A global network of researchers

Miles to go for scholarly commons to become a global academic norm – part 2

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By Ravi Murugesan | June 2, 2017  |

In part one of this series, INASP Associate Ravi Murugesan reflected on the development of a Scholarly Commons and the need to consider how the guiding principles can involve, and be relevant to, researchers in the Global South.

The development of Scholarly Commons is guided by the principles that:

  • Research and knowledge should be freely available to all who wish to use or reuse it
  • Participation in the production and use of knowledge should be open to all who wish to participate

Two months after attending the Scholarly Commons Working Group workshop, I went to the remote state of Tripura in the Indian northeast to give a talk on scientific writing and publishing. Here, I was reminded of the enormous gap between the ideal of the commons and the reality that many Southern researchers experience.

Tripura is a poor but peaceful state in the otherwise restive northeastern region of India.
This was a scene outside one of the best hotels in Agartala, the capital of Tripura.

India has a good number of world-class research institutions and cities like New Delhi and Mumbai that host major conferences. However, Tripura – as with many other places in India – is off the map even for many Indian academics. That said, nearly every state in India has at least one major university funded by the central or state government. This funding allows for a certain amount of research to take place and covers subscriptions to journals through the national digital library consortium and some direct deals with publishers.

Public universities in India tend to have vast campuses with tens of thousands of staff and students. Most students are at the undergraduate level and much of the university activity is focused on teaching.

Scholarly research does take place but under constraints such as limited funding, insufficient collegial support, and of course, excessive teaching responsibilities.

While researchers may be motivated to make the world a better place or connect research to local development priorities, in reality, the primary aspiration is to publish in high-impact journals.

Northern researchers, just like Southern researchers, are under pressure to publish and may not get any ‘academic points’ for making their research data and outputs openly available in the spirit of the scholarly commons. However, Northern researchers do not have to work in the challenging research environments that envelop many Southern researchers. Opportunities to do high-quality research are limited in the South, and the focus in terms of research output is on writing  a paper that is fit for a journal with that magical number: the impact factor. Whether the journal is open access or not is often a minor consideration. Even well-known open access journals can be unaffordable for Southern researchers when APC (article-processing charge) waivers are not given.

I saw this in the library at Tripura University.
The blue tape may be ugly but it does draw attention to these lists!

Imagine this: You are a young faculty member at a university in a developing country with perhaps a couple of decades to go before you rise up in a heavy-handed bureaucratic system to become a full professor with some freedom in research and teaching. Perhaps you grew up in a part of the world many people don’t know about. Perhaps your region, culture, language or race is marginalized even in your own country. Your experience of the larger world has primarily been through the lens of the media.

As an academic, publishing your research in the same journals as the world’s academic elite provides an opportunity to redress the balance.

It is not just a matter of personal ambition. In India, the Academic Performance Indicator (API) is a metric used in universities to evaluate the teaching and research performance of faculty members, but credit is heavily weighted towards publishing in journals – particularly those with high impact factors.

A couple of weeks after visiting Tripura University in India, I found myself in another remote part of the academic universe: Thai Nguyen University (TNU) in the northern, mountainous part of Vietnam.

With Jennifer Chapin of INASP and TNU researchers who took
part in the AuthorAID train-the-trainers workshop in November 2016

Here too academics were driven to publish in high-impact journals and were focused on publishing in the journals of one particular publisher – Elsevier. A senior academic at TNU told me that cash awards are given for publications in high-impact journals, indicating that they deserve respect on the world’s academic stage, having overcome the barriers of location and circumstances.

It is not enough to encourage researchers in the Tripuras and Thai Nguyens of the world today to share their research data and outputs in the public domain. The national, institutional and collegial environments in developing countries put excessive pressure on researchers to focus on publishing – and getting published is not easy. So it’s not surprising that scholarly commons principles – such as maximizing the transparency and accessibility of research data – are not primary concerns.

It is essential, therefore, to make a case at the level of national university commissions or at least institutions, where academic structures and guidelines are put in place. It is also essential to influence policymakers and research funders to promulgate new approaches to research communication.

Making scholarly commons a global academic norm is not an easy journey and the going will be slow. But to begin with, it is imperative that we start convening and listening in diverse places around the world if we believe that research communication should be an open, well-connected artifact of humankind that helps us all progress.■

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