Academic journals: thinking from the ‘South’

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 13, 2008

I’ve been reading with great interest “Henry’s”: “posts”: on Open Access publishing in academia, and want to add a thought by considering this issue from the perspective of what I will call ‘the South’ — basically most (but not all) universities in developing countries. When debating the costs and benefits (not just economic, but broader) of commercial versus open access journals, there does seem to be a benefit that I find particularly important, namely that open access could, at least in the long run, contribute to closing the global inequalities in access to education. And it can also help to improve the quality of the papers being produced by scholars living and working in the South, which in turn increases their chance of being published in what we consider quality journals, which would be good not just for their carreers, but also for global dialogues.

This is not just a theoretical thought. If the information I get from (associate) editors of journals who explicitly encourage submission of papers from the South is representative, then the problem can be sketched like this: Scholars living and working in the South are submitting papers that contain interesting empirical information about the areas they live in, or interesting interpretations and analyses of issues that are different from the analysis one would hear from a typical ‘Northerner’. Yet these papers are not up to date with recent theoretical developments or other relevant published literature, and are also not written in the ‘style’ of mainstream academic articles. So almost all these papers get rejected. (Of course there are, in absolute numbers, enough exceptions; but if we’d look at percentages, I’d think this is a fair sketch of the problem).

Clearly this is not a fair game: these authors have to meet our quality standards but they are working under much harder conditions (like power cuts), and with only a fraction of the resources we are having at our disposal (not just money, but also books and journals, and the quality of the education they enjoyed themselves). In short, the access barriers to academic journals are one significant factor contributing to global academic inequalities. One more reason to support open access.

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Yet another reason to support Open Access « Entertaining Research
03.15.08 at 5:39 pm



c.l. ball 03.13.08 at 9:19 pm

It is astounding how little attention this gets. It is a problem; I frequently sent archival PDFs to South American scholars.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.13.08 at 9:30 pm

So do I. Two weeks ago I was asked by a PhD student in Kathmandu for a paper I wrote on capability and education; I sent that person 15 articles, all on this topic written by a variety of people. It’s half an hour work for me to gather them (most I had in a folder on my computer, a few others I had to download from the electronic library), but from the reaction I got, it was well worth it. Clearly time constraints are often preventing me from doing such things, but if one thinks about it, one can make a differnece at little cost (only a little bit of time) to oneself.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.13.08 at 9:37 pm

Actually, I forgot to mention another potential benefit from Open Access to students and scholars in the South. Right now, if you publish something with a commercial publisher, they charge insane fees to give the right to translate your article into another language (note: not for the translation, only for the right to publish a translation). Twice Latin-American scholars asked me whether they could translate an article of mine that has been published in a Taylor and Francis Journal in Spanish, and twice the fee (500 Euros) meant that the publication did not take place (in fact, this also happend once with an Italian project, and once with a French project; so these fees are not just too high for ‘Southerners’, but also for scholars who are putting together an edited volume on a shoestring.) And of course I feel sad about this too, since it’s always nice to see one’s work being translated and thus made available to a larger readership.


Jonathan Dursi 03.13.08 at 10:06 pm

I agree with the sentiment in the post here, and also agree that Open Access is likely a Very Good Thing, but I’m not sure that the first is an argument for the second. OA is likely going to be funded by page charges or some other author-based fees (the only people willing to pay for this stuff is the reader or the writer, and if you’re allowing Open Access, it won’t be the reader; and like it or not, even online-only OA publishing costs real money in terms of editorial staff, copy editors, servers, reliable backups, bandwidth) so it would mean making reading these works much easier while putting publishing works further out of reach…

Further, although OA would presumably help in getting access to literature, restructuring the entire academic publishing industry isn’t necessary to address this particular problem; presumably it would be possible to get enough academics together to convince the publishers to provide massive (total?) discounts for institutions in poor countries? This has worked (sporadically) in other industries…


Laleh 03.13.08 at 10:11 pm

Ingrid, I’d agree with you about the improvement in the quality of Southern education if a) the provision of access to research went hand in hand with provision of other resources (money for research; equipment; etc.) b) if in a broad swathe of social science and humanities disciplines the stuff produced were even remotely relevant to the people in the South.

