How to take advantage of open-access academic publishing

Increasing investment in open-access publishing and seeking more opportunities for research collaboration are some of the things that could help academics who are working at institutions in Africa to get published more often, ultimately getting noticed and enabling career progression.

Joint research efforts make a bigger impact and produce faster results, and open-access publishing offers numerous advantages – and goes a long way towards helping to bridge the information and knowledge access gap.

While African academics face several challenges that make it harder for them to publish as much as they would like to, including weak incentive structures at universities, heavy teaching loads, and the lack of access to relevant academic literature, other ways of becoming noticed are by building a research profile on online platforms that basically summarise and share details of their work.

Researchers can provide their e-mail addresses and summaries of their work on web pages that could also help to encourage collaboration and networking, said Helena Hurd, the senior editor of global development and African studies, of the Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group at a recent webinar.

Book or journal?

Making the right choice about whether to publish their work as journal articles, or in book format, is also important in getting, not only more easily published, but also in having their work more easily noticed and more cited.

Some ideas, Hurd noted, are best expressed in journal articles – those that are concise, very specific to a particular community, a specialist topic, or in instances when researchers need to get an idea out quickly and don’t have time to write longer pieces.

However, books offer greater flexibility as one does not have to fit writing into a particular journal’s style or formatting constraints, and it allows an author to write for a much larger range of readers, she said.

In making decisions, authors should consider who their intended readers are, choosing, for instance, between researchers and students, and professionals or academics. In addition, picking the best publisher and deciding whether or not to approach one or more publishers was important, the editor counselled.

“When it comes to submitting your proposal, spend time refining your work prior to submission – asking for help and advice from senior colleagues – don’t be put off if a submission is not accepted straight away. Rejection happens to the most seasoned academics,” she advised.

Just as with journal articles, books can also be available on open access, giving researchers and end users all the benefits that come with freely available scholarly material, she said.

Some of the benefits of open-access publishing include making books freely and permanently available online, where anyone anywhere can read, reuse, and build upon the research disseminated.

Besides greater dissemination of research, they attract more diverse readership for being freely available, and are often downloaded more times than ordinary books.

“In addition, such material offers more opportunities for research collaborations, and readers can access whole chapters or full books, depending on their needs,” she explained. In addition, authors still earn royalties from book sales of hard copies.

She explained: “Research has found that open-access book chapters are downloaded seven times more than non-open access titles, were cited 50% more and were mentioned online 10 times more.”

Despite the advantages, the question of who pays open access still troubles the academia, and universities’ and universities’ funding bodies should be at the forefront in catering for such expenses, in cases where authors cannot self-fund, Hurd added.

Why book ideas get rejected

Alternative models of paying for open-access publishing worth exploring include platforms such as Knowledge Unlatched, a service that makes scholarly material freely available online, and can be of huge assistance to researchers.

Overall, she noted, books need to be “very targeted, since no book can suit all people”, and with a clearly defined market, and book proposals to publishers need to be well and clearly structured.

Structuring a book included choosing a title, defining why you want to write the book, drawing a table of contents, setting an own deadline and finally a word count. Publishers are usually reluctant to publish books above 120,000 words, owing to cost implications, making smaller ones a better option, she disclosed.

Once accepted, a review process commences and, when accepted, a contract is signed, defining copyright permissions and royalties payments.

Reviews, she told University World News, are done in order to gather a balanced opinion, and to avoid one single review “having too much power”. It is not uncommon for a bad review to be balanced out by one or more positive reviews, and for a book to proceed to publication after discussion of the feedback, she added.

While rejection should never discourage authors, proposals are rejected by a publisher because the content doesn’t align with the “aims and ethos of their publishing programme”, or because publishers feel that they would be unlikely to sell enough copies to cover the costs of production.

“In my case, some of the most common reasons for rejection are that the book does not offer an original argument or when referencing is poor and [is] showing a lack of familiarity with scholarly debate,” she added.

“Other reasons include poor quality of the written English or tone of expression, when the case study is too specific to reasonably expect to sell enough copies to cover our costs – a ‘can’t readership’ identified among a publisher’s markets – and when reviewers raise serious concerns with the standard of the work or quality of the argument,” she further disclosed.

Despite that, she believes that research from within Africa is increasing, and in her African Studies programme, a sizeable portion of authors are based at universities in Africa, as opposed to non-locals writing on Africa.

Predatory publishers

One of the biggest tests in picking the right publisher for potential authors is in avoiding predatory publishers and journals, one of the biggest red flags being hidden costs and “incredibly quick processing times”, says Sam Nkosi, also of the Taylor & Francis Group.

“If you are publishing with an open access platform, all the costs should be transparently shared on the website, and you should understand that quality peer review takes time and acceptance isn’t guaranteed.

“If you are receiving assurances from a publisher that your work will definitely be published, and within a few days, so long as you pay a fee to them, that doesn’t sound like a legitimate journal or publisher,” he cautioned.

Thoroughly investigate the publisher’s reputation, credibility and track record, and look for established publishers that have a strong presence in your field and are known for their rigorous peer-review processes, he advised.

Checking if the publisher is a member of recognised industry associations, and cross-checking in resources that maintain lists of predatory journals helps. Assessing the quality of the journal considering factors such as the journal’s impact factor and editorial board members’ expertise also helps.

Also, ensuring that a journal is indexed in recognised databases, such as PubMed, Scopus, or Web of Science, is critical. “Indexing increases the visibility and discoverability of your work and demonstrates that the journal meets certain quality standards,” he added.

According to Joy Owango of the Training Centre in Communication, Kenya, books also go through review processes, but the processes are not as rigorous and do not take as long, time-wise, as with journals.

Besides Knowledge Unlatched, other resources for open access include the Directory of Open Access Books, she added.