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Through the looking glass? Scholarly publishing seen from the South-eastern frontier

I have given a couple of workshop papers on scholarly publishing in the last ten days or so. Sounds dry, doesn’t it? That might apply to one of those ‘How to crack the system and get published in an accredited scholarly journal’ papers that I think my audiences were expecting (and dreading). But if one casts a steely eye over the system that we all take so unquestioningly for granted, then things can get a lot livelier. What would the proverbial woman from Mars make of it? The basis of the academic accreditation system is that our scholars are assessed and promoted primarily according to their ability to get published in journals in other countries, whose systems are patently weighted to exclude them – and to exclude many of the burning issues that might be of national relevance.

Looking at the scholarly publishing system from the perspective of a scholar in the humanities and social sciences in a South African university, one thing is for sure – we really are on the margins of the world. This is not a system conceived of for the benefit of our developing world, but designed to suit the needs of powerful institutional and hard-nosed commercial interests in big first-world economies. If one looks dispassionately at what the universities put into this system and what they get out of it, it is patently dysfunctional. Scholars pay for conducting the research, writing the articles, for acting as peer reviewers, then pay page charges, as often as not, to get published. Then the universities buy back that information, often at vastly inflated prices, from near-monopoly conglomerates, operating a commercial system in which market forces don’t work.

The way we relate to the system has its absurdities. We bind ourselves into trying to publish primarily in journals selected by indexing systems that explicitly marginalise contributions from the peripheries of the world, where we live. Also, as a CSIR researcher pointed out in one of last week’s workshops, the numbers just don’t work: “There are a thousand-odd researchers in the CSIR”, he said, “and we are each required to publish two articles per year in accredited journals. Where are we going to find accredited journals to publish more than two thousand articles from the CSIR alone? And who is going to read them?”

The scholarly publishing system is not working even in the powerful knowledge economies that call the shots. As the leading radical IP lawyer, James Boyle, said at the iCommons Summit in Rio, “We have a scientific publishing system that is massively dysfunctional and really, really broken.” Or, as Lindsay Waters, the Humanities Editor at Harvard University Press put it in one of his papers; “The patient is dying! Call the ambulance.”

So where does that leave us, here in South Africa? And what can we do about it?