is built upon the expansion, in the wake of World War I, of  research that fed into national-level coordination of scientific research for strategic and business purposes. Telecommunications, military technology, aeronautics and transport, nuclear physics, early emerging digital technology, had grown and contributed to nationwide big business between the wars, expanded even further during World War II, and were key in ensuring the victory of the Allies. These intellectual developments had become the focus of considerable debate about research and commercialization and the role of intellectual property in driving big business. They promised substantial economic growth in peacetime but also – critically – the enhancement of national and international strategic political and military power and status.

The commercialization of the journal publishing industry postwar was a direct outcome of these developments, increasing the ability of the victorious allies to exploit the expanded role of scientific research and its strategic and commercial potential and to harness this to their national interests and regional ambitions.

A matter of language dominance and regional power

The world of modern journals is thus built on the scientific-military-economic power of the victorious Allies in World War II.  It is in their postwar political aspirations emerging in the late 1940s and the 1950s that one finds the mechanisms that embedded a big-business ethos in the supposedly esoteric sphere of journal publishing. This entrenched the dominance of the English language as the language of science, and the English-speaking North Atlantic allies as the leading powers in this scientific world. In the universities, this has also translated into a highly competitive culture, in which scholars’ prestige and status and that of their universities depends upon publication of high-impact findings in the right journals. It is backed by an ethos that draws on postwar English language nationalism and North Atlantic commercial power, with the role of research publication being to forge a link between the two.

In this period, African countries were of course still colonies and their research interests – if there were any in a continent in which many countries in this period did not have any universities – would have been subsumed into those of the dominant powers rather than having any identity of their own. The imposition of the English language and the prioritization of the interests of the major powers are at the heart of the colonial enterprise.While there has been discussion of the English language as a vehicle of colonial dominance in university education in the course of debates about the decolonisation of South African universities, there has not been much recognition of the key role that journals have played in this regard.

The result of these postwar developments has been to effectively sideline research from the developing world, to this day. It is research from the North Atlantic that merits the label of ‘international’, or ‘global’, the interests of developing country research relegated to the status of ‘local’. ‘Visibility’ means being published in an ‘international’ journal, as does promotional potential.

Robert Maxwell and the 20th century commercial journal system

I will track the development of this system through the story of Robert Maxwell’s career in building up journal publication as a large-scale and ultimately very profitable business after his death.  He was not the only new-minted journal publishing magnate in the period, but certainly one of the more colourful.  Best known as the media mogul owner of the UK Daily Mirror, a member of Parliament, a larger than life character, rumoured by some to have been an international double (or treble) agent, he died after falling off his yacht in obscure circumstances, a mystery not resolved to this day, although the dominant theory is that it was suicide in the wake of serious accumulated debts.

Maxwell was not the only player in the postwar regeneration of scholarly publishing, but he was central, his links with British government are telling, and his strategic thinking carried weight and his story is illustrative. What this side of Robert Maxwell’s turbulent history does reveal very vividly is how the development of the political economy of this publishing sector post-war, driven by the British as a strategic national enterprise, entrenched the English language as the dominant medium and the principal English-speaking Allies who won the war as the dominant powers whose views and ideologies would inform the sector. Their potential national advantage was built into the journal system as a central target at a time of intense language nationalism.

Before the war German was a dominant language in global science and the country was a major force in scientific discovery. When Robert Maxwell emerged on the scene, immediately post-war, German publishers, who had been hit hard by the war, saw their content scattered, their publications expropriated and reproduced outside of the country without payment (Henderson 68-9). At the same time the war had consolidated the prewar understanding that research knowledge, and particularly technological research, was an economic force that would be of vital strategic importance in the reconstruction of postwar commerce and political power.

Maxwell, from a background of poverty what is now Czechoslovakia, fought for the Allies in Europe,  and after the war – by then a decorated war hero – landed up working in the British Zone in Germany for the British Information Services. The British recognized the value of German scientific publications in the prevailing context, given that prewar German was probably the dominant language of scholarship. They saw the opportunity that this could offer the UK, with German science on its knees, content scattered and publishing materials difficult to access and lacking distribution networks.

The British government had in 1946 established a committee to review the creation of a scientific publishing house in the UK and Butterworth was chosen for this role, implementing it in 1949 in collaboration with Springer and with a former Springer editor joining this new venture (Miranda, p.79). At the same time, Maxwell, recognising the potential of German information,  approached Springer Verlag with an offer to market their publications outside of Germany. Given his connection with the British Information Services, he was in a position to help the company with essential supplies and find ways through bureaucratic obstructions in complicated times.

