AiW Guest Stephanie Kitchen
The ‘African journals’ roundtable at ASAUK 2014 included editors Dina Ligaga (African Studies/Wits), Tom Odhiambo (East African Literary and Cultural Studies), Mary Esther Dakubu (Institute of African Studies Research Review/Ghana Journal of Linguistics), Heike Becker (Anthropology Southern Africa), Henning Melber (Africa Spectrum), and David Simon (Journal of Southern African Studies).
Bringing together journal editors from West, East and southern Africa, and from European-based journals, the panel gave a sense of the diversity of African journal publishing and provided insights into the issues facing the sector today.
Regionalization and global exposure were clearly priorities for the newly launching Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies (EALCS), which had decided to license publication to Taylor & Francis. Tom Odhiambo described a situation where relevant studies from East Africa were not getting published: there are around 50 universities in Kenya alone and it is no longer adequate to await publication slots in Research in African Literatures. He explained that EALCS is also interested in publishing work from Ethiopia and Mozambique, and emphasized that scholars wanted and needed to publish internationally.
Similarly Anthropology Southern Africa’s major priority is to regionalize its exposure, content, readership and authorship throughout southern Africa. Until very recently, its constituency had almost exclusively been in South Africa (at one stage about half the journal had been in Afrikaans). This presented challenges within the strictures of the political economy of scholarly publishing in a region characterized by uneven and unequal ties. As Heike Becker highlighted one practical step is to include Portuguese abstracts as the journal is aiming to cover both Angola and Mozambique.
Dina Ligaga (African Studies, Wits) and Mary Esther Dakubu (Ghana journals) discussed the processes of peer review, achieving local and international acceptability, and related questions of power and knowledge hierarchies. Dakubu argued that in Ghana there is still a sense that publishing ‘outside’ is ‘better’. There is a tendency to cite published research from the UK/US using African sources as mere ‘data’. But, she posited, the ‘internal dialogue is as important as the dialogue with the rest of the world’ and ‘from the student level up, resources need to be available locally’. She explained that in Ghana, peer review is expensive (there are expectations that peer reviewers should be paid) and it can be difficult to find reviewers within a small research community. There is also a particular problem with reviewing and translating work in French as the level of French is quite low in Ghana despite their being surrounded by francophone countries.
Dina Ligaga elaborated on the challenges from her perspective as editor of African Studies of working with authors and reviewers from the continent, who may not be exposed to the conference circuits and consequently the ways of thinking and engagement with theory typically required by international institutional cultures. Although authors may have excellent ethnographic material, such work may not be regarded as ‘cutting edge’ and therefore risks being excluded from accredited or international journals.
Susan Murray, the director of African Journals Online (AJOL), a major aggregator of African journal material, presented preliminary findings from the research her organization has conducted on journals and open access publishing across Africa. As Henning Melber’s presentation of Africa Spectrum and Strategic Review for Southern Africa (University of Pretoria) had also demonstrated, in cases where these open access journals in/on Africa are institutionally funded, the evidence points to these publications gaining in reputation, dissemination, scrutiny and impact. However, such well-funded open access journals are exceptions. AJOL’s research findings characterize the terrain of journal publishing in Africa as suffering from ‘resource scarcity’ whatever the ‘business model’ – open access, or subscription-based. The same research shows printed materials conferring more authority with librarians, university systems of reward, and even with funders and that this still remains a major challenge for online open access journal publishing in Africa.
Susan Murray went on to elaborate that the ‘typical’ journal in Africa is probably a campus journal run by a group of dedicated people and depends on volunteerism. African journals typically do not have impact factors or doi numbers, and licensing ‘isn’t on the horizon’. Some 30 per cent of journals are published by subject associations and learned societies (comparable with the ratio in the UK) but only 19 per cent are published by professional publishers, producing a very different picture from in the North.
This research is informing AJOL’s advocacy strategy for open access in Africa: moving towards a Latin American-style model where there are supporting government policies for open access and funding for journals and aggregators platforms. The proposed European/North American models for open access, that are largely about shifting resources from a ‘library pays’ subscription model to an ‘author /institution/research funder pays’ model, are unlikely to be effective in Africa. The discussions that followed cited the example of Adam Habib at Wits who was lobbying the South African government to subscribe all universities in the country to major journals.
The panel ‘Publishing and media’ brought together Nic Cheeseman, editor of African Affairs, Magnus Taylor, editor of African Arguments online, Dina Ligaga, editor of African Studies and media academic at Wits, and UK-based media and journalism academics Wendy Willems and George Ogola.
A main theme of the panel was how academic work on Africa interacted with wider media engagement. Dina Ligaga spoke about her own work and the efforts of other academics to project their research efforts into the public sphere via Twitter, Facebook and other blogs. She gave the example of feminist academic Stella Nyanzi who had adopted a conscious strategy to present and break down academic ideas of gender and sexuality, whether ‘palatable’ or not, using social media.
Nic Cheeseman writes a regular column for the Daily Nation in Kenya, drawing on his expertise as a political scientist. He also co-edits the Democracy in Africa blog. These outlets give him an opportunity to reach thousands of readers on a weekly basis. But as the co-editor of the peer review current affairs/political science journal African Affairs Nic Cheeseman argued that journals such as this also matter in shaping the debate and the news: blogs are often based on published sources that are peer-reviewed. As such blogs and newspapers don’t undermine journals, rather they work in a similar way to confer authority and depend on good editing.
Magnus Taylor discussed how the Royal African Society brings academic perspectives to public and policy discussions about Africa. He presented the example of Morten Jerven’s success in promoting his research on economic history and data to the media and policymakers. New media may also act as a disruptive technology affording lesser known writers the opportunity of finding an audience. He highlighted that contributors to African Arguments, a specialist online resource, do regularly get picked up by the Guardian, New York Times and so on. His advice is to publish regularly on a reliable and trusted platform.
More critical discussions led by George Ogola and Wendy Willems focused on persistent and dominant tropes of Africa being institutionalized as a country, as ‘other’, ‘not Europe’, as distant, ‘tribal’ and dystopic, still drawing on discourses mired in the colonial condition. Related questions followed around how the ‘African media constructs Africa’, and whether, indeed, we are ‘essentializing the media’? There is of course considerable variation in editorial quality. And it was stressed that much more attention needs to be paid to the conditions of African journalists themselves, which are a far cry from the Western monopolistic media’s laments about failing business models in the wake of social media. In Kenya, newspaper circulation figures are actually rising. Local papers anticipate losing market share to social media in 5-10 years time, but this panel made the important point that we should not simply assume Western models will be replicated.
Stephanie Kitchen is Chair of the Publications Committee and managing editor at the International African Institute, London. From 2001-2007 she worked for the African Books Collective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org