Network aims to strengthen African scholarly publishing

A small group of African scholarly publishers has launched a network for collaboration, experience-sharing and advocacy – and they have invited other publishers of scholarly monographs across Africa to join. Work has already begun on initial projects including building a shared database of peer reviewers and developing peer review standards.

The network was agreed at the first African Monograph Publishers Network – AMPnet – meeting, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg on 30 August and hosted by Wits University Press.

There is already an interactive database of Africa’s 52 university presses, identified through research funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, that resulted in a new report The African University Press discussed at the meeting.

Report authors Francois van Schalkwyk and Thierry Luescher, both directors of the independent, open access scholarly publisher African Minds based in Cape Town, chaired the meeting. Currently residing on the African Minds website, the database will be moved to a ‘neutral’ website platform, to be joined by other shared network materials.

African scholarly publishers – university presses as well as other institutional scholarly presses, and independent, commercial and NGO publishers – can check or add their details so that the map eventually presents a comprehensive picture of active scholarly publishers across Africa.

Network co-founders

There were eight publishers represented at the Johannesburg meeting including three university presses – Wits, Makerere University in Uganda and the Pretoria University Law Press.

The others were the prolific Cameroon-based non-profit Langaa, CODESRIA – Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – a pan-African body headquartered in Senegal, and from South Africa the non-profit African Minds, the Academy of Science of South Africa, or ASSAf, and the Human Sciences Research Council.

The not-for-profit African Books Collective, or ABC, which markets and distributes African scholarly, literary and children’s books around the world, was also there.

Currently ABC does not distribute books within Africa – alarmingly, African scholarly publications are far more widely available and distributed outside the continent, meaning that African research is not accessible in Africa. Another outcome of the gathering was agreement to support future ABC efforts to distribute scholarly titles across Africa.

Professor Charles Fombad, editorial manager of Pretoria University Law Press, said a network could very usefully provide opportunities to meet, discuss activities and issues, share experiences and learn from each other.

“If we know what each other is doing, we will be able to support each other,” he told the meeting. “The network should be about how African publishers can think imaginatively around how to publish with the limited resources they have.”

Small steps

There have been previous efforts to launch networks for African publishing that have either not got off the ground or have failed. To avoid such an outcome, publishers at the meeting agreed to keep the network informal and start with useful but small and quite easy steps. Also, the network will start with monograph publishing and broaden the scope to journals and other publications later.

The gathering took up an offer by Veronica Klipp, head of Wits University Press, to initiate the building of a peer reviewer database.

Susan Veldsman, director of the scholarly publishing programme at ASSAf, shared “Best Practice for the Review of Scholarly Books”, a document produced by the National Scholarly Book Publishers’ Forum of South Africa.

Van Schalkwyk said it would be a crucial “starting point for developing a set of peer review guidelines appropriate for African scholarly publishers”. This is not such a small step; in fact, it is highly complicated.

Useful questions for publishers, Van Schalkwyk added, included whether they would endorse the document or what the sticking points were; what the position should be on paying honoraria; and how relevant a review process forged in line with South African government requirements might be for the rest of Africa.

“Where do we as a group of African scholarly publishers set the bar for an acceptable level of peer review, particularly as it relates to the review of monograph proposals? What should be the representivity of reviewers? Do we want to specify that at least one reviewer should be an academic based at an academic or research institution in Africa?

“Must all reviewers at least hold a doctoral degree? Or is expertise and experience gained with a terminal qualification acceptable? What would be our position on open peer review or post-publication peer review?” Van Schalkwyk asked.

Publishers were urged to submit comments and suggestions for changes to Van Schalkwyk, who will consolidate and share them. Efforts will then be made to have a virtual meeting to reach consensus on peer review guidelines for African scholarly publishers.

Being useful

Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, head of Langaa and a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, stressed the need for “creative demystification of publishing. Second, providing for publishing not as an afterthought in the research process but as part and parcel of doing research”. A network that brought such issues to the fore would be useful.

Many publishers, Nyamnjoh said, had moved on from the idea of ‘publish or perish’ which was often followed by ‘publish and perish’. “The network would be dedicated to ‘publish don’t perish’ and, if you factor in power relations, which is our current predicament, even ‘publish and flourish’.”

Dr Divine Fuh, head of the publications and dissemination programme at CODESRIA, said a network could also be useful in terms of scholarly book distribution and dissemination.

“It would help to transcend and break barriers, it would ensure levels of mobility of books, and could help with the distribution and promotion of books. These are key and it is a space that is lacking on the continent.” Hence the request to ABC to start distributing in Africa.

Fuh said CODESRIA was planning a conference next year on “Rethinking Publishing”. “It is important to invest in research into publishing, not just technical activities.”

It was worth considering organising publishing research and collaborative issues around one of the African institutes with which CODESRIA works, or maybe “creating an institute around publishing on the continent.

“We need more publications on publishing – we spend so much time publishing about everything else.”

* To contact AMPNet, write to:
Network matters: Francois van Schalkwyk:
Conferences and meetings: Divine Fuh:
Peer reviewer database: Veronica Klipp:
Marketing and distribution: Justin Cox: