Guest blog: ‘Publish or Perish in African Studies: new ways to valorize research’

Stephanie IAIThis guest blog was written by Stephanie Kitchen, Managing Editor, International African Institute. With Hartmut Bergenthum (Frankfurt University Library), she convened a panel entitled ‘Publish or Perish in African Studies: new ways to valorize research’ during the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 6) on 8 July 2015 in Paris. Full abstracts of the panel are available here.

The well attended panel (with standing room only) raised a number of salient points and debates about publishing in Africa and African Studies. Hartmut Bergenthum introduced the panel that aimed to bring together academics, publishers and librarians to discuss the changes from traditional (print) to new (digital) publishing models and how they are used to support and valorize research.

Stephanie Kitchen (left) listening to Jos Damen's (ASC Library) presentation.

Stephanie Kitchen (left) listening to Jos Damen’s (ASC Library) presentation.

Jos Damen (ASC, Leiden) helpfully identified the main current models of journal publication. Journals are funded by (i) subscriptions, (ii) organizations and institutions, or (iii) are open access funded by authors; or else they are a hybrid of these models. Looking at the top ten journals in African Studies as measured by Impact Factor, it is noticeable that only one of these is fully open access – Africa Spectrum, funded by the German GIGA Institute of African Affairs.

Not reaching out enough in Africa
Vincent Hiribarren (King’s College London) discussed the dissemination of academic research online, notably on Africa4, a blog that Vincent co-edits and that has been set up for academics to discuss research in a wider sphere. The blog is part of the French left-leaning newspaper that is influential amongst academics, Libération. He spoke interestingly about the different writing styles for blogs versus academic books. Books tend to be considered ‘authoritative’ whereas blogs may be more ‘subjective’. Paragraphs in blogs are shorter. Less jargon is used. Vincent felt that journalists have much to offer academics in learning how to write for the web. In terms of dissemination, it is a truism that more people will read blogs than books. Vincent argued that Africanist lecturers are not reaching out enough in Africa and yet are under pressure to demonstrate ‘impact’. The challenge is to mix popular and research modes of writing.

Peer reviews a ‘waste of time’?
Godwin Siundu (University of Nairobi) used the case of the journal he co-edits, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, to discuss the sometimes contradictory pressures inherent in such an intellectually ambitious publishing project in East Africa. Journal editors may encounter institutional resistance and be confronted with a lack of publishing skills and capacity on the one hand. On the other, they operate within university systems of recognition and reward that prize respected peer review publications. At the same time, established academic faculty may not ‘take editorial comments kindly’, sometimes pronouncing peer review to be a ‘waste of time’ at the same time as judging newer journals to be too ‘young’ to confer authority.

Driving a research agenda from the South
Roshan Cader (Wits University Press – WUP) identified the leading South African scholarly publisher (WUP) with driving and disseminating a research agenda from the ‘South’. The onus on Wits Press is to be visible (on international databases, with citation tools), and to go digital in a climate where there is insufficient buy-in from universities to adopt new technologies. One option Wits is exploring is establishing a digital platform of scholarly presses in South Africa. Wits Press’s position on open access is that there is ‘not enough evidence to support open access’ (‘evidence’ in the sense of making it work economically at Wits Press); and that they therefore do not yet have a fully fledged open access policy.

How to document tweets
Peter Limb (Michigan State University) concluded the panel presentations with a wide-ranging discussion encompassing the value of digital outputs and the challenge of curating digital sources. Librarians were bounded to ‘anticipate the new’ – how do librarians deal with documenting tweets, for example?

publish-or-perish1I introduced and chaired the open discussion, first bringing to the fore some key points that emerged from the publishing stream at the 2014 ASAUK conference (African Studies Association of the UK). First: that knowledge production in Africa remains a challenge going beyond the ‘encounter with the West’. Second: that higher education in Africa is still marked by crisis, with a consequent impact on quality of research and publication output. Third, that African-published journals typically suffer from ‘resource scarcity’ whatever the publishing model, granted that the evidence shows institutionally funded open access journals to be gaining in reputation and dissemination. In the North, meantime, in common with the case presented by Roshan Cader, monographs are shifting to digital. But it is unlikely that a single dominant model to support open access monographs will emerge for some time.

Junior scholars’ dilemma: how to publish the thesis?
The audience discussion was the most lively part of the panel. Early career scholars raised the oft-repeated though nonetheless career-crucial dilemmas they encounter in decisions about publishing the full text of their theses online immediately, and/or whether to publish in article and book formats.
There was a good discussion about peer review cultures. With the northern journals there tend to be established patterns, of expectations on academics to review the work of their peers, recognition being achieved via editorial board membership and journal editorships. This is not always the case with African journals, where peer reviewers may expect payment. The editors on the panel (from Wits and IAI) pointed out that reviewers of their book manuscripts were paid whereas journal reviewers are not paid.

‘Digital divide’
Members of the audience questioned the extent to which a research agenda from the global South/South Africa was sufficiently broad to encompass the priorities of the African continent more widely. And evidence of a North/South or ‘digital divide’ was present in our discussions with the audience. Although this is perhaps alternatively expressed in terms of unequal access to the resources (funding, knowledge, skills) on which the ‘digital shift’, advocated particularly by Peter Limb, ultimately depends. The Dar es Salaam-based publisher Walter Bgoya stressed that African publishers and authors were abreast of and held views on the questions about digital paradigms that this panel was raising. But just as they were listening to the experts on the panel, he also asked that they should in turn listen to the more fundamental issues still confronting the publisher in Africa, starting with editorial capacity and language of publication.

As the co-chair of the panel, I found this to be an informative and stimulating session that brought together divergent interests. As editors, scholars and curators of knowledge on Africa we have much in common wherever we are working; but we also need to be aware of how unevenly (digital) resources are spread – and ways in which this can be redressed.

We will take forward some of these debates in the Publishing Stream being planned for the next ASAUK conference in September 2016.

Stephanie Kitchen
Managing Editor, International African Institute,