Concerning the latter, I can’t see any of the abstract model-building that goes on in so much of the social sciences, or the positivistic large-N studies that come up with silly, universalisitic and meaningless “if A, therefore B” type argumenst would be of interest or relevance to scholars in the South.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.13.08 at 10:14 pm

Jonathan, yes, you’re right about the inevitable costs – thanks for pointing this out. But isn’t it the case that OA would work on a not-for-profit basis, wheres the current publishers are trying to increase/maximise profits? It therefore seems more likely that OA publishers will be willing to waive fees for authors based in the South, then that we will convince the current commerical publishers to provide discounts. And even large discounts would still make their journals beyond the reach of most universities in the South – it would have to be almost free. I doubt that we can convince them to do that — except perhaps for the old archives. But that’s not going to really contribute to solving the problem of global academic inequalities.


Scott Hughes 03.13.08 at 10:39 pm

I think public websites are the best way to go. People all over the world can access a website and get the information off of it.


jonfernquest 03.13.08 at 10:46 pm

Collaboration in the areas in which scholars from “the south” have a distinct advantage, namely translation of indigenous texts, historical, literary, media, which require subtle linguistic knowledge and understanding of cultural nuances, might be a good place to begin.

The focus of my research is Burmese history 1350-1600 so I am very conscious of these possibilities and have actually pursued them in an informal way. For instance, I hired a former Catholic priest (got married to a nun, had kids) to be a sort of tutor to work through a difficult historical text. Given political situation in Burma though, these relations had to remain informal and unacknowledged or cited. I also worked with a very bright university student during the university closures of the 1990s. Too bad more can’t be done in the way of informal collaborations of academics which are more likely to involve the less privileged classes.


Emma 03.13.08 at 10:48 pm

Publishing in the so called South is one of the things Open Journal System is fostering. Have a look at “African Journals Online” to see 300+ African journals being published through the system. The benefit of open publishing, of course, is not just to researchers in the developing world who get to see our work for free, but to researchers in the developed world (North or South) who can see the great work being done by African colleagues, despite the fact that it doesn’t make money for international publishing conglomerates. The overheads mentioned in other comments are within the margin of variation in academic workloads, in my experience. Academics should be attempting to get the work involved in editing a scholarly journal recognised in their productivity measures. It’s a scandal that the research paid for by universities, which are publicly funded in my country (Australia), is then sold back to them by multinationals. Take back the pages!


SG 03.14.08 at 1:13 am

probably this problem could be solved regardless of the publishing model simply by ending the war in Iraq a day earlier, and diverting the funds. Kind of sad, really.


Daniel Goldberg 03.14.08 at 2:47 am

Thanks for mentioning this. I do some work in the ethics and policy of clinical research in developing countries, and this seems to be a common complaint in that literature. It is even more inconsistent with the humanist theory of education I reference in one of Henry’s posts below.

Yet another reason for supporting OA.


JJ 03.14.08 at 3:16 am

Ingrid, as a current editor of one journal and former editor of another, I think that you are dead on with repect to the burden on scholars outside the US and some of Europe. I suspect that the ratio of published to submitted work from the “south” is miniscule. And I suspect too that the barriers to entry keep the percentage of submitted work extremely low too. In my estimation publishing in the “north” is too driven by ‘the literature’ or by intellectual fads and fashions. So the quesiton then is whther incorporating scholars from “the south” into that regime is doing them any favors.


Angry African on the Loose 03.14.08 at 3:19 am

Take the debate out of the academic circles and have a look at two stories how Africans adapt ICT to make new waves in political campaigning in Zimbabwe and start real win-win businesses in Soweto.


Randolph Fritz 03.14.08 at 3:33 am

Y’know, maybe we need OLPA (one laptop per academic).


