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Academic publishing in South Africa: it’s complicated


An Academy of Science of South Africa report on academic publishing in the country highlights a pronounced growth spurt between 2005 and 2014 but also shortfalls in transformation and instances of questionable publishing practices.

The report ‘Twelve years later: second ASSAf report on research publishing in and from South Africa’, released on 29 April, was authored by Robin Crewe, Wieland Gevers and Susan Veldsman with data from the Centre for Research on Evaluation of Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University.

It says South Africa saw a three-fold increase in research articles between 1995 and 2014. Journal publications peaked at around 13,300, of which 38 per cent were in the humanities, arts and social sciences and 35 per cent in natural and agricultural sciences. Engineering and applied technology constituted the smallest share.

As Research Africa reported last week, collaboration is on the up. The number of papers with international collaborators tripled between 2005 and 2015.

Quality markers are climbing, too. The number of South African papers among the world’s most highly cited grew markedly between 1995 and 2014. The report states that South Africa is “over-represented in the upper echelons of world science” as more than 1 per cent of its papers are in the top 1 per cent of the world’s most highly cited papers.

Transformation hiccups

However, the publication boom has not managed to balance out inequalities in South Africa’s academic space. While praising the “enormous efforts to transform the research publishing community”, the report shows that the bulk of papers in South Africa continue to be penned by white academics and men.

The report examines the demographics of South Africa’s total author pool in terms of race, gender, and age. While the share of both black and women authors grew over the period studied, growth stalled towards the end, the report says. Publications by women climbed from 28.6 per cent in 2005 to 32.5 per cent in 2013, but then decreased slightly to 32.3 per cent in 2014. Similarly, the proportion of papers produced by black researchers (defined as “African” in the report”) more than doubled from 7 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2013. However, it stayed level in 2014, and so did the proportion of “coloured” and “Indian” authors that year.

Such data suggests a transformation slowdown after 2012. And, for women at least, it’s at odds with the demographic data of academics in South Africa, says Johann Mouton, director of CREST: “If one takes into account that women academics constitute about 46 per cent of all academic staff, that would reinforce the view that more women need to be encouraged and capacitated to publish.”

Mouton believes the low proportion of women academics that hold a PhD—37 per cent—might explain the discrepancy. He says that the “vast majority” of academics who are productive in scientific publishing have a doctorate. “[The solution] is really that the government and National Research Foundation should do more to get more women academics to complete their doctoral degrees,” he says.

The percentage of black academics with a PhD is even lower than that of women PhD holders. Mouton argues that black academics should also receive support to obtain doctorates to boost their publication numbers.

‘Predators’ are being tamed

The Assaf report also tackles predatory publishing. This is when researchers publish in for-profit journals with slack peer review, fake metrics and extremely fast turnover times either through lack of knowledge or due to the pressure to meet targets. In South Africa, the authors argue, publishing incentives should be reviewed as a safeguard against unethical practices that harm quality.

In 2017 CREST reported that predatory publishing could have cost the country R300 million (US$21m) between 2005 and 2014 in subsidies that should not have been paid because they were published in potentially dodgy journals.

The Assa report’s authors say that universities and research funders should be both proactive and punitive in order to clamp down on predatory publishing. Training should target young researchers to “avoid these pitfalls and hoaxes”, while sanctions should affect promotion or tenure appointments, they wrote in a joint comment to Research Africa.

However, Mouton says that over the last three years South Africa has gained the upper hand in the fight against predatory publishing. At the peak, between 2010 and 2015, South Africans published 300-400 articles a year in predatory journals. “This has now declined to between 50 and 100, although there are still some differences between universities that are substantial,” he notes.

He says this was the result of advocacy by CREST, and the Department of Higher Education and Training, National Research Foundation and universities taking action against “unethical publication behaviour and unacceptable gaming of the DHET subsidy system”. And he adds that most of the predatory publishers that appeared on DHET’s list of accredited journals have been removed.

People still game the system

But if predatory publishing is less of a concern now than a few years back, other questionable publishing practices are in use by South African academics, the Assaf report says. These include researchers publishing many articles in journals where they are the editor or sit on the editorial boards, multiple publications by the same author in a single edition, or what the report calls “publication cartels” where the same people co-author several papers in a journal.

The report identifies two anonymised case studies of such dodgy practices in 2017. Both involved instances where members of an editorial board published large numbers of papers in their own or former journals, collecting substantial DHET subsidies as a result.

However, the report steers away from calling these case studies “unethical”, which would imply fraud and deliberate breaking of the rules. Instead, such practices result from South Africa’s ambiguous rules in scholarly publishing, it says. The report states that the DHET subsidy system, which rewards researchers for publishing in accredited journals, is part of the problem.

The report’s authors told Research Africa that the “obsession” with publication totals is a dangerous tendency and that it is more important to measure impact research rather than  quantity.

In the report, they write: “As long as authors are (mostly) rewarded for publishing many articles and editors are (mostly) rewarded for publishing the articles rapidly, new ways of gaming the traditional publication models will be invented more quickly than new control measures can be put in place.”