From this base, Maxwell moved to the UK with the scholarly resources that he had secured from Springer and other German publishers, to set up an international marketing company for scientific publications. The content that Maxwell was able to release, after the blockages caused by the war, was voluminous. This led to Maxwell joining the newly created Butterworth-Springer venture as a manager in 1949 and then in 1951 buying the company out as a joint venture and renaming it Pergamon Press, with its headquarters in an historic estate on the outskirts of Oxford, Headington Hall (Cox 1998; p.135 Henderson 2004, p.67, Miranda, p.79), a visual embodiment of his new-found respectability and the ambitions of his journal business.

What is also clear from the history of this venture is the extent to which it was connected, directly and indirectly, to British national strategic ambitions.

Maxwell, with his shrewd business brain and mercurial temperament, was able to leverage the business and marketing skills that he had acquired in the course of his wartime career and build them into a commercial enterprise that was a long way from the gentlemen publishers in learned society journals that dominated the British academic publishing scene at that stage. In this process, Maxwell moved on from what was a conservative focus on traditional subject areas in the current journal businesses, an unwillingness to embrace emerging research areas, and a reliance on society membership as readers (Cox, Henderson). Instead, he collared papers on the emerging field of atomic energy, bought up translation rights in Soviet and Chinese journals, and, most important, supported the creation of large numbers of new journals in emerging subject areas. Many of the journals that were created were called ‘The International Journal of….”, signaling the expansive global ambitions of the enterprise[2].

What had happened was that journal publishing had been professionalized and made more business-focused and more responsive to the needs of editors and authors, as well as the needs of the market in the university sector and at the national level. Maxwell had created a commercial publishing model with strong marketing and production values, responsiveness to technological developments, recognition of the importance of data management and a strong vision of strategic directions in scholarship. It was also a business that he had made very responsive to the needs and aspirations of its editors and authors, unlike many of its scholarly society predecessors (Henderson).

Most importantly, with its new-found efficiency and commercial status, this rapidly growing journal business could become a strategic tool for the enhancement of the economic power of knowledge and prestige in the two dominant English-speaking allies in the aftermath of the war. Knowledge in this post-war world was power – represented symbolically in the dramatic pictures of the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima – and that power was ‘metropolitan’ and built on the economic potential of research as a driving force of 20th century capitalism, with copyright protection and patenting an important component of national and international business growth.

Consolidation and capture

After considerable expansion, but a turbulent financial history, Robert Maxwell sold his journal empire to Elsevier for $770 million in 1991, probably to help fund his newspaper investments. By this time the company had launched some 700 journals and was publishing thousands of reference works and scholarly books.

After Maxwell’s death, the consolidation of large companies increased, so that now there are essentially five huge and exceedingly profitable journal companies that dominate the scholarly publishing environment – Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor and Francis and Sage – with large commercial journal publishing now one of the most profitable businesses in the world.

What remains very much in place, is the focus of the journal system the English language, and on the interests of the UK and US. The journal retains its print-based format, in spite of digitization and remains a neo-colonial business, one that has to be played by the rules of the major powers, while the interests of the countries that were still colonies when this business model was conceived remain at the margins. And yet this is the system that dominates reward and promotion systems in our universities, without much attention being paid to the disconnect with the a now much changed digital and political environment, as we shall see in discussion of Eugene Garfield’s development of metrics and citation impact systems, in the next blog.

[1] Transactions is now accessible online, with all issues available.

[2 Ironically the Open Access -hating Jeremy Beall has these days identified as the main give-away that a new Open Access  journal is ‘predatory’ the naming of a number of journals the ‘International Journal of….’ -plus the fact that the journals are based not in England but from Africa or Asia.

Photo: Barry Silver

CC Attribution 2.0



Brian Cox, The Pergamon phenomenon 1951-1991. Logos: the Journal of the World Book Community 9 (3) 1998, 135-140.

Albert Henderson, The dash and determination of Robert Maxwell, champion of dissemination.         Logos: the Journal of the World Book Community 15 (2) 2004, 65-75.

Achille Mbembe, Decolonising Knowledge and the Question of the Archive:  

Robert N Miranda, Robert Maxwell: Forty-four Years as Publisher. In E. H. Friedriksonn (Ed): A Century of Science Publishing, pp. 77-89. IOS Press 2001

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New. Basic Books, New York, 2009.

An Elsevier African Megajournal Proposal Re-colonizing the university in Africa?

17496189016_fe7a3ed029_z-1In 2015, South African universities saw widespread student protests against a neocolonial heritage at universities that stood accused of a lack of post-apartheid transformation in institutional ethos, curriculum, and racial demographics. Operating under a number of hashtags, such as #RhodesMustFall, #DecoloniseTheUniversity and #FeesMustFall, the one issue that no-one seemed to speak about was the influence of the scholarly publishing system, which has a strong influence on faculty reward and promotion  systems., entrenching many of the trends that students were protesting against. A series of blogs will explore the political economy of scholarly publishing and the role of Open Access in South Africa at a crucial time in its university history.

