A major boost for Open Access scholarly publishing in South Africa – the Academy of Science springs into action

I
came back from a meeting of the Academy
of Science (ASSAF)
Committee on Scholarly Publishing in South
Africa (CSPiSA) last week feeling bouyed up and looking forward to a
period of rapid developments in Open Access scholarly publishing in
South Africa. We were told that the

Department of Science and Technology
(DST) has now dedicated a substantial three-year budget to fund
the implementation of ASSAF's recommendations for the development of
scholarly publication in South Africa. This is important stuff – a
forward-looking government department investing in a major way in the
development of scholarly publication, linking this to the country's
strategic science and technology growth objectives and offering
support for what is in many ways a visionary Open Access programme
that is expected to deliver considerable progress in the next three
years.

The
ASSAF
Report on Scholarly Publishing in SA
was
an important milestone in the development of a coherent and effective
scholarly publishing environment in SA. As reported in earlier

blogs, the Report was commissioned by the DST and produced what was
probably the most coherent account of the state of scholarly
journal publishing in South Africa, concluding with a set of 10
recommendations which included strong support for the development of
a 'gold route' Open Access approach to journal publishing in South
Africa.

The
central vision of the report is for quality-controlled and government
supported publication of open access journals of a sufficient quality
to deliver local impact and international recognition. Quality
control is to be through a peer review process carried out across the
different discuplines in collaboration with the National Journal
Editors' Forum. Financial support for open access journal
publication, it proposed, would be by way of the dedication of a
small percentage of the revenue paid to journals through the
Department
of Education (DoE) publication grant system
, for the purpose of
paying per-article author charges through the institution where the
author is based.

Backing
this up is a recommendation for the creation of a national technical
and promotional platform for hosting and profiling the best South
African journals, possibly along the lines of SciELO in Latin
America. It is envisaged that the national platform would host
selected journals that would profile the best of South African
research.

It
seems that the DST's motivation in offering this support is linked to
its
10-year
plan for human capital development
,
which proposes a radical growth in the level of postgraduate degrees,
publications and innovation levels in higher education. The ASSAf
scholarly publication programme is thus seen as a key to the process
of raising the bar for the quality and output of research in the
country and leveraging upwards the profile of the country in the
international research rankings, while at the same time improving the
positive impact of research on economic growth and social
development.

Open
Access has been recommended not only in response to the need for
increased accessibility but also for higher levels of international
visibility and citation counts to profile South African research in
the conventional international rankings. While the focus of this
programme is fairly conventional, focusing primarily on peer reviewed
scholarly journals that could perform well in the international
citation rankings, this is a major step forward simply because it
puts publication of South African research in South Africa in the
spotlight and, through links with the African Academies of Science, connects this to a broader effort to raise publication levels on the
continent. (The creation of an African citation index is one of the
recommendations in the ASSAf Report on Scholarly Publishing in South
Africa.) And, even more important, this intervention at last
recognises that scholarly publishers need support if South Africa
research is to be properly disseminated.

We understand that
the DST accepts that this model may require long term subsidisation
for Open Access journal support and this support is perceived as part
of a national service project to build capacity and serve every
scholar. To me, as a publisher, this is of central importance. In the
OpeningScholarship
project at the University
of Cape Town,
for example, we have discovered that the
university tracks the authorship of articles (with the purpose of
securing the grants that the DoE pays for publication in accredited
journals), but that there is no tracking of publication – who is
editing or publishing what and where. Publication efforts –
editing, peer reviewing and producing scholarly and other
publications – are therefore invisible and, not surprisingly I
think, under-supported. This is surely detrimental to the
university, as this is an opportunity lost to profile the
considerable contribution that this leading research university makes
to scholarship and development initiatives in the region.

CSPiSA's
delivery of the activities that have been prioritised should start
very soon now: the rolling peer review of journals across different
subject area will be carried out in collaboration with the

Journal Editors' Forum

(see
my
blog
on the
inaugural meeting of the Forum last year). The idea is that this will
not only be a quality evaluation process but will be designed to
provide the potential for the development of the knowledge and skills
that could lead to quality improvement. Agreement on the composition
of the review panels is being sought and the first subject areas to
be reviewed should start rolling out soon.

A
further intervention being undertaken over the next six months, this
time with DoE support, is the production of a Report on a Strategic
Approach to Scholarly Book Publishing by a selected panel of experts,
following a fact-finding investigation by CREST at the University of
Stellenbosch. Provisional findings should be available for
presentation at the National Scholarly Journal Editors' Forum in July
and it is hoped that the final report should be ready for release in November. Another important milestone, this, as book publication is seriously under-supported and under-valued in South African policy, in spite of the remarkable success of the open access social science research council publisher,
the HSRC Press.

Let's see where we are this time next year. Much further down the road, I suspect.