Gray Area

The State of the Nation 2: Clashing paradigms in South African research publication policy

, , , ,

When I set out to explore the policyframework for scholarly publishing in South Africa, I did so with aburning question that I have carried over from my publishing career.Given the scenario that I sketched in my last posting, in whichAfrican voices are largely silenced by the conventions of globalscholarly publication, what I would be looking for would be nationalpolicies that would grow the output and effective dissemination ofAfrican research in and from Africa, for African development, in themost appropriate media and formats. A publisher's approach would beto look at the goals articulated in national higher education andresearch policy and then ask whether policy for researchdissemination is encouraging publications that support those goals.

What I found was that there is strangeclash of paradigms within the different policy documents and, morestarkly, between the policies of different government departments.Before I get too critical of these illogicalities, I need to stressthat South African policy is not unusual in this regard. Worldwide,discussion of research dissemination is a blind spot. As the authorsof an Australiangovernment report on research communication costs put it:'despite billions of dollars being spent by governments on R&Devery year, relatively little policy attention has yet been paid tothe dissemination of the results of that research through scientificand scholarly publishing'.

Effective dissemination of highereducation research and the availability of that research knowledge tothe country that funds it - particularly in Africa - can be quiteliterally of life and death importance. Just think of the need forrapid responses to the AIDS pandemic, continually informed by thelatest research findings. Yet when the question of publication andeffective dissemination arises in the policy documents, it tends tobe in terms of a generally unchallenged set of presumptions aboutwhat constitutes effective research dissemination - articles inaccredited scholarly journals and registered patents. And, whileuniversities might spend large sums of money registering patents,there is a tacit assumption that publication is not something thatuniversities pay for. This is, in part, what JosephJ Esposito in a recent article on university presses in LOGOSand the Journal ofElectronic Publishing calls ' the free rider syndrome. Auniversity must provide for students and faculty and will activelyencourage faculty to publish, but a press can be stinted becausebecause it is always possible that a particular book will bepublished somewhere else.'

The major policy framework for highereducation research in South Africa is the research and innovationpolicy developed by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).Starting with a backgroundreport commissioned from the IDRC in 1995, the departmentconsolidated these findings in a WhitePaper on Science and Technology in 1996 and then updated this inSouthAfrica's Research and Development Strategy in 2002. To summarisesomewhat brutally; the common theme across these policies is thatSouth African research must address national development needs andcontribute to employment and economic growth. The emphasis is on thevalue of collaborative and inter-disciplinary research in arapidly-changing technological environment. While attention is paidto the need to build the international reputation of South Africanresearch, this is balanced out by a developmental focus that insistson a responsiveness to national need

As far as intellectual property is concerned, the Research andDevelopment Strategy articulates the need to address the challengesposed by new technologies, and the question of biotechnology andindigenous knowledge. 'International thinking on legislation is asfluid and fast-moving as the new technologies themselves', thereport comments. 'We need to develop competencies as a matter ofurgency or face exploitation and marginalisation with respect to ourown resources. A clear approach to intellectual property that arisesfrom publicly funded research is required' (DACST 2002:22). However, the subsequent discussion of IP issues is far from clear,veering between recognition of the importance of public access and 'appreciation of the value of intellectual property as an instrumentof wealth creation in South Africa' (68). These contradictions arenot resolved in the strategy document and indeed legislative reformand policy formation concerning access and copyright have been insuspension in South Africa for some time.

If I were to hypothesise the outcome of these recommendations, as apublisher, I would look for a research dissemination policy thataddressed the real needs of a country in a state of radicaltransformation, that incorporated the potential offered by newmethods of knowledge dissemination, and that made provision for arange of publishing outputs to meet the needs of different audiencesand constituencies. I would look for a focus on national, rather thaninternational, dissemination in the first instance, to ensure thatresearch findings could have the required impact. I would also lookfor funding mechanisms to support knowledge dissemination and forpolicies for public access. Lastly, I would look for an awareness ofthe potential for new dissemination models based on the advantagesoffered by new communication technologies to deliver effectiveresearch dissemination in the service of radically increaseddevelopment impact.

This is, however, far from being the case. In a generally enlightenedpolicy environment, publication is the Cinderella that is leftabandoned in a dark 20th century kitchen. The White Paperon Science and Technology stresses the importance of developments inICT. However, read in the context of the whole document, particularlywhen it comes to discussion of research dissemination, one begins towonder if the global information revolution being spoken of here isnot a matter of information technology minus the information that itis designed to transmit. In other words, the generally technocraticapproach of the White Paper does not grapple with the need tocommunicate and transmit research information in order to achievemaximum impact. It is as if a pipeline is being designed anddeveloped without the provision of the water that will run throughit. This carries through into later policy documents so that,startlingly, dissemination and research outputs appear only as amatter of mechanical counts: the number of reports, journal articlesand other publications, and patents registered.