Elsevier has recently rattled the rather glum view of the prospects of African journal publishing with what looks like a major intervention – a proposal to explore the potential for the development of an African megajournal. Could this mean that Africa – which until recently has hardly been on the radar of the big international journal publishers – has something to offer this large and hard-nosed multinational academic journal publisher? Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the imapact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?

It is perhaps a sad commentary on perceptions of the African continent that when a big corporation targets Africa as a new market, as Elsevier appears to be doing with this proposal, one of the first questions that can be asked is, ‘Does this mean that Elsevier’s business model is under threat?’  Given that the European Union, for example, is aiming for mandating full Open access to research by 2020 – with no embargoes, and affordably – and given also that governments like the Dutch government have been engaged at national level in hard negotiations with Elsevier to reduce subscription costs at a national level, it is quite possible that the commercial publishers are indeed worrying about the future of their current very high profit business model.

This is not without it ironies, however, as these developments have also come at a time when some major OA advocates are arguing that the current vision of OA is failing, a victim of its own tendency to over-zealousness and and lack of strategy and its capture by multinational journal publishers in the wake of the adoption of  ‘gold’ open access journals funded by Article Processing Charges (APCs). The field is thus very uncertain indeed.

From the publishers’ side, it is very telling that Elsevier has recently acquired SSRN, the social sciences open access collaborative platform, after buying Mendeley some years ago. The most probable motivation behind these purchases would seem to be a strategic vision of the power to leverage open data in a networked research environment in which data analysis has become a powerful strategic research tool. Controlling large data sources is likely to become a very powerful base for a commercial company that wants to provide metrics as a core competence, as Elsevier already does through Science Direct.

The main problems for African research publishing up until now have been interconnected: a general lack of interest on the part of African governments in funding or supporting scholarly publishing activities; and exclusion from the mainstream of prestigious international scholarly journal publishing, with African journals and their content being regarded as of ‘local’ interest only, with very few of them qualifying for the citation indexes. So for research institutions to be courted by Elsevier might prove very seductive, offering as it does the potential for the ‘international’ cachet of association with a big name in global scholarly publishing.

What has happened is that group of research institutions – the African Academy of Sciences, the South African Medical Research Council, the African Centre for Technology Studies, an inter-governmental think tank,  and IBM Research Africa are considering the creation of an African megajournal with Elsevier. They are being courted through Elsevier’s undoubted ability to offer a high level of technological support, author and publishing training, and the potential for international profiling of African research. Given the profile of the research organisations involved, there are serious questions to be asked about what it will mean for African governments to have this scale of strategic research publication – scientific, medical, technological and research networking – placed in the hands of a profit oriented publisher as hard-nosed as Elsevier.

Elsevier publishes a number of African journals and participates in the WHO HINARI initative for the provision of free or low-cost medical journals to developing countries. It also h as its own corporate responsibility programme, offering training, conferences and workshops. It has, for example, for over a decade offered a twinning programme between African medical journals and leading biomedical journals in the US and UK, enhancing editorial and publishing skills to grow their presence and reach, as well as running mentoring programmes and skills development initiatives for African journals and their authors.

A review of of other large journal publishers shows a similar signs of an expansion of interest in research from Africa and the developing world.  Taylor and Francis over the last few years has developed a long list of African journals, with an editorial office in Johannesburg, a mission to collaborate with with learned societies and institutions and partnerships for co-publication with local publishers. This has been a particular strategic focus, with active recruitment of local titles. Biomed Central has a prominent Malaria Journal, has held African capacity building workshops and conferences and runs the Open Access Africa Twitter feed. Wiley has just announced a partnership with Egypt-based Hindawi Publishing, initially for the publication of nine journals, which will be managed by Hindawi and published on their website. In this way, Wiley says that it aims to benefit from experience in OA publishing and Hindawi’s experience in what is described as a rapidly expanding market.

Should this activity perhaps be welcomed? On the whole, the continent has been sadly lacking in the exposure for its research,  skills development, technology capacity and infrastructure support that Elsevier is offering. And undoubtedly, there will be many scholars and institutions who would be delighted at the profiling and potential for increased impact and reach that would be offered by one of the biggest journal publishers in the world.

According to a study of journal publishing in Africa, commissioned by African Journals Online (AJOL, covering 330 respondents, the majority of African journals are – often struggling –   ‘scholar journals’ run on a voluntary basis by individuals or small groups of scholars, with only 19% of journals surveyed published by commercial publishers. Support from universities and national governments has been largely lacking.  AJOL, an initiative supported by INASP, hosts 517 journals on its online platform, of which 208 are open access, offering 65,917 OA articles for download.

