Tag Archives: ICTs

The State of the Nation – South African scholarly publishing and the global knowledge divide

Down here in the southern hemisphere, the sun is shining and the south-easter is funnelling down the mountain. The 2007 university summer term has begun and absurdly young students are thronging campus; the President has delivered a carefully-modulated State of the Nation address; and the Finance Minister has spelled out a budget that shows South Africa
significantly in the black. In short, the real working year is only just beginning. So it is perhaps time, in a series of postings, to do
a my own State of the Nation overview of where South Africa stands at the start of 2007 in relation to my area of interest – the
dissemination and publication of African scholarship.

First, a background sketch. I hold an International Policy Fellowship from the Open Society Institute (Budapest) investigating policy for the dissemination of African scholarship. The project aims to map the complex and often contradictory policy environment that frames research publication in South Africa and other African countries. These policies tend to work in two directions: one for the leveraging of research to deliver national development goals – to which the South African government appears to be ready to allocate substantial resources – the other for the recognition and reward of scholarly publication. In particular, the project researches the question of whether countries like South
Africa and its African neighbours can start to turn around the global knowledge divide and raise the reach and visibility of African research using electronic media and the Open Access publishing approaches currently taking hold across the world.

If one looks at the current state of research publication in African countries, what stands out most strongly is the persistent marginalisation of African knowledge – particularly of scholarship about Africa, produced in Africa. Globally, research dissemination takes place within a system that has been in place for around the last 100 years, which has come to be dominated by increasingly
commercialised (and increasingly expensive) journals and by scholarly books produced primarily in the USA and Europe in a globally
unbalanced ‘publish or perish’ scholarly market. For example, to cite but one statistic – in 2000, South Africa, which far exceeds
any other African country in the ISI journal rankings, had just 0,5% of the articles in the combined ISI databases and 0.15% of the most
cited papers (see the SA Academy of Science Report on a Strategic Approach to Research Publishing in South Africa 2006) . Could we really say that this is a fair and accurate evaluation of the global weight and value of the research carried out in this country?

This publication takes place within a generally unquestioned value system in which quality is measured by publication impact in an international arena in which scholars and publishers from Africa are unequal players in the global research economy. For example, the leading international index in which journal publication is valued, the ISI, aims to index the limited range of journal literature that
asserts a disproportionate influence, on the assumption that a relatively small group of journals – or body of knowledge – will account for the most important and influential research in any field. The UK-based International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), while it prides itself on listing a substantial percentage of journals from outside the UK, nevertheless values them (through an Editorial Board consisting overwhelmingly of UK academics and none at all from developing countries) according to their relevance to UK scholars and libraries. These criteria tend to marginalise research knowledge from the periphery, research that does not address the mainstream interests of scholarship in the US and Europe, and also work to disadvantage disciplines that have particular local relevance rather than more generalised global appeal.

Add to this the physical difficulties and the cost of distributing print materials from the developing world into dominant US and UK markets,
as well as the difficulty of getting these publications accepted by the major libraries, and it becomes clear that the very criteria that the developing world uses for its traditional-model scholarly output are those that contribute also to its marginalisation in the global arena. Even more damaging is the potential for the distortion of research agendas – if scholars are to receive promotion and financial reward for publications that conform to US and UK research agendas, then research topics that might contribute vitally to local development issues risk marginalisation. Moreover, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on the assumption that overseas standards are better, in which local publications, perceived to be of poorer quality, do in fact often come to be of poorer quality, starved as they are of recognition, support and resources.

In tackling these problems, we are seriously handicapped by the fact that in the South African higher education system there is a tacit acceptance that scholarly publication is not the business of the universities – what Joseph J. Esposito in a recent article in LOGOS, calls ‘the
free-rider syndrome. A university… will actively encourage faculty to publish, but a press will be stinted because it is always possible
that a particular book will be published somewhere else.’ Also – and perhaps as a result of the free-rider syndrome, the policies and
practices governing scholarly publication have themselves not been subjected to much research or scrutiny. As a recent Australian government report observed: ‘Despite billions being spent by governments on R&D every year, relatively little policy attention
has yet been paid to the dissemination of that research through scientific and scholarly publishing.’

2007 might well be the year in which South Africa starts to pay more attention to these issues. On the international front, a number of initiatives are putting the issues on the front burner – the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) is in the process of creating an African Science and Innovation Facility; the World Bank has identified higher education as a key driver for African economic growth and poverty eradication; the funding agencies are taking an increasing interest in the potential for unlocking access to African knowledge through the use of ICTs and Open Access; and the steadily growing number of international initiatives for access to publicly funded research (the most recent being the EU meetings held last week). Locally, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s project on scholarly publishing is beginning to take shape, under the aegis of
the Department of Science and Technology (more on that in another posting), an increasing number of Open Access projects are beginning to emerge and the middle economy alliance of Brazil, India, China (and South Africa, tagging on behind) is beginning to impact. But a lot still needs to be done to get these debates a higher profile in the universities and in government.

Offline in India – a reflection on traffic circles

I set off for India two weeks ago, digital camera clutched firmly in my increasingly hot and sticky hand, determined that this time I would organise myself to blog my experiences as I went along. I was headed for what sounded like a very interesting meeting – a workshop at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore that would bring together Indian, Chinese, Brazilian and African perspectives on digital publishing and Open Access. The workshop was indeed fascinating and highly productive, but more of that a bit later in my next blog.

