I can tell that it’s summer. Edinburgh is plastered in posters for comedy acts, the students have been replaced by tourists and festival goers, and there is a brief lull in the number of publishing conferences. It’s the silly season, where issues have a tendency to resurface and old arguments flare up. One such incident happened last week that resulted in bit of storm in the Twitter and blogosphere. Jeffrey Beall wrote a commentary on the South American aggregator and citation index, SciELO.
There was quite a bit of anger particularly among open access (OA) advocates in response to the post, much of it expressed on Twitter. Many pointed to Beall’s culturally charged use of the word “favela” to describe SciELO, with some accusing Beall of being classist or derogatory. The word racism was used, albeit quite parenthetically.
Some responses relied on arguments of unfairness and lack of transparency in Beall’s eponymous list, which isn’t really relevant here. It’s important to remember that Beall did not call SciELO predatory. I’m sure that he would concede that SciELO are a legitimate and reputable publisher. Instead, Beall contended that SciELO was a bad place for scholars to put their work. Here’s part of what he wrote:
Many North American scholars have never even heard of these meta-publishers or the journals they aggregate. Their content is largely hidden, the neighborhood remote and unfamiliar.
In other words, since SciELO isn’t as well known in the US and Canada as are other publishers, nobody’s going to read it and it’s a bad place to publish. That’s a pretty tough point of view to defend. To support it, Beall claims that SciELO isn’t indexed in Web of Science or Scopus. He conceded that you could find the work in Google Scholar, but contends that the search engine is, “poisoned by fringe science” and so scholars won’t find SciELO’s content that way. The message here is that publishing with nationally run or regional publishers is not in the best interests of local researchers. There’s a few levels of wrong going on, but even if you agree with the value judgements being made, Beall’s argument would be flawed simply because the supporting evidence is incorrect.
An article from 2010 by Samaly Santa and Victor Herrero-Solana in Investigación bibliotecológica examined the coverage of Latin American journals (including but not limited to SciELO content) in Web of Science and Scopus. They found growing coverage even then. Since then, Web of Science has partnered with SciELO to create the SciELO citation index, which to his credit, Beall acknowledges. He does however question how many libraries would license it. In reality, it’s actually part of the core collection, so there is certainly very good coverage. According to a post on the SciELO blog by the Brazilian Forum of Public Health Journal Editors and the Associação Brasileira de Saúde Coletiva, the entire SciELO catalogue is currently indexed in SCOPUS. Finally, content usage on SciELO is healthy. According to a recent email I received from Director Abel Packer, the platform serves an average of just over a million downloads per day. All told, the discoverability of SciELO content is going from strength to strength and they are becoming increasingly important internationally.
Aside from factual inaccuracies, there’s a bigger issue here that most haven’t addressed with the notable exception of the post that I mentioned above on the SciELO’s own blog. In the second paragraph from the bottom, the authors reference this article by Hebe Vessuri et al in the journal Current Sociology. To quote from the abstract of the article:
…by relating excellence to quality differently, a research policy that seeks to improve the level of science in Latin America while preserving the possibility of solving problems relevant to the region can be designed.
It goes on to say:
…designing a science policy for Latin America (and for any ‘peripheral’ region of the world) requires paying special attention to the mechanisms underpinning the production, circulation and consumption of scientific journals.
What the authors are saying is that in order to develop the best research policy for Latin America (and by extension perhaps other regions) it is important to maintain a locally run publishing industry. Why? For example, when editors-in-chief and publishers are drawn from the local community, it creates a platform to publish and promote work that serves the public good in that specific region. The Leiden Manifesto includes this issue as point three in their list of ten principles, citing regional aspects to HIV research. It’s easy to imagine other examples, such as the perceived importance of research into Yellow Fever or Mayan archeology compared to say, Alzheimer’s disease or obesity.
The need for community based publishers with local editorial control is not just limited to emerging markets. As I wrote in a previous post, many university presses and library publishing operations specialize in supporting niche or locally relevant research. In March, Tanya Samman, Jenny Ryan and Michael Donaldson from Canadian Science Publishing wrote a guest post for my Perspectives blog, in which they stated:
As a nationally-based publisher, CSP’s values reflect those of the Canadian research community and of Canadian society in general. Although the research community is still heavily influenced by journal impact factors when determining where to publish, more people are starting to look beyond the impact factor for value added features in their publishing choices, such as integration of multimedia, social media support, premium author services, etc. Community support and engagement is integral to providing such value added services.
The way in which we think about academic excellence is slowly but surely changing over time. There has been a lot of talk about alternative metrics, socio-economic impact of research, data publishing and even changing how authorship works. Almost all of the talk has been based around the needs of markets like North America, Europe and Australia. As the Leiden Manifesto attests, in the field of informetrics, there is a consensus that local excellence should be preserved and encouraged but so far, many publishers and librarians haven’t entered that discussion.
It’s going to be a difficult conversation to navigate as there are a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to be tackled. There is confusion about how to handle new entrants into the market (for the record, SciELO was founded in 1997) and what constitutes legitimate contribution as opposed to predation. The discussion surrounding emerging markets needs to mature significantly and a more careful and nuanced approach is needed. There is a real danger that the current tone in the discussion of predatory publishing could lead to a guilt by association of all publishers based in the non-English speaking world and that would not only be entirely unfair, but damaging to the public good.