The South African government has been an exception to the general pattern of national -level indifference to scholarly publishing, with the Department of Science and Technology supporting the SciELO South Africa journal publishing platform through the Academy of Science of South Africa. What this offers is the provision of financial support for journals and their hosting on SciELO SA in partnership with SciELO Brazil. There is no doubt that if this were to be expanded rapidly and extended to other African national academies of science, through NASAC, this could provide a path to a powerful regional presence, on the Latin American model.  This was discussed at a high level forum held in 2015, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Is Elsevier’s proposed megajournal likely to be of overall benefit to the continent?  According to the first reports, this is likely to be an OA journal using APCs, but perhaps with a 5-year development period in which no APCs would be asked for. Elsevier claims to be planning long-term for a low-cost APC for this venture, probably with additional donor support. There could therefore be a window for the growth of the journal and whether or not the venture lands up ultimately facing Elsevier’s commercial OA model with very high APCs would remain an open question for quite a while. And would the journals find themselves part of a truly international community of scholarship, as a result of this venture, or consigned to a special-case ‘developing world’ status?

Elsevier’s aims are expressly developmental, aiming at wider exposure for African research across the African continent, applying affordable APCs without resorting to the exceptionalism of donor-funded support for distribution of journals in the developing world. Considerable support is proposed for authoring and technology infrastructure, training in the different aspects of journal publishing. The company has an extensive corporate responsibility programme with a wide variety of initiatives aiming to support and expand the discoverability and accessibility of African research. It is aiming to partner with 39 journals in Egypt, five in Nigeria three in South Africa as well as the megajournal proposal. The institutions responsible for these journals, Ylann Schemm from the Elsevier Foundation assures us, will retain full ownership of the journals, but the content will be hosted as OA on Science Direct. The proposed megajournal, in this context, Schemm describes as a joint effort with funding agencies, governments and NGOs, reliant on Elsevier’s publishing capabilities to create ‘a common platform for African research’.

But there is a negative side. There has been a considerable growth in the number of funding agencies demanding open access to the research that they fund, leading to a rise in the number of ‘green’ open access repositories; support for the payment of APCs for OA journals and for hybrid journals. In this context, a spate of complaints about the good faith of large international publishers in operating open access gives cause for concern.

The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), in a statement signed by a long list of international organisations, complains that Elsevier’s OA policy, introduced in 2015, in fact restricts rights for articles placed in repositories, rather than providing fully open access.  Embargoes are imposed, up to 48 months; the licence applied is CC-ND-NC rather than the open CC-BY licence; and the publication licence applies to all articles previously published and to be published in the future.

Thus Elsevier has developed its own version of OA licensing. Very few authors would understand the implications of these provisions, and the limitations they could place in the way of access, but as an Australian editor put it when he was sacked for protesting when his journal, the Medical Journal of Australia, was outsourced to Elsevier:

‘One of the fundamental questions is whether you regard the knowledge that’s generated through research as a common good… In other words, it should be there for everybody to use, paid for by the community through its taxes to research workers, or whether someone can come along and put a fence around these paddocks and say, “Well that’s actually mine.”’

There have also been complaints from the Wellcome Trust, as a major funder of the OA publication of the research it supports. Wellcome complained that more than half the articles it had paid Wiley to make open in hybrid journals were not compliant with the depositing and licensing requirements. Elsevier did not comply in 31% of hybrid journals and 26% of full OA journals. All PLOS articles were compliant. Wellcome said that it had paid for close on 400 articles published in the hybrid model that had not been deposited, as required, in the PubMed Central repository.

Lastly, as the entire editorial team of linguistics journal Lingua, found out when they opted to leave Elsevier, they could not take their journal with them – it now belonged to Elsevier – and they had to found a new journal.

It could be argued that OA status would protect the journal and its content from capture – after all open is open, surely, and the content should be accessible in perpetuity. For all this, there is surely a risk in allowing a commercial company, and one with a very strong commitment to high profit levels and to the exclusionary competitive ethos of the Impact factor, to have control of the the research publication of key African research councils. The research produced by these councils is of national and regional importance and its capture by a commercial company might put at risk the ability to leverage the research for public benefit. There are particularly hard questions to be asked about medical journals, for example.

To complicate things further, South African universities have at been facing upheaval as resistance to the neo-colonial state of the higher education curriculum has taken centre stage in a wave of student protests in the country.  Campuses have been burning to the chant of #RhodesMustFall and #Decolonising the university. How does a progressive takeover of the publication of African scholarship look in this context?

Photo: Desmond Bowles – CC-BY-SA –

By Eve Gray

Open access in Africa – green and gold, the impact factor, ‘mainstream’ and ‘local’ research

I have been following the debate raging in the UK and beyond about whether the Finch Commission and the Research Councils UK  – and then the EC with a slightly different emphasis – were right in opting for support for the ‘gold route’ of open access publishing rather than prioritizing only the ‘green route’ of open access repositories. There seems to have been a general consensus in the commentaries that I have read that this will disadvantage the developing world, which will be faced with the barrier of high article processing fees and become increasingly excluded. The green route, through continuing creation of institutional repositories, would be better for us, we are told.

