An Elsevier African Megajournal Proposal Re-colonising the university in Africa?

by Eve Gray, first published on

In 2015, South African universities saw widespread student protests against a neocolonial heritage at universities that stood accused of a lack of post-apartheid transformation in institutional ethos, curriculum, and racial demographics. Operating under a number of hashtags, such as #RhodesMustFall, #DecoloniseTheUniversity and #FeesMustFall, the one issue that no-one seemed to speak about was the influence of the scholarly publishing system, which has a strong influence on faculty reward and promotion systems, entrenching many of the trends that students were protesting against. A series of blogs will explore the political economy of scholarly publishing and the role of Open Access in South Africa at a crucial time in its university history.

Elsevier has recently rattled the rather glum view of the prospects of African journal publishing with what looks like a major intervention – a proposal to explore the potential for the development of an African megajournal. Could this mean that Africa – which until recently has hardly been on the radar of the big international journal publishers – has something to offer to this large and hard-nosed multinational academic journal publisher? Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the impact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?

It is perhaps a sad commentary on perceptions of the African continent that when a big corporation targets Africa as a new market, as Elsevier appears to be doing with this proposal, one of the first questions that can be asked is, ‘Does this mean that Elsevier’s business model is under threat?’  Given that the European Union, for example, is aiming for mandating full Open access to research by 2020 – with no embargoes, and affordably – and given also that governments like the Dutch government have been engaged at national level in hard negotiations with Elsevier to reduce subscription costs at a national level, it is quite possible that the commercial publishers are indeed worrying about the future of their current very high profit business model.

This is not without it ironies, however, as these developments have also come at a time when some major OA advocates are arguing that the current vision of OA is failing, a victim of its own tendency to over-zealousness and and lack of strategy and its capture by multinational journal publishers in the wake of the adoption of  ‘gold’ open access journals funded by Article Processing Charges (APCs). The field is thus very uncertain indeed.

From the publishers’ side, it is very telling that Elsevier has recently acquired SSRN, the social sciences open access collaborative platform, after buying Mendeley some years ago. The most probable motivation behind these purchases would seem to be a strategic vision of the power to leverage open data in a networked research environment in which data analysis has become a powerful strategic research tool. Controlling large data sources is likely to become a very powerful base for a commercial company that wants to provide metrics as a core competence, as Elsevier already does through Science Direct.

The main problems for African research publishing up until now have been interconnected: a general lack of interest on the part of African governments in funding or supporting scholarly publishing activities; and exclusion from the mainstream of prestigious international scholarly journal publishing, with African journals and their content being regarded as of ‘local’ interest only, with very few of them qualifying for the citation indexes. So for research institutions to be courted by Elsevier might prove very seductive, offering as it does the potential for the ‘international’ cachet of association with a big name in global scholarly publishing.

What has happened is that a group of research institutions – the African Academy of Sciences, the South African Medical Research Council, the African Centre for Technology Studies, an inter-governmental think tank,  and IBM Research Africa are considering the creation of an African megajournal with Elsevier. They are being courted through Elsevier’s undoubted ability to offer a high level of technological support, author and publishing training, and the potential for international profiling of African research. Given the profile of the research organisations involved, there are serious questions to be asked about what it will mean for African governments to have this scale of strategic research publication – scientific, medical, technological and research networking – placed in the hands of a profit oriented publisher as hard-nosed as Elsevier.

Elsevier publishes a number of African journals and participates in the WHO HINARI initiative for the provision of free or low-cost medical journals to developing countries. It also has its own corporate responsibility programme, offering training, conferences and workshops. It has, for example, for over a decade offered a twinning programme between African medical journals and leading biomedical journals in the US and UK, enhancing editorial and publishing skills to grow their presence and reach, as well as running mentoring programmes and skills development initiatives for African journals and their authors.

A review of of other large journal publishers shows a similar signs of an expansion of interest in research from Africa and the developing world.  Taylor and Francis over the last few years has developed a long list of African journals, with an editorial office in Johannesburg, a mission to collaborate with with learned societies and institutions and partnerships for co-publication with local publishers. This has been a particular strategic focus, with active recruitment of local titles. Biomed Central has a prominent Malaria Journal, has held African capacity building workshops and conferences and runs the Open Access Africa Twitter feed. Wiley has just announced a partnership with Egypt-based Hindawi Publishing, initially for the publication of nine journals, which will be managed by Hindawi and published on their website. In this way, Wiley says that it aims to benefit from experience in OA publishing and Hindawi’s experience in what is described as a rapidly expanding market.

Should this activity perhaps be welcomed? On the whole, the continent has been sadly lacking in the exposure for its research, skills development, technology capacity and infrastructure support that Elsevier is offering. And undoubtedly, there will be many scholars and institutions who would be delighted at the profiling and potential for increased impact and reach that would be offered by one of the biggest journal publishers in the world.

