Digitalisation meant that publications could be accessible anywhere to anyone with a suitable connection
By Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi Kanyarusoke
This article is a follow on to that published by The Independent, titled: ‘A university could be a factory' in reference to Dr. Muller's comments on the situation at many South African Universities.
Although that article disagreed with Muller's article title, the messages on teaching and learning were similar, and indeed complementary. In the present article, however, I strongly disagree with Muller on the research bit. In fact, I argue that other African governments need to borrow a leaf from South Africa's example and help grow research culture on the continent.
I also argue that what we normally call ‘international journals of repute' are actually the true representatives of ‘predators' of the developing world's intellectual and entrepreneurial capital.
For starters, Muller faults financial incentives given by the South African government to universities in reward for publications in ‘accredited' journals and conference proceedings. I think, condemning the principle is unfair, especially, when no alternative is given by the critic to improve research outputs on a continuous scale basis. South African universities have in relative terms, done better to continuously improve their research outputs and reputations, in part, due to this incentive.
The South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) accredits some locally (South African) published journals and peer reviewed conference proceedings based on specific criteria in addition to the well-established international journals. Such criteria include evidence of peer review and wide variety of authourship/conference participation. I think this helps promote local scholarship - and it should be encouraged rather than discouraged.
My concern though, is that DHET tends to exclude journals and conference proceedings from elsewhere on the African continent, even when they would meet similar criteria. There are definitely good publications in specific areas from western, northern and eastern Africa, but are not accredited.
South Africa and the rest of the continent would stand to learn and gain much more from encouraging exchanges and cross fertilisation of ideas from these more related regions than is current practice.
The official excuse most commonly cited for exclusion is a mistrust of their review and research methodology processes. But the unofficial - and more plausible - reasons could be totally different, and I do not have to speculate here. Going by the Eurocentric ‘The Economist' 2018 statistics, for example, it is reported that for every single so-called ‘genuine' publication in Nigeria, there are 15.8 ‘predatory' ones. On face value, this would mean that only about 6% are worth taking seriously. First, is this really true? Second, if so, why - and so what? To answer these questions, one needs to understand what the so-called ‘predatory' publications are.
They are meant to be ‘open access' author-paid for, internet-based publications with inadequate peer review and editing mechanisms. In the traditional publications, before advent of the internet, there used to be only hard printed copies - which one would access only by purchase or by paid/sponsored registration or by finding in some library or from someone who had bought a copy. This made access to vital information both labourious and expensive to the reader, but lucrative to the publisher. Internet for those who could access it, changed all that.
Digitalisation meant that publications could be accessible anywhere to anyone with a suitable connection. Traditional publishers in the west had lost that twin ace card of controlling information flow and profiteering from the control. They tried to introduce access embargos through digital sales, but it was not completely successful - because a purchaser could then redistribute the same with ease, and legal problems could be avoided by the new user properly referencing the work.
So, they caved in: introduced author-paid ‘open access'. The sales burden was now shifted to the originator of the work. To put it in perspective, an article which, if sold on line by these ‘reputable' publishers could cost the buyer between $20 and $40, now can cost the author $800-$4,000 to have published and then distributed ‘free' in form of ‘open access'.
In Africa and the rest of the developing world, there are very few research institutions which can afford these author charges for each of their academics. Yet, there are genuine academics who want to publish - not just for its sake, but for sharing their findings with other equally financially challenged researchers. It is only natural that academic entrepreneurs arose in the developing world to serve this need. Yet the cost of living in these countries is much lower than in the west. Therefore, even good publishers, ensuring all the necessary peer review and editing procedures, will charge significantly less than the $800 - $4,000 range above.
This diverted income and prestige from the traditional ‘lords' of publications. Hence, the dubbing of ‘predatory' to the new entrants. In India, well known for its low publication costs, the previously mentioned Economist report alleges a 1 to 2.77 ratio of ‘genuine' to ‘predator' or that 73.5% publications are predatory. Really?
Now let me come to who the real predators are - with just one example. At the University of Malawi, a colleague tells of a microbiology student who identified and extracted a wound-healing active ingredient from one of the local herbs. He kept trying to have the work published in any one of the ‘reputable' western journals.
They turned him down, with some giving flimsy excuses of ‘archaic extraction methodology', not in line with their current prestigious rapport. He eventually sent the work to a Chinese journal, which was more than pleased to publish the work. One of the paper reviewers, quickly worked out a scholarship for the young man to do his MSc in China. On completion, an American and a European university are now inviting him to go to do his PhD, this time on HIV/AIDS with them. Who is preying on whom?
To conclude, all African universities and academics in them need to re-awaken to the reality that we need to be doing continuous research if we are to be part of making any meaningful development changes on our continent.
It can cost more money and dedication than we currently seem able to raise, yes. Hence, the necessity for governments to come in like the South African government is doing. More importantly, we need to link our research to solving our people's everyday problems, and set up problem solution incubation centres within our campuses, which solutions we can hand over to local African entrepreneurs at a fee.
This will supplement government and other funding we get from wherever. In this way, the universities will not only have been brain transformation factories as argued in an earlier article, but also incubators of real hardware ‘factories' for our entrepreneurs and wealth creators.
Writer is a pan-Africanist engineering pracademic