I don’t agree. The reasons are complex, but at heart this takes us back to the question of whether we are seeking access to or participation in the production of global literature. Which policy path would most effectively give voice to research from Africa, largely silenced in the current system? Access to world literature is also important, but is inadequate on its own, risking perpetuating a neo-colonial dispensation that casts the dominant North as the producer and the developing world as the consumer of knowledge.

I have come to think that the green/gold debate is in fact a distraction from dealing with more insidious issues in our research publishing systems. These include the dominance of journals at the expense of other forms of publication; the almost universal adoption of the ISI and its Impact Factor as the basis for recognition and reward; and, most insidious of all, the marginalization of great swathes of global research through the implementation of this commercialized ranking system.

Another related but under-recognised issue is the extent to which there is an assumption that scholarly publishing is a commercial business, built around profit creation. This has led to a free rider syndrome, allowing senior administrators to remain oblivious to the need to address support for research communication as a policy issue. In this regard, Finch sets a good precedent, in making it clear that getting beyond the issues that block effective research communication requires government investment.

Once the argument moves to discussion of what the impact of these new open access policies would be on the participation of the developing world, then the nature of the debate changes. I would argue that the either/or dichotomy between green and gold is in fact a distraction –  the wrong question, generating the wrong answers. Whether green or gold is not that relevant in the African context unless one understands the mechanisms of exclusion that consigns our research publications to the margins. Even then there is unlikely to be a clean either/or solution. What is important is an understanding of the contextual issues and the power dynamics that are at play.

 History and context – a neo colonial system

African universities outside of South Africa tend to be very young, with most institutions dating from the post-colonial period in the second half of the 20th century. Only a few decades later, the World Bank and the IMF implemented structural adjustment programmes that marginalized higher education in favour of primary schooling. Just as the higher education system was expanding in the global North, universities were starved of funds and thus of the continuing growth that they really needed to function effectively. In the 1980s and 90s, if you appreciated diatribes that could sear your eyeballs, you had only to listen to African intellectuals at conferences berating structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF.

In around 2000 came the solemn revisionist discovery that in fact higher education was very important and should be supported. This was not long after South Africa emerged from apartheid, so the 21st century in our region has been a period of reconstruction of battered higher education systems. In these circumstances, there were two conflicting ambitions in the minds of university leaders. One was to be able to [re]join the global academic community, building prestige and recognition in the competitive terrain of publication impact and university rankings. The other was to demonstrate a contribution to national and regional development in countries that faced overwhelming challenges.  Or, as a university administrator put it to us recently, the biggest battle southern African universities face is to combine the achievement of both prestige and relevance.

One has to ask why this is so difficult. The answers are to be found in the ideology and global hierarchies created by the corporations that had come to dominate the journal publishing system. Open access developed in good part in reaction to the dysfunctional nature of this bloated system and its vertiginous subscription rates. In the global North, the debate has largely been about how to get visibility for journal articles locked behind paywalls in these journals and less about hierarchies of knowledge that marginalized a great deal of world research.

 The impact factor

The reason that the two goals of local and international impact are irreconcilable in our region has a lot to do with the universal adoption of the ISI Impact Factor as the dominant metric used as the preferred route globally for achieving research recognition in a managerialist and competitive higher education system. The IF is also, in the developing world, the biggest barrier to the achievement of recognition.

I have enjoyed the targeted and tough attacks on the rigour and credibility of the Impact Factor by Stephen Curry and Bjoern Brembs in recent blogs. As someone who flinches when I hear the term ‘bibliometrics’, I appreciate Brembs’s comparison of the IF with ‘homeopathy, creationism or divining’ and would readily encourage the adoption of Curry’s series of declarations:

  • If you include journal impact factors in the list of publications in your cv, you are statistically illiterate. 
  • If you are judging grant or promotion applications and find yourself scanning the applicant’s publications, checking off the impact factors, you are statistically illiterate

The trouble is that the IF is taken with deadly seriousness in southern African universities and is all too often used as a proxy by international agencies for the evaluation of national research effectiveness. Lesser known is the extent to which the criteria for inclusion in the ISI are skewed to actively exclude the developing world and its interests from this dominant system. As Guèdon describes, by an extraordinary sleight of hand a distinction was made by the ISI in 1982 between ‘local’ and ‘international’ or ‘mainstream’ science. ‘Local’ or national research was relegated to a lower level – or irrelevance – and only ‘Third World contributions to mainstream science’ would be considered for inclusion in the ISI.  In other words, a research article gets into the ISI if it addresses the interests of readers in the English-speaking North.

In this way, the research interests of three quarters of the world are relegated to irrelevance in the dominant global scholarly publishing system and downgraded to the ‘local’, while whatever is included in the Science Citation Index constitutes mainstream science. Effectively, Nelson Mandela becomes ‘local’ and George Bush ‘international’.

We could perhaps learn from Groucho Marx giving the finger when he was refused membership at a country club: ‘I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.’

