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South African research journals have been urged to dramatically increase their visibility — to policymakers, taxpayers who often fund the research, and readers across the developing world — by creating open-access Internet editions as soon as possible.

The Academy of Science of South Africa made the call this week in a report of an inquiry that found that in the past 14 years, one-third of South African journals have not had a single paper cited by their international counterparts.

"Some of the journals are not worth the paper they are printed on," says Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria and co-author of the academy's report.

The academy's executive officer Wieland Gevers, who led the investigation, stresses that a considerable body of world-class research has emerged from South Africa over time, much of it published to an international audience.

But fewer than one in ten of South Africa's 255 accredited journals has been cited enough to feature in the main international research databases, despite South Africa being the continent's leading publisher of research.

Egypt and Kenya, by contrast, each have only one indexed journal.

Gevers says the government's system for subsidising journals must be reformed to improve their quality and visibility.

Currently, the Department of Education pays universities 84,000 rands (US$14,000) each time a government-accredited journal publishes a paper by one of their academics, regardless of the journal's international standing.

Gevers says the department should divert US$165 of the subsidy to the journals, to allow them to fund online and open-access editions.

"I'm very happy with the report," said Dan Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal, which is among the few to rank in international databases. "It captures the situation very well and I think it's good for South African science publishing."

Adi Paterson of the Department of Science and Technology, which commissioned the study, welcomes the report as a basis for strengthening "incentives to support high-quality research publications" and to "forge a low cost open-access approach to the publishing of publicly funded research".

The report has been sent to science academies in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to stimulate a broader debate about open-access.

It has also been sent to the African Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the science and technology secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Representatives of the Academy of Science of South Africa will discuss the findings at the South African Research and Innovation Management Association conference in Pretoria/Tshwane on 11 May.

Link to full report

Link to searchable collection of papers from South African journals (some only open to subscribers)