Africa is missing out on open-access publishing opportunities

Despite the huge untapped potential for a knowledge-driven economy, the African academic and research community is missing out on the numerous opportunities that come with the open-access publishing of books.

While all regions of the continent have the potential to engage in open-access publishing and produce knowledge to advance development, South Africa is the only country that is engaging in this form of publishing, despite the geographical vastness of the continent. Equally diverse are the research fields that academia could focus on.

While the many advantages of open-access publishing, in general, are well documented, this type of book publishing carries even more advantages, with well-written volumes offering research topics for as long as 15 years, said Dr Peter Makgwane, principal research scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and extraordinary professor of chemistry at the University of the Western Cape.

This was besides offering opportunities for collaboration, increased recognition, and citations that are linked to open-access research papers, he said. For this reason, it is always good to be comprehensive whenever writing books, as opportunities are rare and hard to come by.

Prepare a theme

Books also need a totally different approach when compared to research papers, with an editor coordinating the submission of material for various chapters for the volume as per prior agreement with authors. The first step must, therefore, involve scanning available literature and preparing a theme for the book before drafting a book proposal for a publisher, Makgwane said.

“Formulating a book proposal begins with understanding your literature and then inviting authors to a meeting so that you can think together, and this is especially so for large books with 15-20 chapters,” he said during a webinar hosted jointly by the Association of African Universities and the UK publisher Taylor & Francis earlier in August 2023. The theme was ‘Understanding and publishing open access in science, technology and innovation’.

Authors, he said, must be briefed properly on the bigger picture of the book, ensuring that they fully understand its theme and the general direction. Once authors have been allocated chapters based on their competencies, an editor should maintain contact and close communication with them to ensure that the book is completed on time.

While scholarly books are more complex to write compared to research papers, they are long-term projects that are, nevertheless, time-sensitive and require a lot of planning, said Dr Gagandeep Singh, senior publisher in STEM for CRC Press at the Taylor & Francis group in India.

Study the market

The decision to write a book should be determined by the kind and amount of research one has done in the past, necessitating the need to combine such works into a single book, he advised. In doing so, a writer should first consider the table of contents, choose a title, consider and study the market in terms of what is available, and the prospects of selling the book. Finally, set a deadline for delivering the book.

Under the table of contents, one should simply list the contents ‘underlined’ by keywords, followed by the number of pages, plus titles for each of the chapters.

“The title is the most important part of a book, considering that there are thousands of publications being produced all over the world in a given year,” Singh told attendees. He advised against the use of generic words in titles or when prefixing a book because search engines such as Google will have difficulty in finding it.

While books should always be technically sound and different from what is already in the market, writers should not take a long time drafting one, Singh said, adding that there was no such thing as a “perfect book”.

Keep it short

Once a title is settled on, the next step should be determining the number of pages, bearing in mind that mid-sized books are preferred. “Books running to more than 700 or 800 pages should be avoided; no one wants to read such large volumes. In publishing, always remember that less is more,” he advised.

There was no difference between a textbook and a reference one, the editor explained, and writers should always refer to their works as textbooks. The review process should take a period of 6-10 weeks, allowing the publisher to assess the volume before it goes to production.

“If you disagree with reviewers, seek their audience, and remember that this does not amount to rejection. Rejection only happens when the six basic tenets of a book are not clear,” Singh advised. One of the major causes for rejection of books is failure by authors to read publisher guidelines, he said, adding that many writers only read the guidelines after having completed compiling a volume.

One part of a book that authors must pay attention to is the chapter that contains the abstracts because the contents contribute to discoverability. Indexing should also be done with a lot of care for the same reasons, he added.

The webinar, part of a series targeted at African academics to provide them with valuable insights into publishing technical books, delved into various aspects of the writing process, from formulating book proposals to understanding timelines, copyrights, royalties, and other essential factors.

The series also covers essential topics such as navigating the peer-review process, dealing with contracts, understanding the pre-production and production phases, the world of open-access books and their relevance in the realm of research publishing, and even more importantly, how to fund-raise for open access.