Africa’s journals struggle to compete on unequal playing field

With just 50 sub-Saharan journals listed in Scopus, it’s time to consider how citation indexes are holding back scholarly publishing in Africa, argue David Mills and Natasha Robinson

June 3, 2023
Source: istock

Since the 1990s, academic publishing has been transformed by digitalisation, commercial consolidation and the internet. Today, a small group of “data analytics” companies own the technical infrastructures and software that underpin a global research system, and Elsevier and Clarivate wield particular influence though their proprietary citation indexes.

The metrics from these indexes are used by researchers across the globe to judge journal prestige and by universities to incentivise “international” publishing. But are they undermining long-established scholarly journals and regional publishing cultures, particularly across the majority world?

The origins of the academic citation index lie in the pioneering work of the American self-styled “information scientist” Eugene Garfield in the 1950s. He saw citation indexing as a way of managing the exponential increase in scientific publishing and information flows. Yet the task of coding citations was enormous and prohibitively expensive. His justification for selectivity was Bradford’s law of scattering: that the most important literature in any scientific field is published only in a narrow group of journals. Garfield’s first index, published in 1963, was based on around 560 scientific journals, with 70 per cent published from the US or UK, and nearly all the rest from Europe. Two Chinese journals were included, but none from Africa.

Garfield slowly expanded his index as publishers clamoured for inclusion, and he became a powerful gatekeeper. His original ISI index – now called Web of Science – was bought by Clarivate from Thompson Reuters for $3.5 billion (£2.8 billion) in 2016, and today its core collection of four different indexes covers more than 21,000 journals. Elsevier, the largest of the academic publishing houses, launched a rival index, Scopus, in 2004. The latter is around 20 per cent larger and is actively marketed to universities globally.

Both have exacting metrics-based selection and evaluation policies, indexing at the most 5 to 6 per cent of all active academic journals. Around two thirds of these are English-language journals published in Europe and North America, while journals published from Africa continue to be marginalised. If one excludes South Africa, only 50 journals published from sub-Saharan Africa are currently indexed in Scopus.

What impact have these indexes had on scholarly publishing across sub-Saharan Africa? Amid the optimism of post-colonial independence, many new journals were launched by African universities. Over time, however, political instability and structural adjustment programmes undermined many of these initiatives. Editing and publishing high-quality academic journals is not cheap, and most sub-Saharan African governments invest less than 1 per cent of GDP in R&D. Today, despite growing calls to decolonise knowledge, Africa’s scholarly journals struggle to compete on Garfield’s playing field.

Austerity is not solely to blame for the precarious state of many Africa-based journals. Money cannot buy the academic credibility that Scopus and Web of Science bestow.

However, while the shift to digital open access presents opportunities for the continent’s publishers, the citation indexes require journals to comply with the latest technical standards and meet demanding bibliometric thresholds. For example, candidate journals have to be cited regularly by papers published in indexed journals. Yet established authors are disinclined to publish in journals that are not indexed.

This catch-22 compounds a broader geographical bias whereby scholars based in the Global North tend not to read, cite or write for what are perceived to be “lower-status” journals in the Global South. The result is a closed circuit that reduces diversity and perpetuates epistemic inequalities. It took Cairo-based Hindawi Press nine years before one of its journals was listed in Web of Science, by which point it was employing 200 people and developing a highly commercially successful open-access publishing model. Even then Hindawi, now owned by Wiley, continued to encounter suspicion and accusations that its article-processing charge business model was “predatory”.

In this academic caucus race, how can African journals and publishers push the indexes to recognise the limitations of their narrow inclusion criteria and metrics-based approach to evaluation? Our new book, Who Counts? Ghanaian Academic Publishing and Global Science, highlights the creative ways in which African scholarly journals and publishers are garnering recognition and visibility within this new research economy. Sustaining a high-quality publication track record, attracting international advisory boards, reviewers and submissions, and gaining recognition from regional accreditors (such as South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training) all help with the journey to getting indexed. These successes point to ways that African-centred research and publishing infrastructures can support relevant, high-quality work across the continent.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility for epistemic equality lies with those who wield the power. Clarivate and Scopus need to work harder at ensuring a fairer representation of journals from all the world’s geographical regions.

The first step is ensuring diversity and equity are foregrounded in processes. Scopus has local content advisory boards for Korea, China, Thailand and the Russian Federation, seeking to raise the quality and profile of journals from these regions. Africa deserves the same.

Natasha Robinson is a postdoctoral research officer and David Mills is associate professor in pedagogy and the social sciences in the department of education at the University of Oxford. Their open-access book, Who Counts, co-authored with Patricia Kingori, Abigail Branford, Samuel T. Chatio, and Paulina Tindana was published by African Minds earlier this year.

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