Regional journals can boost science capacity

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Regional journals are essential for building science capacity in the developing world, says Wieland Gevers.

Building significant and sustainable science capacity in developing countries is an agenda that enjoys wide support. But how best to achieve it is still open to debate.

Part of the answer lies in promoting ‘regional journals’ — scholarly journals published in, and containing many original papers of regional interest, but with editorial and peer review practices equivalent to high-impact journals in developed countries. These are indispensable components of truly globalised scholarship, and cost-effective catalysts for contributions from hard-pressed scientists and scholars in developing countries.

In the highly profitable Western system of commercial journal publishing (now fighting to contain the contagion of open access), hard-working authors are often described as offering their manuscripts for free, quality-assuring other scientists’ work without compensation, and then paying heavily to read published work through costly subscriptions, outrageous downloading fees and out-of-control library budgets.

But these criticisms do not recognise the benefits scientists and scholars derive from being editors, peer reviewers, and contributors. Researchers are constantly alerted to new ideas and findings, interesting citations, methodological insights, and improved conceptual thinking arising from close reading of others’ work.

Systematic benefits

Participating in the system often brings extensive conference and workshop opportunities, sharing of special materials, and exchanges of students and post-docs. It is also a ‘must’ for career advancement — you ‘publish-or-perish’.

Yet these benefits largely fail to reach scientists in the developing world. The current journal-publishing model is dominated by the Thomson Scientific indexing system, which provides a single, widely available and multidisciplinary index of papers published in journals considered to be scientifically important

In choosing which journals to index, the system assumes that 20 per cent of journals

the biggest, best established and most respected contain 80 per cent of the real value of scientific output.

This is a self-fulfilling principle, as the design ensures that the so-called ‘core literature’ increases its reputational hold, while the rest is increasingly marginalized. It is a system where the ‘haves’ (mostly in the North) get more and more, and the ‘have-nots’ (in the South) get less and less of the action.

Some progress

Still, some efforts have been made to work within the system. The economically exuberant ‘tigers’ of South Asia, such as China and Korea, have tried to become big players in ‘visible’ world scholarship by investing heavily in science, and creating strong pressures to publish work in ‘high-impact’ Western journals.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with this approach, although quantity has so far worryingly exceeded quality (at least when measured in terms of the frequency with which papers are quoted by other researchers, the standard metric of citation analysis).

Some highly regarded scientists from developing countries also occupy editorial positions on ‘international’ journals, but they are few and far between.

And some multinational publishers have bought a few journals published in developing countries to include in their bundles of international journals — with pressure to gain entry to the Thomson Scientific indexes if not already there, a sign that their approach is embedded within the dominant Thomson Scientific paradigm.

More to do

But these efforts are far from bringing the important benefits of journal publishing to the South on a large scale. Nor do they recognise the value of regional journal systems, which, through their detailed regional focus, are much richer than the tiny fraction of information lucky enough to make it into the core literature.

Systematic interventions are needed to create a less skewed and self-perpetuating scholarly literature system — one where the downward spiral of ‘have-nots’ can be reversed in sustainable ways on a regional level.

In 2006, the Academy of Science of South Africa published a comprehensive study of about 250 South African journals (20-24 of them indexed by Thomson Scientific) accredited by the local Department of Education as "valid research outputs.” This study strongly supported building up an indigenous system of high-quality, mostly open access, scholarly journals.

The academy now has a scholarly publishing programme with several sub-projects, including consensus peer review by academy-appointed panels of groups of national disciplinary journals (aimed at making recommendations on their optimal configuration in the future), a code of best practice, a forum of scholarly editors and a follow-up academy study review of book publishing in and from the country.

The intention is to build a national platform for journal publishing that: ensures good practice, attracts quality papers from the region and elsewhere, mobilises the support of government and research institutions, harnesses local skills and reaps the benefits of publishing journals that can generate an international reputation.

In Brazil, the publically funded SciELO organisation has established a quality- controlled regional journal system that represents a fully indexed, open access publishing platform for just under 200 journals, out of more than a thousand published in the country. This system — already copied by several other Latin American nations — has allowed citation indexing within a regional journal context, and revealed at least two active clusters of journals, one ‘international’ and one ‘regional’.

There are currently moves afoot to link Thomson Scientific’s indexed databases (enlarged to include more good journals from the developing world) to those of SciELO and other evolving regional models. That would mean a much richer, more diversified and inclusive global scholarly system could be developed cooperatively — something to be warmly welcomed.

Wieland Gevers was, until recently, the executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and is the chair of its Committee on Scholarly Publishing.