Tag Archives: Scholarly Publishing

Excellence or quality – metrics and values in scholarly communications

In June 2009, in the process of scoping a project to research ways of building capacity in African scholarly publishing, a workshop was held with a group of experts from a variety of perspectives and a variety of approaches to the question of scholarly communications. Supported by the IDRC and the Shuttleworth Foundation, this workshop turned out a very lively event and – we believe – provided seminal insights into the questions that need to be addressed in order to build African research communications capacity.
This workshop has now been captured on a website that hosts videos of the keynote speeches (ten minute presentations, so they work well this way). It also contains commentary on the speeches and discussions as well as the key findings that emerged from this discussion. The website was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation and provides a discussion form for these ideas to be carried forward. One lesson learned, perhaps, was the value of discussion in a a small and focused group of experts from a variety of contexts and a variety of specialisations.
In yesterday’s blog I took to task the Thomson Reuters analysis of African research developments, arguing that, by focusing only on the production of journal articles and on citations in an international journal index, they were taking too narrow a view of what constituted research development. So here, from the Scholarly Communications, is the keynote address by Jean-Claude Guédon, of the University of Montreal, who gave the opening address of the workshop.

Jean-Claude Guédon – Scholarly Communication in Africa: Project Scoping Workshop from Creative R&D on Vimeo.

Guédon starts by introducing vocabulary issues that need to be clarified on order to understand the research communications environment. In particular, the difficulty in discerning the difference between ‘quality’ and ‘excellence.’ According to Jean-Claude, quality is a matter of the minimum thresholds that are needed for functionality, a matter of what skills or levels of professionalism are needed to deliver a particular function. The concept of excellence, on the other hand, is a matter of competition, with specifically defined parameters creating the rules of the game in which this competition is played out.
He continues to the topic of scholarly publishing, which has artificially constructed competition as its basis, so that it has become all about creating excellence. Jean-Claude’s advice is to disengage from this situation, by reviewing the notion of what constitutes excellence. He also says we need to look at the whole value chain of scientific communications, as well as the data that underpins research and ensure that it is preserved and made available. He also speaks about the benefits of a collaborative knowledge environment, as well as the need to reposition knowledge and society.
The message is that we need to unpack the language of excellence and competitiveness before we subscribe too blindly to the race that that involves. Developing countries cannot ignore this side of scholarly performance and it is important that they prove their ability to achieve the accepted standards of performance in what has become, for better or for worse, a dominant measure. However, this should not be expanded to be the only, or the dominant measure of performance. Rather, there should be a balanced approach, with great emphasis placed on the need to build capacity by developing the quality standards that could ensure truly professional performance.

‘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? Continue reading

Scholarly publishing as a transformation issue in South Africa

With the Higher Education Transformation Summit taking place in Cape Town on 22 April, universities have been in a reflective phase, examining their success – or lack of it – in achieving post-apartheid transformation. The report card shows that we are achieving a great deal, but could try harder. There is still a way to go before all our students and academics feel they are in institutions that are really their home.
No-one seems to have noticed the elephant in the room. In all the discussions, I see very little attention being paid to the role that scholarly communication and publication plays in the transformation process. We talk about the demographic profiles of our universities, yet we do not seem to question the communication environment that students and staff are immersed in and the values that are reflected there.
Why is it, for example, that, as the South African Minister of Higher Education and Training , Blade Nzimande, complained at the UNESCO 29th World Conference on Higher Education that ‘there is a gender imbalance throughout higher education systems especially in leadership positions.’ in his keynote address at the Transformation Summit, he picked up on the fact that the average age of academics continues to rise and that there has been a drop in the number of staff under the age of 30? Does the publishing system that is so central in determining who is promoted and rewarded play a role in these demographics? Is this an alien environment for the young scholars that the universities want so badly to attract? Do students and researchers find their own, African, world reflected adequately in the scholarly resources that they have access to? Are the values that our researchers hold reflected in the ways in which they are supported in publishing their research? Continue reading

ASSAF scholarly publishing team visits SciELO in Brazil

On July 7-11, 2008, a delegation from the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) visited BIREME In Sao Paulo, Brazil. The ASSAF delegation was there to review the potential for the adoption of the SciELO (Scientific Electronic Library Online) model as a platform to manage scientific publication in South Africa. Given that there is a wider African Academies of Science project to boost scholarly publishing across Africa, this could be a spearhead for a future regional open access network. (For background, see my blog of 30 April.)

