Some thoughts on how to confront bibliometric coloniality

What challenges do Africa-based journal editors and publishers face? New opportunities have been opened up by digitalisation, online journals and open source publishing software. Yet a lack of sustainable funding and the struggle for academic credibility force the continent’s journals to compete on a very uneven playing field.

A recent session on racism and coloniality at the 2022 conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education discussed the challenges of this bibliometric coloniality.

The 1960s and ’70s marked a vibrant period for African science and scholarship. Many new journals and university presses were launched, and universities from Dakar to Dar es Salaam produced new African-centred knowledge. Yet 50 years later, structural adjustment policies, political instability and the underfunding of research infrastructures have undermined many science systems across Sub-Saharan Africa.

An algorithmic logic

These inequalities are exacerbated by the growing influence of the major citation indexes. Researchers across the globe increasingly rely on commercial indexes (the two largest are Clarivate’s Web of Science and Elsevier’s Scopus database) to assess the credibility of scholarly journals.

Citation data is replacing the ‘trust’ that disciplinary networks used to provide. This is rewiring the global research economy according to an algorithmic logic, cutting Africa out of its circuits. The priority given to citations is eroding the credibility and visibility of African scholarly journals, reinforcing bibliometric coloniality.

The great majority of Africa’s scholarly journals are not indexed in the major global journal databases and citation indexes. With the exception of journals published from South Africa, only around 40 of the 34,000 journals in the Scopus database are published from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Very few of the African journals hosted on AJOL (African Journals Online) or other language databases are also in the global indexes. A global science system that relies on Scopus and Web of Science renders much African research and publishing invisible.

Alternative ways of mapping African science

There are other ways of mapping African scientific ecosystems. Scientometricians have turned to data sources such as Google Scholar, Crossref, or ResearchGate to map African scholarly production. Their work reveals a much richer picture of African authorship and regional collaborations.

Across the continent, many university presses have struggled, and some are dormant or have just become textbook printing presses. Yet strong local publishing cultures and research ecologies still survive.

Many Nigerian university faculties host open access online journals, sustaining institutional research cultures and offering publishing opportunities for staff. Some of these journals struggle and disappear after a few issues, but a few have sustained long publishing traditions.

Professor Emeka Obe, editor of the Nigerian Journal of Technology (NIJOTECH) from 2010 to 2022, is proud of how he transformed this journal’s fortunes. Originally launched in 1975, it had struggled during the 1980s and 1990s. Obe took the journal online in 2012, obtaining grants from his university and the Nigerian Tertiary Education Trust Fund to pay for the technical support and web-hosting.

For Obe, “the journal was older than many of these journals coming up, and there was a passion that the journal should not die off”. His challenge was to build the journal’s credibility and appeal when Nigerian researchers are also expected to publish ‘internationally’. One Nigerian private university explicitly expects its staff to publish in Scopus-indexed journals.

Running a journal like NIJOTECH on a shoestring relies on the commitment and hard work of the editorial team. Obe noted that “if authors write and don’t get a response, they feel that they aren’t being looked after”. He went on: “Once an author submits an article, they want a review response the following day: he will take six months to do a review, but will want a response in 24 hours.”

Obe also laid out the practical challenges of running a journal from Nigeria. These included organising international payments, technical support and even providing electricity. “One has to run a generator just to be able to continue working. Otherwise you can be for 10 hours without work... these are not ways to run a journal,” he said.

Predatory publishing fears

It is not just this unequal political economy that sustains bibliometric coloniality. There is also an unequal credibility economy at work. Commercial science publishing actors amplify an emotive and dehumanising discourse about so-called ‘predatory’ publishing.

Journals such as Nature publish articles about predatory publishing. Elsevier has a YouTube channel with many videos teaching people how to spot ‘predatory’ journals. They all work to instil a fear of the academic fake.

This discourse has often targeted Nigerian publishers. As one Nigerian editor put it, “when somebody says the journal is something to do with Nigeria, those from Europe look at you twice even if you are telling them the truth”.

How do we get beyond bibliometric coloniality? One editor felt that Nigeria needed to “adopt her own metrics and standards of indexing while still looking up to the international ones”. The hard work of diversifying the global research system will involve challenging the power held by dominant citation indexes.

The future of African journal publishing depends on strong national research ecosystems, multilingual publishing across a diversity of portals, and, perhaps most importantly, nurturing alternative circuits of academic credibility.

David Mills is deputy director of the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE). An associate professor in the department of education at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, he is also a CGHE co-investigator on Project 9, ‘Mapping supranational higher education space’.