 Institutional repositories

What this system has inevitably meant is that there are very low rates of publication in the ISI from the countries consigned to the periphery. This is particularly the case in the smaller African countries outside of South Africa, which dominates African production in the ISI. Does it make sense to maintain an OA institutional repository to profile ISI journal articles when many institutions are producing between 25 and 100 articles a year? And in institutions that are battling with issues of capacity and infrastructure in the wake of the policy turbulence that I have described, should these repositories be institutional or subject-based? All in all, the role of repositories – regional, institutional, subject-based, archival – may well be different to the common assumptions about journal article deposit and mandates.

 Beyond journals – local relevance

While the road to prestige and rankings is delivered largely through the commercial journal system, the way to social and development impact is surely through open access, with the ‘grey literature’ that Finch recognized at its heart. In our context, in Africa, access to the non-journal literature is not, as Stevan Harnad averredmerely providing access to research data and grey literature’ that the Finch Commission recommended for inclusion in repositories (my emphasis). Rather, in the developing world, access to this kind of research output is a very important part of ensuring the relevance of research to local and regional needs – or indeed ensuring the wider impact of research outputs in ways that have recently been recognised in the World Bank’s OA policy.

What this does raise is the question of peer review. Universities are anxious to ensure the quality of the research that gets placed online and are exploring alternative quality evaluation approaches to deliver this goal.

 The question is, therefore, what open access policy should look like in the developing world and in southern Africa in particular. This is likely to  include open access publication; the recognition of a wider range of  research outputs; repository and communication strategies that recognize this and which take account of the realities of available capacity and infrastructure. And – a challenging issue – how to change reward and recognition systems to bring them into line with the real strategies of governments and institutions?

From the IPA 2012 Congress to the Finch Report – publishers and open access

The Finch Commission report was released in the UK on 18 June.  Entitled  ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’, this report, by an independent working group headed by Dame Janet Finch, tackled ‘the important question of how to achieve better, faster access to research publications for anyone who wants to read or use them.’

The report and its subsequent endorsement by the UK government and then by the EU stirred a storm of controversy in the open access community as a result of its central recommendation: that the UK should opt for a ‘gold route’ approach to achieving this goal, with substantial government research funding allocated to supporting article processing fees (APCs) for publication of UK scholars’ work in open access journals. The role proposed for repositories was to ‘play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing, particularly in providing access to research data and to grey literature, and in digital preservation.’

The most vehement objections were from supporters of the ‘green route’ of open access repositories and mandates for the deposit of journal articles in those repositories. A key thread in these early responses to the Finch report has involved speculation on how publishers might react, debating whether there will be price gouging on APCs, and whether the move to gold OA will entrench the hegemony of publishers. In short, critics ask whether publisher interests have driven this policy direction.

Stephen Curry’s post in the Guardian countered this view with the perception that ‘the research publishing business remains in ferment’.  I attended the International Publishers Association 2012 Congress in Cape Town the week before the release of the Finch Report. Given the potentially dramatic shift in scholarly publishing that the Finch Commission introduced just after its closure, the IPA discussion suddenly has added significance. It was little reported and there were some interesting discussions, which I think endorse Stephen Curry’s view – the publishing industry is indeed in ferment, hardly a position of strength.

Moreover, with debate over whether or not this policy will be detrimental to scholars from the developing world, the fact that the IPA was held in South Africa also offers perspectives on this issue.

 Publishers and digital disruption  – a ‘tsunami’?

The impact of the global momentum of open access was recognized at the IPA Congress, where OA was described as  ‘a tsunami’ by Michael Mabe, CEO of the International Association of STM Publishers, ‘like nothing the world has seen’.

WIPO Director Francis Gurry in his speech also used a strong metaphor for digital disruption, describing it as ‘a perfect storm’, arguing that change is now so rapid that it is not possible to be ideological, as the circumstances on which ideology depended are in flux. Copyright is now about challenge and contention, he argued, with the central controversy in the knowledge society being the clash between property rights and the social, central to the way knowledge and creativity are transmitted in our society.  It would be nice to have a neat solution, he said, but there were none and so an incremental approach is the most useful approach.

The sense of overwhelming, even cataclysmic change that surfaces in this discourse does not strike me as the language of confident market manipulators, although, of course, publishers trying to extract as much as possible from the new deal would be an obvious outcome. It is their ability to control the situation that is in question.

Publisher attitudes to green and gold

Michael Mabe of STM, made great play of the serious difficulties that were experienced in the development of a digital observatory for the EU’s Peer Project, which sought to research the effects of large-scale green route deposit. He complained of the technical problems that arose from the incompatibility of the data they were taking in from various sources, the complexity of implementation and the extreme unwillingness of authors to deposit.  While the participating publishers contributed 22,500 articles, there was a very low rate of uptake by authors invited to deposit. Of the 11,000 authors canvassed, 10 deposited ‘timeously’ and the intervention finally resulted in 170 authors depositing, a 2% take-up.

