New framework aims to assess and improve online journals

A wealth of research is being carried out in low- and middle-income countries, much of which has the potential to make a significant difference to the countries and regions it is carried out in.

When it comes to publishing that research, however, academics face a choice. On the one hand, they can publish in journals from their own country where the research may be more easily discovered by other researchers in their countries, but the journal might not be well-respected internationally.

On the other hand, they could publish in a more well-known journal from a publisher in Europe or North America but differing research priorities could mean that only certain types of papers will get published and the research may not be so accessible to others in their own country.

This is a difficult choice and one that is based on many factors. To date, one of those considerations has likely been awareness of the journal and whether or not it is included in international metrics of journal quality. This latter measure is often also tied up with promotion opportunities within universities.

This can create an imbalance where low- and middle-income countries' researchers feel they need to publish in journals from major publishers in the northern hemisphere in order for their research to be recognised by researchers elsewhere in the world or even in their own countries.

This can contrast with real world needs, as a journal editor in Nepal explained to us recently in the context of medicine: there is a need for researchers in a country to see the patterns and studies about the diseases that are particularly important to that country and the effects on that country’s population. Research about diseases that only occur in one country or region may not be a priority for journals published outside of that region.

Building awareness and credibility

Since 1998 the African Journals OnLine, or AJOL, platform has helped to raise awareness of journals from the continent and enable these journals to be discoverable worldwide. Today it hosts over 500 journals from across Africa, with millions of article downloads each year.

AJOL’s impact is also acknowledged frequently in correspondence with journals, authors, readers, and organisations that use the platform and compliment AJOL’s work – notably by repeated comments that AJOL’s various services are invaluable to the research community in Africa and around the world.

However, many challenges remain for journals publishing in low- and middle-income countries, particularly for those not yet included on not-for-profit service platforms like AJOL. Not least of these challenges are imbalances in resources and finances; while major publishers may have thousands of members of staff and be listed on major stock exchanges, the majority of journals in Africa are small, scholar-led titles, set up and run by academics passionate about their subjects.

As these journal editors typically run their journals alongside their day-to-day research and teaching commitments, keeping up to date with the latest accepted practices in global publishing can be difficult.

AJOL and long-term partner INASP – International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications – which initially founded AJOL and currently runs Journals OnLine or JOL platforms in four Asian countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Mongolia) as well as Central America, have for many years supported the dissemination of Southern journals to address the visibility issues.

Now, in recognition of the challenges that remain in establishing journal credibility by addressing and demonstrating journal quality, INASP and AJOL are collaborating on a new and extensive framework to assess the quality of publishing processes on the JOL platforms.

Journal Publishing Practices and Standards, or JPPS, builds on the criteria that already existed for inclusion on the JOLs, as well as appropriate publishing best practices from around the world.

JPPS enables a detailed assessment of journals’ transparency, peer review and quality control processes, and a wide range of other benchmarks to give a range of JPPS levels. Journals assessed against the 108 JPPS criteria are given one of six levels: inactive title, new title, no stars, one star, two stars and three stars.

Defined criteria

The aim of this process is two-fold. First, the levels provide authors and readers with assurance about robustness and integrity by showing that an assessed journal does meet an internationally recognised set of defined criteria at a particular level, so that articles published by those journals are quality controlled. This is an important issue for many researchers who risk being misled by dubious publishing practices.

Hopefully, in time, a journal having one or more JPPS stars will become part of the criteria that research institutions look at in assessing where their researchers publish.

The second aim of JPPS is more unique to this initiative. Rather than penalise journals for not meeting particular standards, JPPS is designed to help journals to improve. Journals are given detailed feedback about gaps in their current processes and invited to apply for reassessment after six months to a year. INASP and AJOL also offer training and support to help journals improve their publishing processes.

The development process of the JPPS framework included an early draft being shared for comment and input from journal editors throughout the African continent. “The JPPS framework seems like a good system and offers us an important opportunity to improve the status of our journal. Thank you for the clear criteria,” said Dr Chandre Gould, a journal editor and senior research fellow in governance, crime and justice at the South African Institute for Security Studies.

JPPS assessments for the 500+ journals on AJOL are underway and journal editors are looking forward to the specific guidance they will receive.

Warm welcome in Asia

Journals in Asia are already finding out their JPPS levels and receiving their reports. The JPPS levels will be publicly available on the JPPS platform once they have been communicated to the journal editors. The response to date has been overwhelmingly positive.

Dr Anuja Abayadeera, editor of the Sri Lankan Journal of Anaesthesiology, commented: “I am thrilled with the two-star status as it is, but I have stirred the editorial board that we have to achieve three-star status. I am determined to work towards it. Thank you so much for the constant support you have given me to work on the journal.”

Journals are seeing the JPPS levels as a guide for improvements, as Dr C Arambepola and Dr Shamini Prathapan, the new co-editors of the Journal of the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka, highlighted: “We have brought out a new facelift to the whole journal, and wish to improve on it too. We are targeting the ‘one star’ of the standards by this year – as we wish to publish four issues per year. Hoping to go up to two stars by 2018 too and for it to be indexed very soon.”

It is still early days but AJOL and INASP hope that JPPS will enable an increased confidence in African, South Asian and Latin American journals and help those journals to demonstrate their expertise and attract great research for the benefit of their own regions and worldwide.

For more information, see the JPPS website. JPPS levels are only allocated by INASP and AJOL and the JPPS website and the official websites of the participating platforms will be the only official sources of information about the JPPS levels that have been assigned to journals.

Susan Murray is the executive director of African Journals OnLine. She is also a member of the advisory committee of the Directory of Open Access Journals, a member of the advisory board for the Public Knowledge Project’s current study on Open Access Publishing Cooperatives, and a member of the advisory board of CODESRIA’s new African Citation Index initiative.

Sioux Cumming has worked on and managed INASP’s Journals Online or JOL project since 2003 and has helped establish and maintain eight JOLs platforms. She is overseeing the migration of the JOL platforms to local management teams. Her current focus is the development of the Journal Publishing Practices and Standards to assist the editors of the journals to improve the quality of their journals. Cumming runs regular training courses for journal editors in publishing practices.