According to a study of journal publishing in Africa, commissioned by African Journals Online (AJOL), covering 330 respondents, the majority of African journals are – often struggling –   ‘scholar journals’ run on a voluntary basis by individuals or small groups of scholars, with only 19% of journals surveyed published by commercial publishers. Support from universities and national governments has been largely lacking.  AJOL, an initiative supported by INASP, hosts 517 journals on its online platform, of which 208 are open access, offering 65,917 OA articles for download.

The South African government has been an exception to the general pattern of national-level indifference to scholarly publishing, with the Department of Science and Technology supporting the SciELO South Africa journal publishing platform through the Academy of Science of South Africa. What this offers is the provision of financial support for journals and their hosting on SciELO SA in partnership with SciELO Brazil. There is no doubt that if this were to be expanded rapidly and extended to other African national academies of science, through NASAC, this could provide a path to a powerful regional presence, on the Latin American model.  This was discussed at a high level forum held in 2015, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Is Elsevier’s proposed megajournal likely to be of overall benefit to the continent?  According to the first reports, this is likely to be an OA journal using APCs, but perhaps with a 5-year development period in which no APCs would be asked for. Elsevier claims to be planning long-term for a low-cost APC for this venture, probably with additional donor support. There could therefore be a window for the growth of the journal and whether or not the venture lands up ultimately facing Elsevier’s commercial OA model with very high APCs would remain an open question for quite a while. And would the journals find themselves part of a truly international community of scholarship, as a result of this venture, or consigned to a special-case ‘developing world’ status?

Elsevier’s aims are expressly developmental, aiming at wider exposure for African research across the African continent, applying affordable APCs without resorting to the exceptionalism of donor-funded support for distribution of journals in the developing world. Considerable support is proposed for authoring and technology infrastructure, training in the different aspects of journal publishing. The company has an extensive corporate responsibility programme with a wide variety of initiatives aiming to support and expand the discoverability and accessibility of African research. It is aiming to partner with 39 journals in Egypt, five in Nigeria three in South Africa as well as the megajournal proposal. The institutions responsible for these journals,Ylann Schemm from the Elsevier Foundation assures us, will retain full ownership of the journals, but the content will be hosted as OA on Science Direct. The proposed megajournal, in this context, Schemm describes as a joint effort with funding agencies, governments and NGOs, reliant on Elsevier’s publishing capabilities to create ‘a common platform for African research’.

But there is a negative side. There has been a considerable growth in the number of funding agencies demanding open access to the research that they fund, leading to a rise in the number of ‘green’ open access repositories; support for the payment of APCs for OA journals and for hybrid journals. In this context, a spate of complaints about the good faith of large international publishers in operating open access gives cause for concern.

The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), in a statement signed by a long list of international organisations, complains that Elsevier’s OA policy, introduced in 2015, in fact restricts rights for articles placed in repositories, rather than providing fully open access.  Embargoes are imposed, up to 48 months; the licence applied is CC-ND-NC rather than the open CC-BY licence; and the publication licence applies to all articles previously published and to be published in the future.

Thus Elsevier has developed its own version of OA licensing. Very few authors would understand the implications of these provisions, and the limitations they could place in the way of access, but as an Australian editor put it when he was sacked for protesting when his journal, the Medical Journal of Australia, was outsourced to Elsevier:

‘One of the fundamental questions is whether you regard the knowledge that’s generated through research as a common good… In other words, it should be there for everybody to use, paid for by the community through its taxes to research workers, or whether someone can come along and put a fence around these paddocks and say, “Well that’s actually mine.”’

There have also been complaints from the Wellcome Trust, as a major funder of the OA publication of the research it supports. Wellcome complained that more than half the articles it had paid Wiley to make open in hybrid journals were not compliant with the depositing and licensing requirements. Elsevier did not comply in 31% of hybrid journals and 26% of full OA journals. All PLOS articles were compliant. Wellcome said that it had paid for close on 400 articles published in the hybrid model that had not been deposited, as required, in the PubMed Central repository.

Lastly, as the entire editorial team of linguistics journal Lingua, found out when they opted to leave Elsevier, they could not take their journal with them – it now belonged to Elsevier – and they had to found a new journal.

It could be argued that OA status would protect the journal and its content from capture – after all open is open, surely, and the content should be accessible in perpetuity. For all this, there is surely a risk in allowing a commercial company, and one with a very strong commitment to high profit levels and to the exclusionary competitive ethos of the Impact factor, to have control of the the research publication of key African research councils. The research produced by these councils is of national and regional importance and its capture by a commercial company might put at risk the ability to leverage the research for public benefit. There are particularly hard questions to be asked about medical journals, for example.

To complicate things further, South African universities have been facing upheaval as resistance to the neo-colonial state of the higher education curriculum has taken centre stage in a wave of student protests in the country.  Campuses have been burning to the chant of #RhodesMustFall and #Decolonising the university. How does a progressive takeover of the publication of African scholarship look in this context?

Photo: Desmond Bowles – CC-BY-SA –