So, with regional green route model as difficult and obstructive as this European enterprise, Mabe’s conclusion was (unsurprisingly) that if the free deposit route is that difficult then surely it is better to pay to publish. Given the closely-linked dates of the Peer project completion, the Finch Report announcement and the EC adoption of a green or gold solution, it is likely that these initiatives reinforced each other’s findings, given an overlap of the people and organisations involved in the various initatives.

Was this chest-beating on Mabe’s part a publisher propaganda exercise?  Did the gentleman protest too much?  Although I was tempted to read it this way at the time, a check on the Peer findings suggested otherwise. Some of the key findings concerned the difficulty of building large-scale infrastructure; the unlikelihood of author self-archiving creating a critical mass of content, and the preference of scholars for the version of record – the final journal article. Of the positive results, one was that the acceptance and utility of OA has grown considerably.

Willem van der Stelt, Executive VP for Corporate Strategy at Springer endorsed this, speaking enthusiastically about the development of OA journals in a global environment in which Brazil, India and South Africa are becoming stronger players. Springer is investing heavily in OA journals, currently launching 100 of them.  Springer owns Biomed Central, the largest OA journal publisher. Van der Stelt said that Springer has left Biomed alone since it was purchased, did not interfere with its way of working and has used it to change the culture of Springer. He suggested that they might change the company into an author services company – what this means needs some unpacking.

Springer’s new suite of OA journals extends across all subject fields, including the social sciences and includes Springer Plus, a science mega-journal on the model of PLOS One. It will be interesting to see whether these OA journals are, like BMC, more open to developing country issues, more aware of the world outside of the global North and more egalitarian in their approach to what constitutes important global research.

The hybrid model, which has only had a 3% uptake, would see subscription prices falling year by year, van der Stelt said, if uptake increased. (what is clear, however, is that this option is not popular with authors.)

There were more oblique interventions that endorsed my sense that, for all the bluster, publishers realized that there is going to be downward pressure on publishing profit margins as changes impact on the industry. Salvatore Miele of CERN raised the prospect of  SCOAP3, a consortium approach to OA journal publishing in high energy physics designed to lower costs and now in procurement phase. This and other disruptive journal initiatives, like PeerJ are likely to challenge complacencies in the traditional journals.

This does not look to me like a context in which gold OA subsidies will drive high prices. Rather, as Richard van Noorden argued in Nature:

If researchers do fall in line, the wide adoption of open access will shift everyone’s publishing behaviours. Scientists may start discussing with universities where, and how much, they can afford to publish. Publishers and learned societies that rely on profits from library subscriptions will have to be more transparent about the costs of publishing. The latest open-access journals, such as PeerJ and eLife, may gain from the resulting melee (see Nature 486,166; 2012).

So the tendency is more likely to be downward pressure on APCs from research authors who will now find themselves directly responsible for paying publishing costs rather than having this happen at a remove, by the less powerful librarians.

A different vision for repositories?

The most vehement objections were from supporters of the ‘green route’ of open access repositories and mandates for the deposit of journal articles in those repositories. This up until now has probably been the dominant policy route for OA. To my mind the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed ‘grey literature’ is an important revision of what has been up until now an almost religious aversion to thinking about anything other than peer reviewed literature. Much valuable research emerges in research papers, policy briefs and reports on research in progress. ArXiv has demonstrated the power that this kind of publication has in building research collaboration. At the IPA Congress, Salvatore Mele, Open Access Director at CERN described this terrain. Open matters, he argued, and makes scientists happy, bringing them both visibility and citations..

The Finch Report view of the potential for digital repositories bodes well for African universities, where we have found a strong interest in digital collections of research papers of this kind.

A softer face for publishing?

Also important – although apparently not heard and understood by some of the big publishers, I discovered in tea break conversation – was the need to improve the image of publishing, to put a better face on the way publishers are perceived.  We need to provide a soft face for IP in a hostile environment, Francis Gurry argued, talking about publishers and negotiation of an instrument for the visually impaired. Certainly the battle over SOPA and PIPA in the US and the boycott of Elsevier that resulted demonstrated a high level of suspicion and hostility to large publishing. Too-high prices were recognized as an aspect of this negative perception – as author agent Wendy Strothman said, the industry has to learn to deliver content efficiently in any medium at a good price in a market in which publishers have to learn to become B2C businesses. Or as Gurry put it – we cannot have a situation where it is easier for a consumer to get a product illegally that to buy it legally.

And for Africa?

 I think the jury is out on what this could mean for us in Africa. The immediate worry that has been expressed in reaction to these developments is a fear that once again, African academics will be excluded by the high price of APCs . The availability of waivers does not seem to help this perception, perhaps because of the unattractiveness of being in a position of dependency.

