Commercial publishers and epistemic coloniality

This article was originally published in French on Hekima. Philosopher à partir de l’Afrique This is a translation authorized by the author.

There is a need to face the terrible reality of Africa-based researchers who are constantly faced by paywalls, ruthlessly expensive access, and publication fees. While Africanists in western universities benefit from their institutional subscriptions, the rising costs of scientific journals are unsustainable even for Canadian universities, let alone for under-funded African academic institutions.

Some time ago, a note by Haythem Guesmi entitled « The gentrification of African studies » appeared on the analysis and criticism website Africa is a country, from which the quotation in the epigraph is extracted.

The text provides a diagnosis that deserves to be read in its entirety. If my attention has focused on the accuracy of several of the conclusions drawn, I mention it here mainly to introduce this post on free access that I have been wanting to write for a long time. I am always surprised by the lack of enthusiasm of most researchers scientifically committed to the decolonization of knowledge to actively promote and adopt open access as a key issue.

Multinational knowledge companies

On the fingers of one hand, we can count the number of university publishers who, alone, share half of the scholarly publishing market. Between 1986 and 2011, not only did they increase the price of the journals they publish by a factor of four, but they also succeeded in imposing indecent conditions on university libraries as a result of the digital transition. Publishers no longer authorize the purchase of « piece-rate » magazines or at such prohibitive costs that establishment budgets prohibit them from making such choices.

Instead, they are offered subscriptions by « bouquets », each containing a set of journals of unequal quality and prestige. So that instead of acquiring, for example, three highly coveted journals, librarians are forced to acquire several dozen additional journals of relative interest in order to ensure access to the three journals, at a cost corresponding to the increase in acquisitions. It should come as no surprise, the periodicals most in demand by researchers are scattered in a wide range of packages whose prices are also increasing by 10 to 20% annually.

In 2017, the authors of UdeM published 2544 free articles in the five major commercial publishers Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis and Sage. Still in 2017, UdeM libraries nevertheless had to pay $3.8 million to access the periodicals of the same five publishers…

Their business model (as lucrative as that of pharmaceuticals) is however entirely based on the unpaid production of articles produced by researchers ($), most often financed by public funds ($$), which in passing leave their copyrights to the journal ($$$), see their submission evaluated by peers solicited to carry out a voluntary review ($$$) which, in the end, are only accessible via a subscription by libraries ($$$$) ! What is virginly called the « knowledge economy » is based on a rent-geared-to-income economy (if not a cartel?) made possible by the predation of distribution channels. With such leonine practices, it is safe to say that most institutions in the South are out of the running in transnational research circuits from the very beginning, and that the work produced by their researchers is not surprisingly under-represented at the global level.

Hopes and disappointments of free access

Within this ecosystem, open access seeks to break this privilege and for-profit publishers have quickly understood it: it is indeed increasingly common for them to make outright proposals to authors to pay additional fees (which can amount to several thousand dollars, depending on the discipline) if they wish to make their work freely accessible. The formal definition of « free access » does not fit so easily into this small development: « open access » implies complete free access, whether monetary or informational (when the site requires your registration, names, institutions, contact details, etc.). In principle, therefore, or sites, while they certainly give visibility to the work and make it possible to network a large number of researchers (and as such, are structurally unavoidable) are not strictly speaking open access resources, even in their free version. Their analytical systems have the nasty flaw of encouraging the impoverishment of the field of possible scientific discoveries by making what the members of your network have read the boundaries of the literature review that should have been covered.

From the North, where an increasing amount of work is being produced on the decolonization of knowledge or on themes of interest to diasporas and their native communities, we have a responsibility not to lock our publications if we give emancipatory value to education and knowledge. If what will be exposed below will certainly not resolve the imbalance in the relationship of scientific reciprocity that we should aim for, unless we advocate for the « dropout » of globalized research, of the research ecosystems of the South (a defensible strategy, even if I do not share it), at least in the North we can oppose the trade-oriented options with two alternatives, called « golden » and « green » paths.

The golden path is to publish directly in an open access journal that publishes articles under either Creative Commons license. The Directory of Open Access Journal indexes thousands of quality open access scientific journals that follow a rigorous peer-review editorial process.

The green path consists in self-archiving your own publications on your personal website, blog or institutional archive (of a university, national research centre, etc.). Even with a paid journal, publishing contracts generally allow the archiving of one or other version of the text (print, pre-pub, pre-print, etc.) subject sometimes to a certain delay between publication and archiving. In some cases, it is even possible to make his text available in advance of official publication in the journal. In case of doubt about the possibilities contained in the publishing contract, you can consult different directories such as Sherpa/Romeo (English), Heloise (French), Dulcinea(Spanish) or even check with the publisher himself.

Because institutional archiving is carried out by professionals in the field of knowledge preservation, enhancement and dissemination, it is to be preferred where possible: thanks to them, 93% of institutional archives are indexed on the Google Scholar search engine, for example, which self-archiving will never achieve.

With its Horizon 2020 programme, the European Union has embarked on a binding path by requiring holders of European research funds to make their work freely available, subject to financial penalties if non-compliant with the conditions. These principles also officially apply to recipients of funds from Canadian granting agencies, but I know countless researchers who ignore this advice without any consequences.

Predatory publishers

We cannot conclude this post without mentioning the existence of another perverse phenomenon born as a result of the globalization of the university: predatory editions. Have you ever received a message from a publishing house that you have never contacted and that, wearing the respectable epithet of « academic », announces that it is looking forward to publishing your thesis? While there are certainly new inexperienced publishers who seek to build their catalog and go fishing for candidates, so-called predatory publishers are most often malicious and abuse both the naivety (or pride) of young authors, and academic pressure to publish at all costs (publish or perish). Not interested in the quality of either the manuscript or the final publication, these publishers do not follow the usual procedures of scientific evaluation**, put very little effort into revision and layout, do not fulfil their promises to distribute, require money to publish you, etc.

In such a way that a publication in this type of publishing house, instead of playing in favour of the candidate in a CV, discredits him/her in the eyes of those who know the phenomenon. In case of doubt, the tool created by Brock University can be consulted to facilitate the identification of these counterfeiters.

Notes and references

The information contained in this post are a synthesis of the knowledge acquired by attending various conferences or training sessions on the subject at the Université de Montréal. To go further, see in particular the work of Vincent Larivière, (associate professor at EBSI (UdeM) and holder of the Canada Research Chair on Transformations and Scholarly Communication) and Jean-Claude Guédon.

*Press release dated October 26, 2018 from the Bibliothèques de l’Université de Montréal.

** which can certainly be contested, but not without first proposing alternative models that guarantee a certain scientificity to science.

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