This was an important visit. SciELO is a model of successful regional collaboration to raise the profile of a developing economy region’s research publication in the face of an inequitable global system. Given that Thomson Scientific is reported to be looking at the question of regional journals right now, it is worth looking at a bit of history. A similar exercise happened in 1982, at which the status of ‘peripheral’ or ‘Third World’ journals was discussed. As Jean-Claude Guèdon describes the result in a recent publication, given the task of reviewing how to deal with a national perspective on contributions to world science, the national perspective was ‘ultimately dismissed, presumably as a provincial exercise of no interest to the rest of the world. Without justification or analysis, a distinction between “local publications” and “mainstream” or “world science” as if it were evidence”.

We live with the results of this perverse interpretation of scientific universalism’ as Guèdon describes it, as we all know.

BIREME has produced a detailed newsletter on this visit in which Wieland Gevers is quoted on South Africa’s position in this regard:

According to Wieland Gevers, among the 225 South African scientific journals, over one hundred have never had an article cited. “South Africa occupies a paradoxical position in the context of scientific publication: it is simultaneously a giant within the African context and a dwarf in the international arena”, defined Gevers. He also added that “we are talking about a country that has nine Nobel Prize winners, and four are related to scientific fields, including
Allan MacLeod Cormack … -the co-inventor of CAT scanning…

We watch the outcome of this initiative with great interest. SciELO could be a powerful partner. Guèdon describes it as probably the most  successful regional/international initiative

– it includes Portugal and Spain as well as Latin American countries
– which has the potential, he argues, ‘to play a formidable role in this battle to remove the divide barriers or, at least, lower them’
He argues for ‘strong international collaboration with well-targeted countries to build a base for the reform of scientific power in a
credible way. These countries are quite easy to identify and have already been mentioned before: they include China and India. Africa must be included because it is suffering the most from the knowledge divide that has been constantly decried, criticised and attacked in this text.’

More background from the BIREME newsletter:

SciELO has had a successful performance in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is an outstanding reference in the process of research, evaluation and adoption of a solution for national scientific communication…The first portal – SciELO Brazil collection
– started operating publicly in 1998. Since then, the SciELO project has developed and is present in eight countries, adding up to over 550 titles of certified journals and more than 180 thousand full-text articles available free online (open access), including original articles, review articles, editorials and other types of communication…

ASSAf showed interest to put into practice a pilot experience with an initial group of five South African publications in order to test the functionalities of the SciELO platform. The BIREME was invited to make a technical visit to South Africa in September 2008 to demonstrate the system to the members of the Academy Advisory Board.

J., 2007. Open Access and the divide between “mainstream” and
“peripheral” science. In
Ferreira, Sueli Mara S.P. and Targino, Maria das Graças, Eds. Como gerir e qualificar revistas
. Available at:
http://eprints.rclis.org/archive/00012156/ [Accessed August 3, 2008].

A major boost for Open Access scholarly publishing in South Africa – the Academy of Science springs into action

I came back from a meeting of the Academyof Science (ASSAF) Committee on Scholarly Publishing in South Africa (CSPiSA) last week feeling bouyed up and looking forward to a period of rapid developments in Open Access scholarly publishing in South Africa. We were told that the Department of Science and Technology(DST) has now dedicated a substantial three-year budget to fund the implementation of ASSAF’s recommendations for the development of scholarly publication in South Africa. This is important stuff – a forward-looking government department investing in a major way in the development of scholarly publication, linking this to the country’s strategic science and technology growth objectives and offering support for what is in many ways a visionary Open Access programme that is expected to deliver considerable progress in the next three years.

