The arduous journey to establish a successful journalInternational Journal of African Higher Education (IJAHE) published its first issue in 2014. A few years later, in 2018, the journal published by the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, received recognition from the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), and was then registered by African Journals OnLine in 2022. In March, 2023, it received recognition from Scopus – one of the most authoritative scholarly databases in the world.
This narration aims to share the journal’s success and recognition trajectory with a community of practice and its stakeholders. It is also meant to share the complex and complicated, and also perilous, journey of starting and managing a journal with those who also strive to establish one.
IJAHE became a reality when I, as the founding editor-in-chief of the journal, made a case for its establishment “to advance knowledge and promote research, as well as provide a forum for policy discussion and analysis on diverse higher education issues on the African continent”.
At its launch, I envisaged it to assume a “vital role in shaping discourse, reporting new frontiers and creating a nexus for communication and networking among a wide array of researchers, students, academics, policymakers and policy analysts interested in and concerned with higher education in Africa”.
IJAHE, as a multidisciplinary journal, publishes research articles, essays and reviews on a multitude of higher education issues in Africa. It also publishes special issues that are comparative and theme-based. The journal considers issues not only on the theory and practice of African higher education from scholars around the world but also strongly encourages higher education practitioners to contribute and share their expertise and experience.
The arduous journey
IJAHE started with publishing just one issue per year as an English language journal with abstracts in French. It grew into producing two issues – for many years and at present, it stands at three issues per year.
When the journal kicked off, it published commissioned articles, by invitation, on a number of key and contemporary issues in African higher education by leading authorities from around the world. Setting the bar high from the outset was considered vital for the credibility of the journal. In the absence of other avenues to make its mark as a new journal, it strived to get credence from potential contributors and other stakeholders through this approach.
The journal has attracted input from Africa in particular, but also from other parts of the world. It has been a vigorously independent platform entertaining a rich array of methodological, philosophical and epistemological discourses, paradigms and perspectives.
The Scopus recognition would further contribute to making the journal a preferred – and alternative – platform for scholarly engagement about higher education in Africa.
If Scopus represents a gold standard of quality scholarly works, the journal has achieved the recognition it pursued.
For that matter, only a tiny number of African journals are on the Scopus list. But the point is that African institutions are capable of launching, sustaining and developing publications that can play a critical role in shaping and advancing discourses and narratives on Africa – with relentless and systematic efforts.
Integrity and conviction
It is imperative that a journal ensures the integrity and transparency of the review process – which lies at the heart of a credible scholarly publication.
As the editor-in-chief and an active researcher in African higher education, I have only included editorials, and special issues (if I was involved) in the journal.
Resisting the temptation to publish one’s own work in a journal which one edits establishes the integrity of the editorial team and accountability to the “community of practice” and beyond.
On one occasion, a member of the editorial board, together with a prominent African government minister, jointly submitted a manuscript with a somewhat reassured sense of the significance of their work. The editor-in-chief also thought as much as it was sent out to be reviewed.
Following the initial review, the work was sent to two reviewers – as the journal practises a double-blind review process. The reviewers, however, had a different view and advised that it be rejected. The journal then rejected it without hesitation. As a matter of relevance, the journal currently rejects up to 60% of the manuscripts it receives.
We are in an era where ‘growing our own timber’ has become increasingly prevalent. This is a practice whereby a group of individuals at an institution or a few institutions, typically dissatisfied by the publishing process, get together to launch a journal to publish their own work, the work of their colleagues and possibly more.
The ‘growing our own timber’ campaign, without diligent and systematic monitoring and quality control, as well as the rampant growth of predatory journals, are cluttering academic and the knowledge landscape and are a direct threat, not just to the integrity of scholarship and academia, but society at large.
The gatekeeping role and responsibility in the business of scholarly publishing has been elevated.
Support, funding and fees
IJAHE has been receiving financial and logistical support from multiple sources. The journal was made possible through funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York which has been supporting multiple African higher education initiatives, including the journal, for many years. That funding was instrumental in sustaining the journal financially and also in enhancing its credibility internationally.
It is, in fact, published in partnership with multiple partners, including the Association of African Universities, and has also received sustained support from the Center for International Higher Education and the libraries of Boston College.
It has also drawn multiple regional and international organisations as editorial board members. The University of KwaZulu-Natal, where the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, the publisher of the journal, is based, has (in)directly supported the journal with the anticipation that it will receive recognition in the future.
The journal has continued to be subscription-free and open-access so far due to the support it has been receiving. It is imperative that support from multiple sources is garnered to sustain a journal, or else it will become a casualty of ‘Volume 1 Number 1 Syndrome’ – a common, but depressing, fate of many journals in Africa and elsewhere, when journals typically fail to survive beyond the early years of their establishment.
Trends of manuscript sources
In the early days, many of the manuscripts came from across Africa and occasionally from beyond. This shifted after the journal got recognition from the South African Department of Higher Education and Training in 2018.
Since then, the majority of the manuscripts the journal receives have shifted to South Africa. This is because academics receive recognition only from DHET-recognised and -identified journals published nationally, regionally and internationally – with implications for funding and promotion.
The journal earlier invited and recruited some leading and well-established authorities in higher education as well as those with direct interest in the sector for its International Advisory Board membership.
It recruited from universities, research centres, government ministries, funding organisations and NGOs from across Africa and internationally.
This has elevated the stature of the journal as it got off the ground. The effort was made to include many of the ‘who’s who’ in African higher education, offering it a stamp of recognition and credibility from the get-go.
As stated earlier, cooperation with the Center for International Higher Education has been instrumental in the success of the journal. The centre and its senior leadership have supported the journal in multiple ways, including by playing editorial roles.
Technology has made the publication process easier. The submission, communication and publication processes have been transformed – albeit also causing the proliferation of predatory journals.
The review process remains one of the most intractable, but critical, processes in publishing bona fide scholarly journals. Probably the most arduous task of publishing a journal today is locating, communicating with, assigning and following up on reviewers.
Reviewers undertake this task as a professional duty on a pro bono basis – with no obligation. It is true that the invitation for reviewing a manuscript by well-established journals is prestigious but, as we know, these are few and far between, leaving the rest of the journals at the mercy of the goodwill of reviewers.
IJAHE, too, faced this challenge but, so far, has managed to overcome it, as delayed responses have occasionally frustrated authors, especially when this involves tie-breaking or the need to bring in a third reviewer. It is hoped that this latest recognition may help overcome some of these challenges further.
While some reviewers may document their role as reviewers of a journal in their resume to draw recognition, as editors do, institutions hardly consider the duty of both reviewers and editors in the workload configuration. This is, for instance, a case in South Africa where the journal is based, and a dialogue on the matter is gaining traction.
Finally, it is fairly easy to launch a journal these days. But sustaining it is a different matter altogether. The literature on scholarly publishing in Africa is replete with examples of numerous challenges in ensuring the longevity of successful journals.
IJAHE would mark one such higher education journal on the continent which has made it – thus far.
Damtew Teferra is the founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education, professor of higher education and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He facilitates the Continental Education Strategy for Africa – Higher Education Cluster spearheaded by the African Union Commission and coordinated by the Association of African Universities. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.