Towards a national system of journal accreditation
The publication of scholarly journals in Ethiopia does not have a long history. A recent research report from the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (2017) indicated that although local publication of scientific journals started in the 1960s, it did not show significant change until 2000, with only 24 journals launched in four decades.
According to the same report, improvements have been noticed after 2000 – the moment when the Ethiopian higher education sector began its aggressive expansion – with the introduction of 48 additional journals, which brings the total number of locally published journals to around 73.
The Ethiopian Academy of Sciences’ research report shows that the majority of the journals in the country are published by public higher education institutions, national professional associations, private universities, government institutions and religious institutions, in that order.
Notwithstanding the limited number of available publications for a country with 37 public and over 120 private higher education institutions and a teaching population of 30,000, Ethiopian journals continue to exhibit a variety of systemic and structural deficiencies, as revealed in the study.
Most of the local journals have limited copies of publication, and poor online visibility and international indexing. Thirty-six percent of available journals suffer from interruptions in publication extending from five to 10 years. The quality and rigour of articles considered for publication are also of a questionable standard due to a shortage of submissions.
Most editors are drawn from publishing organisations and lack the expertise and experience required. The cosmetic inclusion of advisory board members from abroad does not seem to help much due to the fact that the roles of co-opted members have in most cases been purely nominal.
On top of the aforementioned shortcomings, the country has no tradition of evaluating the standard and quality of journals through a nationally coordinated system. As a result, ensuring the quality of journals has for too long been relegated to the discretion of individual publishers and-or editors.
Given these drawbacks, the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS) has lately developed a national Journal Evaluation and Accreditation framework for the purpose of standardising the assessment of scholarly publishing in Ethiopia. The standardisation scheme aims to institute journal accreditation through a comprehensive national quality audit system and hopes to bridge the existing gap by drawing on relevant experiences from within and outside the African continent.
According to the EAS report, the main objective of instituting such a system is not only to provide uniform standards for assessing the scholarly merit of research journals, but also to help promote excellence in local scholarship; introduce international standards; and encourage stronger linkages between scholarly publishing, graduate research and mentorship in order to facilitate meaningful interventions at the national and institutional levels.
Prospects and challenges
The introduction of a national system for the assessment and standardisation of Ethiopian journals could have considerable impact on the quality of future research in the country.
The new scheme holds promise. With its detailed guidelines that offer mechanisms for translating the whole scheme into reality, it can be considered as both a policy direction and a recipe for practical undertakings. By creating additional outlets for researchers, the scheme can also support the improvements Ethiopia has been making lately in terms of scientific publication at a regional level. According to the UNESCO Science Report 2010, Ethiopia ranks 6th out of 17 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the new scheme has yet to surmount a few major challenges that appear to be critical to its success.
The first challenge relates to the implication of the new plan for the poor tradition of research and research publication in Ethiopia. Infusing demanding standards in an environment where research articles are so limited might be interpreted as inhibiting.
Although a journal accreditation system does not appear to be a priority against the backdrop of other fundamental problems, a change in this direction could motivate academics seeking publication in high standard local journals and such efforts should be rewarded by substantive and scaled-up support from the government in terms of promoting research publication at all levels.
South Africa’s experience in terms of introducing a government-induced research funding framework run by the Department of Higher Education and Training is worth emulating in this regard.
Another issue that needs to be addressed in order to take the proposal forward is determining the body that will oversee the accreditation and evaluation of journals at a national level. Of all the entities proposed by EAS, the most compelling appears to be the EAS itself, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education and the National Research Council, accountable to the Ethiopian National Science, Technology and Innovation Council, or any other entity set up for the purpose.
The other critical point is whether and when the government will endorse the proposed plan. In this regard immediate action is required from important and powerful bodies like the ministries of education and of science and technology in acknowledging the efforts of EAS and endorsing its proposed scheme. It is clear that without the practical involvement of the government and especially these key ministries, the proposed national scheme of journal accreditation may not see its day.
Considering the importance of the scheme, one should hope that like many other plans involving noble intentions and high relevance, it will not end up adorning office shelves.
Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His email addresses are: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.