It has been left to the Department of Education (DoE), then - atleast thus far - to articulate more detailed policy on researchpublication. The DoE focused on the creation of an overarching policyinitiative for higher education reform in South Africa : theformation of the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in1994, which framed the discussion that ultimately led to the WhitePaper on Higher Education (1997) and the NationalPlan on Higher Education (NPHE) (2001). The policy-makingprocess was characterised by wide-ranging discussion and debate, withan emphasis on consultation and transparency. Here, again, theframing discourse was developmental and the key issues were equity,diversity, redress and the creation of research strength.

Preliminary remarks in the NPHE on research and research dissemination sound encouraging: a strategic objectiveis 'to promote the kinds of research and other knowledge outputsrequired to meet national development needs and which will enable thecountry to become competitive in a new global context' (NPHE:60). Thedocument complained of a lack of coherent policy on research outputs,promising policy development to address this issue. It raised theneed to respond to the global transformation of knowledgedissemination through ICTs and talked of the need to build networksto fuel the growth of an innovation culture (NPHE:61). The problemsidentified are those of declining research publication output and thedominance of ageing white researchers as authors of publications.

When the Department of Education delivered the promised policy onresearch dissemination in 2003, in its Policyfor Measurement of Research Output, it did pay lip service, inits preliminary comments, to the need 'to sustain current researchstrengths and to promote research and other outputs required to meetnational development needs'. However, the policy document then goeson to spell out a 'publish or perish' reward system that recognisesand rewards peer reviewed publication in journals appearing in theISI and IBSS indexes and a somewhat problematic list oflocally-indexed journals, in part inherited from the apartheid era.Although peer reviewed books and conference proceedings accepted byan evaluation panel are also rewarded, they appear to have a lesserweighting in terms of financial rewards.

The wording of the policy insists on 'originality', rather thantackling the implications of the collaborative research approachesrecommended in the research policy framework. The target audience ofthese publications is identified as 'other specialists in the field',therefore rewarding individual rather than collaborative effort anddissemination within the scholarly community rather than the widerdissemination that would be needed to deliver the development goalsof the R&D and Innovation policy framework. In other words, thepolicies framing rewards for research publication remain firmly in acollegial tradition in which the purpose of scholarly communicationis turned inwards into the academy. The system is related to personaladvancement in academe and the prestige of scholars and institutionsin the international rankings rather than grappling with what itmight mean to couple this with gearing research dissemination towardsbroader social goals.

The fact that the DoE rewards the delivery of these publicationtargets with substantial financial grants means that the drivetowards publication outputs in higher educational institutionsfocuses almost obsessively on the production of journal articles inaccredited journals, with international journals carrying higherprestige than local journals. Given the ever-rising cost ofcommercial journals, over-stretched library budgets and a weakexchange rate, this can mean, particularly for the lesswell-resourced universities, that a good deal of South Africanresearch is not readily accessible to South African scholars, letalone the community at large.

Moreover, the long delay before publication, the outcome of thepeer reviewing process and the way the journals are assembled meansthat journal information is all too often a matter of record - thehistory of an achievement rather than currently useful information.This is particularly the case in fast-changing technologies, but isno less the case in the human and social sciences, where theinformation being transmitted could often meet an urgent need, forexample in dealing with the social impact of HIV AIDS, environmentalcrises, or with violence against women and children.

There are signs of hope that this impasse can be overcome. In therecent survey of scholarly publishing conducted by the Academy ofScience of South Africa and commissioned by the DST, there is a clearcommitment to boosting the quality and impact of local publicationand to Open Access. South Africa is a signatory to the OECDDeclaration on Access to Knowledge from Publicly Funded Research andthis is tagged in the DST policy documentation as an area to beaddressed. I will write more on this in a subsequent posting.

Leave a comment

I share your perplexity when it comes to the reverence with which patents seem to be regarded by the universities as proof of effective research delivery, for a few more reasons than the ones you cite, with which I agree totally.
I was dumbstruck to learn a little while ago that the cost of getting an international patent registered for a piece of university research was around R750,000. The universities and the NRF seem quite sanguine about this expenditure, seeing it as necessary tool for allowing research to be translated into development projects. First of all, as someone interested in research dissemination through publication, I am amazed that these sums of money are spent with alacrity, when no-one in the university system seems prepared to fork out even R10,000 to publish research output. Secondly, as you say, most patents registered by universities make no revenue, and I would suspect that many do not result in beneficial results for the delivery of national development targets. Nevertheless, the motivation that continues to be put forward for a policy of patent registration is a financial one. Very illogical terrain...
Most of all, one needs to note what Yochai Benkler says so cogently. Patents and copyrights are designed to work only for private enterprise in the rich countries of the North, and not for poorer countries:
"Under these conditions," he writes,"the above-marginal-cost prices paid in these poorer countries are purely regressive redistribution. The information, knowledge, and information-embedded goods paid for would have been developed in expectation of rich world rents alone. The prospects of rents from poorer countries do not affect their development. They do not affect either the rate or the direction of research and development. They simply place some of the rents that pay for technology development in the rich countries on consumers in poor and middle-income countries. The morality of this redistribution from the world's poor to the world's rich has never been confronted or defended in the European or American public spheres. It simply goes unnoticed (The Wealth of Networks 2006: 318).