Today’s news, though, adds another dimension. Thompson Reuters has announced a partnership to include the SciELO journals platform on the Web of Science. This will include the South African journals that are steadily being added to the SciELo South Africa platform. The growth of locally produced journals – and the replication of a model like the SciELO SA programme, carried out by the Academy of Science of South Africa and supported by the Department of Science and Technology – could be a beneficial outcome of the radical policy shift that we are seeing.

There is a price on this shift, however and that is the willingness of governments and research institutions to invest in scholarly publishing. At the moment, one of the startling aspects of the Africa higher education policy environment is the absence of attention to research communication, something that is now putting us seriously out of line with the rest of the world.

More on that in the next blog.

Lies, damned lies… and metrics

Two contradictory things are happening side by side in discussion of scholarly publishing right now. On the one hand, the discourse of open access – seeking to remedy the failures of the current system – bases itself overwhelmingly on the value of the journal article as the artefact to be made open, while at the same time, stronger and stronger criticisms are levelled against journals as an effective mode of scientific communication. Questions are also being asked about the appropriateness of the metrics that are used to make judgements on the quality of the articles published, determining the reputation of authors and their institutions. It is well known that this system consigns developing country research to the periphery of a ‘global’ system, marginalising very important research issues – such as ‘neglected diseases’ that apply to large percentages of the world’s population. These concerns now appear to have a strong echo in the mainstream, even if the perspective of the global South is not clearly articulated in the discussion.

In a scathing critique of the current journal system on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog, Bjorn Brembs, a neurobiologist from Freie Universitat Berlin, lays into the ineffectual communication system provided by journal publishing in its bloated state, compounded by the distortions that result from the commonly accepted journal hierarchy and its supporting metrics. Given the vast numbers of journals, this is no longer a functional space for dialogue between scholars, he argues. Trying to establish what would be worth reading is skewed further by the use of inaccurate and misleading metrics as a proxy for quality – a blind and misplaced belief in the magic of numeric measures.

The most commonly accepted metric, Thompson Reuter’s Journal Impact Factor, is demonstrated to be lacking in transparency, not reproducible and statistically unsound. Backing up this claim with a number of analytical articles, from PLOS Medicine, the BMJ and the International Mathematical Union, he comes to the conclusion that ‘[T]he dominant metric by which this journal rank is established, Thomson Reuters’ “Impact Factor” (IF) is so embarrassingly flawed, it boggles the mind that any scientist can utter these two words without blushing.’

As Brembs quite rightly argues, there is little correlation between the impact factor of a journal, based on the number of citations in that journal, and the individual articles that might or might not have been cited in that journal. And so the extension of the journal citation count to article metrics and author evaluation constitutes a serious distortion, a blind and misplaced belief in statistics as magic.

Brembs’s critique of the current journal system – and that of the sources that he draws on – also highlights subject and language bias in the citation system and journal rankings, but does not draw attention to the way the system functions to marginalize an overwhelming proportion of the world’s scientists – those in the developing world.

This critique comes hot on the heels of another diatribe, from George Monbiot, in the Guardian on 29 August who lashed out at the paywalls and profiteering of the leading journals and their culture of greed, an article that trended on Twitter, obviously striking a nerve. Brembs endorses and reinforces Monbiot’s rejection of the profit system that drives current journal publishing.

It was therefore good to see a few hundred years of the the original English-speaking journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, made available online by the Royal Society. Going back to the first edition, one rapidly encounters what has been lost in the commercialisation of our journals in the last half century. In his Introduction, Henry Oldenburg gives us insight into the spirit of collaboration and experimentation and the openness of communication that the journal aimed for at this time.

Scientific knowledge in this early journal is seen as a conversation, so that ‘those addicted to and conversant in such matters may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts and Sciences. All for the Glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind.’

This sounds much closer to what could be an African vision of research as collaboration and participation, contributing to the public good. Modern journals are very closed-up and arcane artefacts compared to this vision. In fact this first journal looks and sounds very much like a blog – with some leading scientists like Boyle, Hook and Huygens contributing – with the serious and trivial side by side, short and longer pieces, explanations of experiments and stories of odd an ingenious things, from how to kill a rattlesnake to an anecdote of old people growing new teeth.

It would be good to see some serious discussion about the tendency for southern African universities and researchers to buy blindly into dysfunctional systems like the ISI Journal Impact Factor rather than determining what our own values are and what research publication systems would best suit our goals. Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, taking apart the university ranking system in the UNESCO World Social Science Report 2010 finds the same kind of distortions and inadequacies that Brembs complains of.  Badat warns against the ‘perverse and dangerous effects’ than can result from ‘uncritical mimicry of and ‘catching up’ with the so-called world-class university’. Instead, he suggests that the diverse goals of different institutions and countries should be reflected in a horizontal continuum that ‘makes provision for universities to pursue different missions.’

We would do well to listen – a matter of playing catch-up with the future instead of the past.