In the second week of January, the Academic Publishing in Europe (APE) meeting offered one of the first international scholarly publishing events of 2021. A panel discussion, organized by Elsevier in this all-virtual conference, brought in the views of researchers, editors, and publishers from Bangladesh, Cameroon, and Gambia on Open Access (OA).
Last June, the STM Association and the International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) produced a white paper on how to make an OA transition equitable for the researchers of Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). The study talks about the Global South’s presence in the academic and OA publishing arenas over the last decade or so, reasons behind the seen trends, and possible actions to improve South’s inclusion in the OA system. The APE panel discussion started with a presentation on this white paper to set the scene. While going through this paper, I recognized four issues, which I thought worth sharing in my remarks as an APE panellist from Bangladesh.
My first point reiterates “every country has a story” — as the white paper noted. During 2009−2018, for example, among all Research4Life countries, Ukraine was one of the highest research publication producers and Iraq showed the highest growth, while Venezuela was the only country showing negative growth in research outputs.
Earlier this month, based on the information submitted to the University Grants Commission, the coordinating body of Bangladeshi universities, a newspaper report disclosed that the country’s universities only spent 1% of their 2019’s expenses on research. Despite the poor investment, many of the 31,600 teachers of 150-odd universities of Bangladesh do conduct research and publish papers in journals published from within Bangladesh and abroad. The recruitment and promotion policies of many universities, as well as many senior academics and policy-makers of Bangladesh however, do not recognize the dynamic academic publishing world. For example, they do not distinguish between indexed and non-indexed journals, do not follow the shift towards the OA model, nor do they take any action to protect their academics from predatory journals. As a result, there is no real incentive for Bangladeshi academics to spend several months’ salary on an article processing charge (APC) to publish a paper in a Gold OA journal (which asks authors to pay an APC making an article immediately open access upon publishing) or even check if they can get a waiver being citizens of a Research4Life country.
Bangladeshi researchers, therefore, often publish their research in peer-reviewed journals published in Bangladesh. There are apparently more than several hundred journals published by Bangladeshi societies and institutions: 143 journals are hosted by the BanglaJOL; the Scopus indexes about 20; Journal Citation Reports (JCR) includes only four. Almost all journals are Gold OA with no APC (also known as subsidized, Platinum OA or Diamond OA), supported by government grants or institutional subsidy. I call this rather closed publishing practice ‘scholarly isolation’.
So, when we discuss how to include the Global South more effectively in OA publishing, we need to ask ourselves — what are the other barriers, besides APCs, stopping the South? How can we overcome those barriers? And does the South really want to break these barriers?
Some recent developments in the university ranking system, however, might be influencing the academic institutions in the South to think differently. That brings us to my second point. Bangladeshi universities are nationally criticized for not doing well on the World University Rankings of the Times Higher Education (THE). But, they in fact cannot do much about it as 60% of the ranking score is based on research and citation. In 2019, THE introduced the Impact Rankings, which measure universities’ contributions to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to rank them. This new system scores research, stewardship, outreach, and teaching almost equally. While it emphasizes research much less than THE World University Rankings, the new system only considers articles published in Scopus-indexed journals. That has made many Bangladeshi universities encourage their academics to publish in Scopus journals, which disqualifies almost all journals published in Bangladesh.
Publishing research in a recognized journal is not enough to get points for the Impact Rankings; it has to contribute to specific SDG(s). This demands a major shift in the ways we design our research, get our funding, and write our articles. The STM Association-ICSR’s white paper recommends supporting the publication of research relevant to the SDGs, which may create new OA opportunities for Southern researchers. But, a shift in mindset might be a bit more difficult than shifting to Scopus journals.
My third point is on the OA model itself. The white paper assumes the Gold OA model as “the” model, and then explores avenues to bring the Global South in. In 2018, the LMICs constituted 5.5% of world’s publications indexed in Scopus. In the same year, 23% of articles published by these countries were in OA journals, while 75% were in subscription journals. While looking into how the South is doing with OA, we also need to convince OA journal publishers to engage with the South more — not only working with them as authors, but also as peer-reviewers and editors. We also need to look into the wide range of APCs available: from zero APC in subsidized Gold OA journals to US$ 9,900 to publish in Elsevier’s Cell (Editor’s Note: Please see comment from Elsevier’s Anne Kitson below). Transparency in determining APCs might clarify how much of it is actual expense, how much is profit, and how much the author is paying for the brand value.
My final point is that when we talk about OA, we essentially talk about journals published by big, commercial publishers from the Global North. We need to bring the OA journals of the South to the discussion. It could be argued that the editorial process and quality of these journals are not up to the mark, these journals are not indexed, they do not have “impact” as defined by Impact Factor or CiteScore. But, they do publish data and information important for a particular country or a region, and these data could be crucial in crisis moments, like pandemics, natural calamities, and climate change.
The white paper recommends investing in the capacity of the researchers, reviewers, and editors of the South. Organizations, like INASP have been doing that over the last couple of decades. It also designed the Journal Publishing Practices and Standards (JPPS) and worked with several hundred African, Asian, and Latin American journals to introduce a three-star rating system. Now the question is how big journal publishers, for-profit and not-for-profit publishers, publishers’ associations (e.g. ALPSP, STM, and SSP), and global networks working on research communication (e.g. Research4Life), can help small national and regional Southern journals to improve their standards. Without that, OA discussions and actions to create a level playing field for the South will remain incomplete.
To make effective collaborations in academic publishing between the North and the South, we need to identify champions from the Global South who are not only excellent researchers, but who also understand and think about research communication in light of the whole research system and development. They are aware of the major changes ongoing in academic publishing and can act as conduits for the wider academic community. They are the ones who will work with the universities and government entities and guide improved policies and practices, which will make Southern research and research communication impactful, not just some text in academics’ CVs.