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Developing country journals face hurdles on the path to free-flowing knowledge. Fatima Arkin reports on efforts to boost quality.

Vrushali Dandawate, head librarian at the AISSMS College of Engineering in Pune, India, is a tireless supporter of home-grown open-access (OA) journals.

Given the chance, she will impress on anyone she works with — librarians, researchers, teachers — the many benefits of these journals over traditional ones that keep research papers behind a paywall.

She will tell them how they more often publish papers in a local language, making the research accessible to a wider group of people; and how they tend to publish locally useful research, by scientists who may struggle to get their papers accepted by international journals.

In June 2016, Dandawate became one of three India-based ambassadors for the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a non-profit organisation headquartered in the UK that lists over 12,000 vetted scientific journals. The role gave her a bigger platform to spread her message.

OA refers to publications that are freely available online to everyone, with minimal restrictions regarding reuse. It’s a growing movement, and part of its goal is to democratise access to scientific knowledge. But despite the efforts of advocates around the globe in the past decades, the concept faces many hurdles to adoption in the developing world. Chief among them are finding a sustainable financing model and stiff competition with high-impact traditional publishers that remain attractive to many authors.

Although many high-quality journals from the global South are openly accessible on several platforms, they continue to be undervalued, says Leslie Chan, director of Bioline International, an online aggregator of OA journals from developing countries.

The use of paper citation metrics as the universal yardstick for assessing research quality in effect means using “Northern” values and standards to measure research everywhere, according to Chan. “This has the effect of undermining local research [and] development needs,” he explains.

Still, funders continue to push against the traditional publishing model — just this month, 11 European agencies announced a “radical” plan to make all research free to read on publication.  And OA interest is growing throughout the developing world, according to DOAJ data.

Indian OA journals have submitted 2578 requests since 2014 to be included in the DOAJ; Brazil clocked in at 2,048 requests, while Indonesia ranks first with 3,662 requests.

But roughly half of the submissions get rejected, usually because of their low quality, Tom Olijhoek, editor-in-chief of the DOAJ, tells SciDev.Net.

Quality seal

India’s OA publishers are a case in point — they have received more DOAJ rejections than any other country’s publishers in the past four years.

The DOAJ’s criteria span five categories, ranging from the quality of the editorial process to copyright issues. A journal may be genuine but ill-informed about standards, or ill-equipped to meet them.

Another, more sinister explanation is that India is home to a growing number of predatory journals — exploitative publications that charge authors processing or publication fees, but provide little or no editorial rigour or production services. “They simply publish the papers they receive whether they are good research or not,” explains Dandawate.

As a DOAJ ambassador, she has been educating OA editors and publishers across Southern Asia to tackle these problems, with funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre. The programme started with 15 ambassadors in 11 regions, and continues to this day.

The DOAJ has become a reference for other initiatives designed to increase access to quality OA papers — such as Research4Life, a public-private partnership between UN agencies, universities and publishers. Since 2015, Research4Life only indexes OA journals if they meet the DOAJ’s rigorous criteria for journal quality and are included in the directory. “It is critical that Research4Life ensures that the journals we link to can be trusted to operate honestly and responsibly,” says its director Richard Gedye.

DOAJ may stand out for its capacity building and global scope, but is by no means the only open access platform. Other online collections include African Journals Online, the largest online collection of African-published, peer-reviewed scholarly journals, over half of which are OA, as well as SciELO and RedALyC, the two largest Ibero-American OA efforts, and Bioline International, which has existed for 25 years.

But different world regions have different needs — and varying success launching and running quality OA journals.

Latin American pioneers

Brazil, for one, has had more success with its homegrown OA journals than India. Less than 40 per cent of Brazilian OA journals are rejected on average, compared to DOAJ’s overall 50-per-cent rejection rate, according to Olijhoek.

Latin American and Caribbean countries are indeed considered pioneers in OA publishing. Governments in the region have heavily invested in it: two-thirds of funding for OA initiatives in the region come from public and international cooperation funds, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). And since the late 1990s, the region has opened access to research results through journal portals and digital repositories such as the referral service Latindex.

But the region still has a long way to go to create a sustainable, non-commercial OA model that keeps knowledge as a common good, says DOAJ ambassador Ivonne Lujano, a lecturer in higher education at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México.

Lujano has reviewed over 350 journals — mostly published in Spanish and Portuguese — from ten different countries in the region. She says that many of the issues publishers face are fundamentally tied to inequalities embedded in research and education systems.

In particular, editorial staff often lack the digital literacy necessary to use and adapt online systems. In addition, they face language barriers to access concepts and tools that are only available in English — Lujano lists several examples, including the DOI and COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) guidelines. And then there are staff shortages and budget constraints, symptoms of a system that doesn’t offer substantial incentives for editorial work.

“In many cases the staff of a journal is [made up of] only one or two people multitasking,” Lujano says.

African buds

Meanwhile, countries in Africa have made several advances over the past years.

The continent’s DOAJ rejection rate is low, in part because many African journals are not ready to apply for inclusion. And most of the 200 African journals currently included come from a single country: South Africa. Others are struggling to make the transition from print to online and OA, according to Ina Smith, planning manager at the Academy of Science of South Africa and one of five DOAJ ambassadors on the continent.

Smith says that in 2017, the Africa Academy of Sciences launched an OA publishing platform, dubbed AAS Open Research, geared exclusively towards scientists on the continent.

Then in March 2018, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Next Einstein Forum and the publishing giant Elsevier — which has become a target for preserving what critics consider exploitative business models — launched a mega-journal called Scientific African to expand access to African research. Smith says OA advocates on the continent are monitoring these large initiatives and their uptake. “I am a bit concerned that both the AAS and Scientific African would over shadow the great work done by individual journals.”

But she concedes that working with native OA journals is sometimes challenging. Among the hurdles is the fact that OA is not high on the priority list of local researchers — as in Latin America, editorial roles are often not rewarded, and the lack of sustainable business models means some journals stop publishing after only a few months.

But like all the DOAJ ambassadors that SciDev.Net spoke to, Smith remains steadfast in her resolve to continue promoting open access in the region. “Through publishing its own journals, Africa will demonstrate that it is prepared to take ownership and be accountable, and that it plays an important role in contributing to the global knowledge base,” she says.

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