SOUTH AFRICA: For future reference

This year art publisher Thames & Hudson, celebrating its 60th birthday, reissued the 20 books it believed to be "groundbreaking works of art history". Number 14 was written by South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand and senior mentor at the university's Rock Art Research Institute.

First published by The Weekender

The book, Mind in the Cave, puts forward "the most plausible explanation yet proposed for the origins of image-making and art...offering a skilful and convincing account of how we became human and, in the process, began to make art", says the Thames & Hudson catalogue. It's a seminal work, says Professor Benjamin Smith, Director of the Rock Art Research Institute.

What makes Mind in the Cave more interesting is that it is an influential work that used the methods employed to produce another seminal book -- Lewis-Williams's Believing and Seeing: Symbolic meaning in southern rock paintings, published almost 20 years earlier.

"Believing and Seeing cracked the code [in San, or Bushman, rock art]...It was the first book to use a San perspective on the art and changed the way rock art research work was done world over," says Smith. "Mind in the Cave applied the same method to French rock art."

Professor Robin Crewe, president of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf), points out that many disciplines depend for their core conceptual frameworks on extended exploratory works that need to be of book length. " a critically important role in creating 'big ideas'," he says.

A new ASSAf report, released this month, argues that the Department of Higher Education and Training needs more urgently to encourage and support the writing and publishing of scholarly books, including how they are 'weighted' when the department calculates higher education institutions' research output subsidies.

The weighting at present is that a full, accredited or approved monograph (a work of writing on a single subject, usually also by a single author), or a collected work by an author, or a group of authors, from a South African higher education institution, is accredited with five 'units of output', says Professor Wieland Gevers, chairman of the ASSAf panel that produced the report.

A one-journal article with all authors from one institution is given one 'unit' of accredited output. "We have recommended using printed the basis of measurement, and asked that a book of 180,000 words be awarded a maximum of 10 units of output (and fractions thereof, in collected works); a book of 120,000 words, a maximum of 7.5 units; and a book of 60,000 words, a maximum of five units, as at present," Gevers says.

"Because we believe strongly that books or collected works are substantial contributions to scholarship, a minimum number of words (60,000) should be specified to qualify as a scholarly book."

South Africa wants to be a global competitor in academic endeavour and the National Research Foundation (NRF), the lead agency for funding academic research and human capacity development, has welcomed the report. The report, says NRF President Professor Albert van Jaarsveld, "makes an important point about the value of having large numbers of qualified and active researchers to meet the country's human capital requirements".

"Books capture the output of intellectual endeavour. The report recommends that published books feature more prominently in the NRF rating and funding criteria. We are happy to take that finding on board as some highly rated researchers only publish in books," he says.

University of the Witwatersrand Deputy Vice-chancellor: Research, Professor Belinda Bozzoli - herself an NRF A-rated sociologist - says that while achievements in the science, engineering and technology arena are often incremental and more readily publishable in a peer-reviewed journal article, cutting-edge work in the humanities and social sciences is more often articulated in a book, because the arguments require that length to be set out properly.

The way in which research output is judged in South Africa by the Department of Higher Education and Training, which allocates part of higher education institutions' state subsidies according to how much research they have published in the past year, "is shaped by the sciences, and they often don't have a sense of the importance of books because their cutting-edge work is published in articles," she says.

Gevers says higher education institutions' government subsidies are calculated in part on research 'output' according to a formula that 'weights' the various ways in which research is presented, and 92% of this allocation goes to journal publication, with only 4% each going to books and presentations to accredited conferences.

But progress - whether in the science, engineering and technology fields, or in the humanities and social sciences - is often most influenced by books, and South Africa needs to develop more academics of the calibre that can present a sustained book-length argument that changes the way people think, says Gevers.

"That is the crunch thing in [South African academia], the ability to lead in thinking things through...Books [carry] sustained argument and the synthesis of a vast body of work.

"Take, for example, double Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond, in which he summarised his work on the chemical bond. It is one of the most influential chemistry books published, a 'chemistry bible'." The book's effect shows that even in the pure sciences real change is set out in lengthy argument, Gevers argues.

The department is reading ASSAf's report, which it commissioned, with interest, says its deputy director-general of higher education policy, Molapo Qhobela. "We always want to strengthen research quality and output and this is part of that," Qhobela says.

The report is similar to earlier research that the department commissioned on its policy regarding the assessment and accreditation of article publication in peer review journals.

The ASSAf report makes recommendations that include: establishing a scholarly book publishers' forum as a "companion" to the already established National Scholarly Editors' Forum for South African peer reviewed journals; a national scholarly book publishing support system and various options for its funding; broadening South African scholarly book publication via the internet and electronic media; a quality assurance system; increased post-publication peer reviews; and ways of widening access to scholarly books.

Scholarly books are enormously influential because they carry the canon of knowledge in them, says Professor Peter Vale, who holds the Nelson Mandela Chair of Politics at Rhodes University.

"If we don't write scholarly books, our stories, our narratives, are written by others. That happens now... In terms of scholarly labour and quality, of knowing what is good and what is not, the best test is in books. A scholarly article is an art, but real soul-busting intellectual work, that's in a book," he says.

* "For future reference" was originally published by The Weekender, a quality newspaper in South Africa. It is reproduced with permission.