Escaping ‘bibliometric coloniality’, ‘epistemic inequality’

Africa’s scholarly journals compete on an unequal playing field because of a lack of funding and the struggle to sustain academic credibility.

“These inequalities are exacerbated by the growing influence of the major citation indexes, leading to what we have called bibliometric coloniality,” say the authors of the book, Who Counts? Ghanaian academic publishing and global science, published by African Minds at the start of 2023.

“The rules of the game continue to be defined outside the continent. We hope that, in some small way, this book contributes to the renaissance and renewal of African-centred research and publishing infrastructures,” the authors say.

The book was authored by David Mills, Patricia Kingori and Abigail Branford from the University of Oxford, as well as Samuel Chatio and Paulina Tindana at the University of Ghana, along with Natasha Robinson at the University of Bristol.

Bibliometric coloniality

The book describes how, since the 1990s, global academic publishing has been transformed by digitalisation, consolidation and the rise of the internet.

The authors portray academic publishing as a sector dominated by a small handful of global companies and structured by what they call “bibliometric coloniality” – a set of interlinked social and technical infrastructures that allocate and gate-keep academic credibility.

“The data produced by commercially owned citation indexes increasingly defines legitimate academic knowledge,” the authors affirm.

According to the book, the largest commercial journal citation indexes are Web of Science, owned by Clarivate, and Scopus, owned by Elsevier. About 90% of the journals indexed in Scopus are English-language journals, and almost 80% are published from Europe and North America.

“Publication in prestigious ‘high impact’ journals can be traded for academic promotion, tenure and job-security,” the authors add.

As a result, “researchers across the globe increasingly rely on commercial indexes such as 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,” the authors argue. This is “rewiring the global research economy according to an algorithmic logic, cutting Africa out of its circuits”.

Africa’s share of scientific publishing

“The great majority of Africa’s scholarly journals are not indexed in global journal databases and citation indexes,” the authors point out.

Bibliometric data on Africa’s share of global scientific publishing shows a slow increase to just over 3% of all indexed articles, but this is mostly dominated by South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia.

Ghanaian academics authored fewer than 5,000 indexed articles in the years 2011 to 2015, or just 1.8% of Africa’s total.

“The continent’s academic publishers similarly labour in the global shadows of this digital publishing infrastructure,” the authors say.

The book points out that, “with the exception of journals published from South Africa, only around 50 of the 26,000 active journals in the Scopus database are published in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

Only 4% of Nigeria’s 294 biomedical journals are indexed in the major indexes, according to the book.

“There is also little overlap between the African journals hosted on AJOL (African Journals Online) and those indexed in Scopus,” the authors add.

As a result, the global knowledge system is “dominated by ‘Northern’ journals and by global publishing conglomerates”.

The impact of metrics

The book’s argument is that the “metricisation of scholarly production has led to numbers – of publications, citations, and impact – becoming proxies for academic credibility and reputation”.

“A global science system that relies on Scopus and Web of Science renders much African research and publishing invisible,” the authors indicate.

“The resulting ‘metricisation’ of publishing integrity through citations is slowly but surely devaluing the credibility and visibility of long-established African scholarly journals, reinforcing academic coloniality and epistemic exclusion,” the authors point out.

“The institutional expectation to publish in globally ‘reputable’ journals, defined increasingly as those listed in the Scopus or Web of Science indexes, threatens long-standing scholarly journals that have not managed to meet these technical and quality thresholds,” the authors add.

Status of Africa’s university presses

“Africa’s university presses have also struggled. Some are dormant or have just become textbook printing presses. Yet strong local publishing cultures and research ecologies still survive,” according to the authors.

Many African university faculties host open-access online journals, sustaining institutional research cultures and offering publishing opportunities for their staff, according to the book.

“Some of these journals struggle and disappear after a few issues, but a few sustain long publishing traditions, finding ways to attract and reward African authors and reviewers. These are often shoestring operations, with editorial teams working long hours for little pecuniary reward,” the authors explain.

"In an academic timescape in which authors want to publish immediately, but reviewers have other priorities, questions of speed and quality loom large.

“It is not just an unequal political economy that sustains this coloniality. There is also an unequal credibility economy at work,” claim the authors.

Most damaging of all, suggest the authors, “commercial science publishing actors amplify an emotive and dehumanising discourse about so-called ‘predatory’ publishing.” As a result, a number of African publishers have been accused of “preying” on the continent’s researchers.

Journals such as Nature regularly publish articles about the phenomenon. Elsevier has a YouTube channel with videos teaching people how to spot ‘predatory’ journals, according to the book.

These demeaning depictions work to instil a fear of the academic ‘fake’ among African authors, argue the authors of the book, making people wary of publishing in African outlets.

Measures to escape bibliometric coloniality

Lead author of the book, David Mills, who is also the deputy director of Oxford University’s Centre for Global Higher Education, told University World News that “the future of African science depends on developing an African academic publishing infrastructure”.

“Governments need to make science a strategic priority and to properly fund universities. Researchers need opportunities to publish in a whole range of African languages, and journals need to develop more African-centred ways of measuring the quality of research,” Mills suggested.

“The future of Africa’s research ecosystems depends on strong and well-funded national research systems, multilingual publishing, and alternative circuits of academic credibility,” he said.

“African universities need to spend less time counting publications and more time promoting their research,” Mills advised.

According to him, there are ways in which scholars, universities and publishers in Africa might move beyond ‘epstemic coloniality’.

“Changing the demanding promotion requirements placed on academic staff is the first step,” Mills suggested.

“Requiring researchers to publish large numbers of articles in ‘international’ journals, rather than in serials based on the continent, sends the wrong message. It cultivates an instrumentalist attitude to writing and publishing,” he argued.

“Promotion boards need to take a more holistic approach, assessing the quality, relevance and impact of the research,” Mills added.

“Learning from the success of the Latin American research ecosystem is another option,” he suggested. “This would mean strengthening the continent’s existing publishing infrastructures, and especially journal databases and indexes.

“There are important precedents on which to build, including AfricArXiv, a community-led digital archive for African research communication and research repository, and journal portals such as AJOL (African Journals Online),” Mills explained.

“Valuing sustainable and community-owned Open Access publishing venues would also help,” he noted. “African university leaders could also copy their Chinese counterparts, some of whom are choosing not to participate in ‘international’ rankings, given their distorting effects on research and teaching.”

He said by not worrying about the ‘world-class’, ranking academics could be supported to publish a more sustainable aspect of African academic careers and regional research ecosystems.

“None of this will be easy, given the deep epistemic inequalities across the global science system,” Mills pointed out.

“But our book shows how African researchers, editors and publishers are finding creative ways of not only ‘getting by’ but also developing a global scholarly reputation.”

Examples include Adonis & Abbey publishers, based in Nigeria and the UK, publishing journals that are indexed in a range of global databases, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa based in Senegal (CODESRIA) with a pan-African reputation for its social science journals, and Hindawi, started by two Egyptian researchers in Cairo in 1997, and which became a global ‘top-10’ journal publisher before being acquired by Wiley in January 2021 for US$300 million.