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  . 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.
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.
 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.
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.