Tackling the Global North’s bibliometric coloniality

A new book about academic research, knowledge production and academic publishing in Ghana, titled Who Counts? Ghanaian academic publishing and global science, highlights the challenges faced by African higher education systems, institutions and academics in the neoliberalised global academic publishing space controlled largely by corporations, organisations and higher education institutions and scholars from the Global North.

The book’s authors, David Mills, Patricia Kingori, Abigail Branford, Samuel Tamti Chatio, Natasha Robinson and Paulina Tindana, note that “academic publishing is dominated by a small handful of global companies and structured by what one could describe as bibliometric coloniality”.

By bibliometric coloniality, they refer to the domination of bibliometric indexes from the Global North which seldom index African journals, thus rendering the majority of African journals and knowledge produced on the continent invisible on a global stage.

While the book focuses on Ghana, the authors also take a broader look across the African continent. One of the countries that features strongly is South Africa, Africa’s largest producer of scholarly research. The book discusses in detail the academic publishing space, research policies and subsidies that influence academic publishing in South Africa.

However, the book fails to mention a key systemic and structural factor that promotes bibliometric coloniality in the South African context.

Bibliometric coloniality in South Africa

In South Africa, the maintenance of bibliometric coloniality and propagation of primarily English-language academic journals based in and dominated by editorial boards that largely comprise scholars from the Global North has been the work of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Academics and researchers in South Africa are expected to publish their research in academic journals and books. Like in most other neoliberal higher education systems, ‘publish or perish’ is a reality in South African academia. Scholarly publications are key factors for academics building their careers and seeking promotions. In addition, the subsidy that DHET pays for research output is one of the key sources of funding for universities.

DHET’s 2015 Research outputs policy highlights that its purpose is to “encourage research productivity by rewarding quality research output”. Only the research published in DHET-approved journals, books and conference proceedings receives research subsidies.

In 2020, DHET paid universities ZAR130,294 (currently about US$7,100 or €6,700) for a publication unit such as a single-authored journal article.

DHET’s list of accredited journals

DHET annually shares its list of accredited journals where South African academics and researchers are expected to publish their scholarly output. Apart from the large commercial indexes, Scopus and Web of Science, DHET’s list contains a Norwegian list, the United Kingdom-based International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS) and the Swedish-based Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

These lists contain a very small number of journals from the African continent. Apart from two South Africa-specific lists – Scientific Electronic Library Online South Africa (SciELO SA) and DHET’s list of South African journals – no African or Global South indexes are part of DHET’s list of accredited journals where South African researchers and academics are expected to publish their research.

Approximately 80% of South Africa’s scholarly output is published in academic journals that are part of DHET’s lists. The rest is published in academic books or in conference proceedings. In 2017, 74% of all research output published by South African academics was in journals indexed by either Scopus or Web of Science.

By requiring South African academics and researchers to publish in South African journals, or journals largely based in the Global North, DHET is directly promoting bibliometric coloniality. This way, DHET is also devaluing the credibility and visibility of long-established African scholarly journals (based outside South Africa), reinforcing academic coloniality and epistemic exclusion.

An unequal geopolitical relationship

DHET’s maintenance of bibliometric coloniality is a manifestation and perpetuation of the unequal geopolitical relationship that the country has with the Global North. This uneven relationship began with British settler colonialism, continued during apartheid and transformed into coloniality when the country became a democracy in 1994.

The post-1994 landscape embraced the neoliberalisation of public services such as higher education, where universities were defunded by the state and asked to commercialise and compete in a ‘free’ market economy for their survival. Part of this entailed playing the ‘global knowledge economy’ game, with the hope to gain global legitimacy and attract grants from funders, foundations and donors from the Global North.

These unequal and compounding geopolitical developments are interconnected in maintaining a status quo rooted in the colonial conquest and the ongoing neocolonial project and coloniality. This is unsurprising since colonisation, globalisation and coloniality are different but interlinked components of a larger project.

In this paradigm, the Global North assumes the paternalistic status of being the gatekeeper and producer of knowledge which is to be used to ‘civilise’ and ‘modernise’ the underdeveloped and ‘hopeless’ Global South.

Instead of working with other countries in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South to challenge and dismantle the historical and contemporary inequalities, inequities and injustices in knowledge production, South Africa seems content with playing the ‘role of a sub-imperial accessory to the imperial ambitions’ of the Global North.

Dismantling Eurocentric hegemony and bibliometric coloniality

In an interview with University World News, David Mills, one of the authors of Who Counts? Ghanaian academic publishing and global science, highlights that “the future of African science depends on developing an African academic publishing infrastructure”. He further adds that the African continent must strengthen its “existing publishing infrastructures, and especially journal databases and indexes”.

Moving beyond bibliometric coloniality and strengthening knowledge infrastructures outside the corporate and neocolonial ‘core’ is key in the quest to promote epistemic plurality and decolonise knowledge in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent and in the Global South.

Countries such as South Africa, the continent’s largest producer of scholarly output, have a responsibility to move beyond the empty rhetoric about epistemic decolonisation and lead the process of dismantling the Global North’s hegemony and bibliometric coloniality.

Dr Pedro Mzileni is a sociology lecturer at the University of the Free State, South Africa; Dr Savo Heleta is a researcher and internationalisation specialist at Durban University of Technology, South Africa.