Given that Bangalore is the ICT hub of India, I was looking forward to good connectivity and had visions of myself, grey head and all, typing away among the young tecchies in the back row of the workshop. What became immediately apparent, however, was that connectivity was absent. Like the state of affairs at the iCommons Summit in Rio, where exactly the same thing happened, we had a crowd of high-tech people gathered together in a high-tech place and the wireless connection was down. People who know better than me were muttering dark and incomprehensible things about proxy servers. Some conniving anti-Open Access demon must be out there somewhere, watching us, wanting to teach us well-learned lessons about knowing our place in the developing world.

So there were anxious huddles of email-junkies crouching over laptops between sessions, withdrawal symptoms setting in rapidly. Various hugely qualified people from remote corners of the world and the technicians from the Institute fiddled with my laptop, so that just before we left Bangalore, I could connect to the very good wireless system, by then up and running. After that, nothing – my poor neurotic laptop tried frantically to connect to a network that it could not find and then just lay down and wept. Only in Dubai airport on the way back could it download from a super-slick connection.

Resorting to Internet cafés and friends’ computers, I then encountered Mweb at its dysfunctional worst – or so I thought, perhaps unfairly. Try sitting in front of a computer in Mysore, after days off line, staring at a screen that has ACCESS DENIED!! repeated across the screen in random patterns. At least Google mail worked, so I could scream abuse at Mweb. I gather that I was perhaps being unfair, although it did me good to let off steam. The problem was quite possibly just that South-South Internet connections don’t route very well, I am told, while Gmail is on a US server at the hub of the e-world. Does that means that I will have to learn my place in the scheme of things and tone down my idealism about the potential of ICTs in the developing world? I hope not.

Now that I am back home, and after much wise head-shaking by the quietly competent son (every Linux-using mother needs one or two), the laptop is now happy and connected again, but its owner is prostrate, coughing the exhaust fumes of Bangalore out of her lungs.

India was worth it though, even if I was off line, so here are some brief impressions. Most of all, the traffic! Chaos! Driving from the airport in Bangalore and then everywhere else I went, there is a hooting cacophony of mopeds, rickshaws, buses, lorries and cars, weaving in and out in apparent disregard for traffic lanes and unnecessary interferences like solid white lines. And then in the middle of it all, a plodding oxcart or a handcart loaded high. The weaving. I realised, is done with great precision and a complicated understanding of patterns and space. You have to learn very quickly, even on a quiet campus, to respond to a hoot behind you, stepping aside just enough to let a bicycle or moped past without getting in the way of another one. We are pretty clumsy by comparison with Indians, and grossly unaware of our own body space – aggressive, linear space-guzzlers, I realised. .

At first boggle-eyed and confused by the chaos, I then began to realise that we are very Calvinist in South Africa, obeying the rules smugly -up to a point – neat and tidy (yes, comparatively, even our much maligned taxi drivers) but really aggressively asserting our individual right to our own space, at the risk of killing each other in the name of that right. Indian traffic seems to be a place for negotiation and is a great leveller – that sleek BMW in a Bangalore traffic jam is completely disabled as a status symbol, reduced to lesser competence than the ancient but pristine Ambassador taxi or the family on a moped weaving around it. No-one can go too fast – there is not room. But there is that heart-stopping moment as a maze of traffic converges at a complex intersection. Instead of an almighty pile-up, there is an exchange of glances, a swarm of mopeds and cars stops briefly to give way and the complex pattern sorts itself out. How it is negotiated, I don’t know, but it seems to work. And even when we
met a bullock cart plodding the wrong way down the fast lane of a highway in the countryside, road rage did not manifest itself, just a blast on the hooter, a weave, and we were past it.

There were quiet spaces, too, like the avenues of the Indian Institute of Science, walkways shaded by great arching trees, where the crows swooped overhead ,cawing, in the evening. A lone man pushing a handcart down a suburban Bangalore street calling ‘papaya! papaya!’ Or the beach in Goa at sunset, all sifted light, soft pastels and the warm water of the Arabian sea. There were the quiet and cool colonial lounges at the Green Hotel in Mysore, where yoga aficionados gather, egrets sailing over the Cauvery river in the still morning of a bird sanctuary, a young girl tugging at a reluctant cow at the roadside, or a group of men cross-legged on a verandah wall, talking. In the middle of a rice field, a group of men appear to be having a quiet conversation with their cattle. A cluster of young girls, bright as birds of paradise, crowded around me in the gardens of Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Sringinapatana, wanting to know. ‘What is your name? What does it mean? Where do you come from? You are beautiful.’ Or a anther crowd of small boys, more precise, “What other places are there in Africa? How much does it cost to get here? How much do you spend in India? What does your name mean?’ And the man in the temple who wanted to know if I had found peace.

And the food – eating curry for breakfast turns out to be very good for you. Delicious, mostly vegetarian food wherever I went, and some crab and prawns in Goa (where my Fellowship colleague, Prashant, complained that even the vegetarian food tastes of fish). In a crowded self-service lunch bar in Bangalore, the food was amazing and cost, by our standards, almost nothing – as do the brilliant cottons and silks.

I’ll have to go back- we need to work on these South-South alliances.