Timothy Burke 03.14.08 at 1:42 pm

I bring this point up as often as I can manage, and it always stuns me how much colleagues and students who are willing to invest a great deal of effort in global social justice are either indifferent or actively hostile to this point. Shifting to OA is one of the easiest things we could do as academics in relationship to the impact on global inequity in our own profession (and beyond).


Timothy Burke 03.14.08 at 1:52 pm

As to Jonathan’s points above:

Why not fund OA through a huge consortial effort by universities and colleges in the U.S.? That strikes me as wholly sufficient to pay for its costs, and dispense with any kind of fee assessed at the time of access *or* publication.

This then removes any need for a complicated publisher-side agreement for discounts by taking the publisher out of the picture altogether. Which, in the case of most academic research in short-form publication, strikes me as wholly appropriate. Most of the productive labor and costs involved in producing scholarly knowledge are already paid out by the universities themselves anyway.


Laleh: Call me crazy, but I think it would be nice to wait and see what intellectuals and scholars in “the South” actually do or do not find interesting and valid if and when scholarly publication circulates freely. It’s kind of presumptuous to decide in advance what might happen.


Chris Williams 03.14.08 at 3:10 pm

This is a game theory problem. Perhaps we need to start a linked series of pledgebank pledges: “I will submit my next decent article to an open access journal provided that 100 other scholars in my discipline do likewise.”


Amardeep 03.14.08 at 3:27 pm

I also support the idea of Open Access for the reasons Ingrid put forward in the post.

I work in a field (postcolonial literature) which is in some sense *about* the global south, so the question of who is published in the major journals is all the more intense. Unfortunately, when I’ve been asked to review articles written by scholars based at universities in India and Pakistan, I have usually had to turn them down. The vast majority of published essays in postcolonial studies journals are written by people with some credentials at western universities, even if they sometimes also have an earlier connection to a university in the global south.

If we can’t solve this problem in the short run, one way to alleviate some of the assymetry in access to information is to contribute condensed versions of our “findings,” as well as other kinds of specialized knowledge, to Wikipedia.


Laleh 03.14.08 at 6:34 pm

Timothy (#16)

I rather worry that we are patronising the Southern scholars by assuming that our Euro/American/Atlantic-centric research -that universalises our social/political conditions to the whole of the world using methodologies that are problematic (and some that are not)- are actually relevant and useful to the rest of the world.


Laleh 03.14.08 at 6:34 pm

that wasn’t meant to be crossed through!


Timothy Burke 03.14.08 at 7:00 pm

I worry that worrying about patronising Southern scholars is patronising.


Randolph Fritz 03.15.08 at 4:33 am

And here we have physicists weighing in on the issue


Randolph Fritz 03.15.08 at 4:47 am

Also, on slashdot article & discussion at:
(sorry, link not working)

Linked in previous, DE Knuth, one of the luminaries of computer science


Chris Williams 03.15.08 at 8:00 am

I don’t really care about poco literature. What _I_ want is an evolving school of historians in the global south who are writing about the global north. When _Lagos Historical Review_ produces a series of articles about (say) the causes of the first world war, I’ll be happy.


nigel holmes 03.15.08 at 8:49 am

To Timothy Burke’s point in 15 above.
A “huge consortial effort” worries me, because I want to see a reasonable range of possible outlets (to balance any biases in a single journal’s acceptances). The leading journals in my field are closed access journals produced by societies aimed at furthering their subject. If such societies would accept open access as serving their stated goals, most of the problem would be done away with.

Incidentally, it’s good to see that some people don’t just see open access as meaning “making it easy for them to listen to us.”


SusanC 03.18.08 at 8:15 pm

USENIX Announces Open Access to Conference Proceedings

In computer science, many of the major publications have gone open access. So it can be done.

I seem to recall – from a committee meeting years ago – that, relative to other departments, computer science departments spent less on buying books and more on employing librarians. The reason for this was said to be that CS technical reports were often free or sold at the margin cost of printing.

In some ways, open access proceedings on the Internet is a continuation of a long-standing tradition of free tech reports.

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