Call for SA to scrap poor journals

June 9, 2006

South Africa has too many low-quality academic journals, a report from the Academy of Science of South Africa claims. It recommends their numbers be reduced from about 220 to between 30 and 50.

The report says that all journals should be subject to regular quality assurance. And it argues that some universities are exploiting the fact that the Department of Education pays R80,000 (£6,500) per article published.

The subsidy was introduced during the academic boycott of apartheid to give South Africa's academics opportunities and incentives to publish research.

But the amount, which has quadrupled in recent years, remains the same irrespective of whether an article appears in a prestigious international journal or an insignificant local one.

The University of Pretoria recently received only a portion of R80,000 for two articles published in Nature and Science , which were co-authored by its academics with colleagues from universities outside South Africa, but it would earn the full subsidy for a single-authored article by a staff member in an obscure local journal.

"This is clearly ridiculous and discourages academics from collaborating and publishing internationally," said Wieland Gevers, executive officer of the Academy of Sciences and a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

He said that the subsidy also encouraged the proliferation of journals, many of them sporadically published and lacking in rigorous peer review and impact.

"A third of Department of Education-accredited journals were not cited once in 15 years by internationally indexed journals," Professor Gevers said.

The academy's concern is not only that low-quality journals jeopardise the country's scientific reputation, but also that the training of young academics is being undermined because their research is often not undergoing sufficiently rigorous peer review.

South Africa has some 16,000 researchers. About half of them are active and publish on average some 7,000 journal articles a year - half of them in US Institute for Scientific Information-indexed journals (ISI). Just over 3,000 appear in local journals that are not internationally indexed and are largely ignored by the global academic community.

Some 20 to 23 South African journals appear in ISI citation indecies and 14 are indexed in the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (two appear in both). South Africa's share of world citations in the ISI database was 0.31 per cent between 1997 and 2001, and 0.15 per cent of the 1 per cent of top-cited articles had South African addresses.

While the need for quality assurance will probably be accepted, large-scale journal mergers could meet resistance.

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