Landmark ASSAf Study on Research Publishing Launched

Improving and protecting South African research publishing is at the core of a consensus study released today by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

Addressing new possibilities and challenges which have arisen and were exacerbated with the advent of open science, the study, entitled Twelve Years Later: Second ASSAf Report on Research Publishing in and from South Africa (2018) highlights the main issues and unresolved problems still remaining in the system despite progress.

The domain of scholarly publishing in and from South Africa is key to the maintenance and expansion of the country’s developmental potential and future prosperity which is currently in a state of technological and commercial flux, internationally and nationally. Policy and practice must be adapted at all levels to address this new environment. The study seeks to provide a firm evidential basis for informed, inclusive and comprehensive debate, and wise policymaking for the future.

The results of this study have consequences at the systemic, institutional and individual levels. It warns that predatory publishing poses a significant threat to science in SA. “If it continues to increase at the rate of growth of the past five years, predatory publishing may well become the norm in some disciplines and at some universities. Not only will this affect the very fabric of the science system (our confidence in the peer review system), but it will also undermine the trust and confidence of the general public in science and its products.”

The report describes at least three publication practices which should be regarded as questionable (if not unethical) and provides case studies suggesting these. These are:

  • Unacceptable levels of publication intensity by the editor or a member of the editorial   board (in their journal).
  • Unacceptable publication intensity by an individual in the journal (for example,   publication of an excessively large number of papers in the same issue).    
  • ‘Publication cartels’ where two or more individuals (sometimes also members of the editorial board) co-author repeatedly in the same journal.

The study concludes with eight headline recommendations for the most urgent and important steps that need to be taken to improve and protect research publishing in, and from, SA.

1     ASSAf, cooperating with the National Scholarly Editors’ Forum (NSEF), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Universities South Africa (USAf), to seek a more rational, higher quality and sustainable array of local journals that are all online, and open access (Gold Route), with full indexing in SciELO SA as one objective, and inclusion in international indexes as another.

2     ASSAf should drive a process of consultation within the NSEF and with non-commercial journal publishers to set up a generally acceptable regulatory mechanism for determining the appropriate pricing level of article-processing charges (APCs) in the local system, taking into account differences in article length and complexity. Funding APC’s should be done in consultation with the National Research Fund (NRF) and DHET as well as other research funding institutions.

3     The matter of national high-level negotiation with multi-national mega-publishers of commercial journals needs to be reconsidered in the light of developments in relation to    open access publication. Access to the funding of databases and the redirection of subscription funding to APCs needs to be the subject of a study lead by ASSAf and  involving the Department of Science and Technology (DST), DHET and the university libraries. The emphasis should be on ensuring that the scholarly publishing environment is not significantly disrupted during this transition from a subscription-based model to an APC model.

4     The approach to national, regional and continental development of a high-quality journal system should be discussed with other African countries, with the possibility of expansion of the SciELO platform to other countries. This discussion needs to taken forward by DST in its engagements at a regional and continental level in consultation with ASSAf, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC).

5     The range of qualifying titles carried on SciELO SA should be increased especially in the light of recommendation 1 and the imperative of transforming journals into fully open access publications. The funding for this expansion would need to be considered in the context of the changes to scholarly publishing business models.

6     The establishment of a formal tripartite partnership between ASSAf, the Centre for Research on Evaluation of Science and Technology (CREST) and the DHET that can reliably and transparently facilitate quality assurance and policy development in the department’s research outputs subsidisation system needs to be established. The partnership should consultatively manage the integrity of and deal with abuse of the subsidy system.

7     Development of a local ranking of scholarly book publishers should be explored with the DHET with a view to simplifying the recognition of locally produced scholarly books. The issue of establishing a National Scholarly Book Fund should be discussed with the DHET and the DST; and the results of the evaluation of scholarly books and chapters in books need to be provided by DHET to the institutions submitting them and to local scholarly publishers so that they become familiar with the application of the criteria for  accreditation.

8     Publishing practices (e.g. article abstracts in lay language, powerful contextualising editorials) will need to be modified in order to engage the public, as well as specific sectors with the knowledge produced by the country’s researchers. This will require promoting discoveries and insights, specifically including (scholarly) book reviews and institutional press releases, etc.