The ASSAF Report on Scholarly Publishing in SA was an important milestone in the development of a coherent and effective scholarly publishing environment in SA. As reported in earlier blogs, the Report was commissioned by the DST and produced what was probably the most coherent account of the state of scholarly journal publishing in South Africa, concluding with a set of 10 recommendations which included strong support for the development of a ‘gold route’ Open Access approach to journal publishing in South Africa.

The central vision of the report is for quality-controlled and government supported publication of open access journals of a sufficient quality to deliver local impact and international recognition. Quality control is to be through a peer review process carried out across the different discuplines in collaboration with the National Journal Editors’ Forum. Financial support for open access journal publication, it proposed, would be by way of the dedication of a small percentage of the revenue paid to journals through the Departmentof Education (DoE) publication grant system, for the purpose of paying per-article author charges through the institution where the author is based.

Backing this up is a recommendation for the creation of a national technical and promotional platform for hosting and profiling the best South African journals, possibly along the lines of SciELO in Latin America. It is envisaged that the national platform would host selected journals that would profile the best of South African research.

It seems that the DST’s motivation in offering this support is linked to its 10-year plan for human capital development,which proposes a radical growth in the level of postgraduate degrees,publications and innovation levels in higher education. The ASSAf scholarly publication programme is thus seen as a key to the process of raising the bar for the quality and output of research in the country and leveraging upwards the profile of the country in the international research rankings, while at the same time improving the positive impact of research on economic growth and social development.

Open Access has been recommended not only in response to the need for increased accessibility but also for higher levels of international visibility and citation counts to profile South African research in the conventional international rankings. While the focus of this programme is fairly conventional, focusing primarily on peer reviewed scholarly journals that could perform well in the international citation rankings, this is a major step forward simply because it puts publication of South African research in South Africa in the spotlight and, through links with the African Academies of Science, connects this to a broader effort to raise publication levels on the continent. (The creation of an African citation index is one of the recommendations in the ASSAf Report on Scholarly Publishing in South Africa.) And, even more important, this intervention at last recognises that scholarly publishers need support if South Africa research is to be properly disseminated.

We understand that the DST accepts that this model may require long term subsidisation for Open Access journal support and this support is perceived as part of a national service project to build capacity and serve every scholar. To me, as a publisher, this is of central importance. In the OpeningScholarship project at the Universityof Cape Town, for example, we have discovered that the university tracks the authorship of articles (with the purpose of securing the grants that the DoE pays for publication in accredited journals), but that there is no tracking of publication – who is editing or publishing what and where. Publication efforts –editing, peer reviewing and producing scholarly and other publications – are therefore invisible and, not surprisingly I think, under-supported. This is surely detrimental to the university, as this is an opportunity lost to profile the considerable contribution that this leading research university makes to scholarship and development initiatives in the region.

CSPiSA’s delivery of the activities that have been prioritised should start very soon now: the rolling peer review of journals across different subject area will be carried out in collaboration with the Journal Editors’ Forum(see myblog on the inaugural meeting of the Forum last year). The idea is that this will not only be a quality evaluation process but will be designed to provide the potential for the development of the knowledge and skills that could lead to quality improvement. Agreement on the composition of the review panels is being sought and the first subject areas tobe reviewed should start rolling out soon.

A further intervention being undertaken over the next six months, this time with DoE support, is the production of a Report on a Strategic Approach to Scholarly Book Publishing by a selected panel of experts,following a fact-finding investigation by CREST at the University of Stellenbosch. Provisional findings should be available for presentation at the National Scholarly Journal Editors’ Forum in July and it is hoped that the final report should be ready for release in November. Another important milestone, this, as book publication is seriously under-supported and under-valued in South African policy, in spite of the remarkable success of the open access social science research council publisher, the HSRC Press.

Let’s see where we are this time next year. Much further down the road, I suspect.