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by Liz Allen and Elizabeth Marincola
23rd September 2021

The impact of the shift to digital publication has been greatly positive for researchers in the Global South. It has enabled more and better worldwide access to the scholarly literature. More innovative, online and digital content also expands the opportunities for all the components of research – including the methodologies and any research materials and data – to be fully accessible and available for use and reuse. Our challenge is to make sure that all researchers, and all the audiences of research (patients, students, policy makers, journalists and others) across the world benefit fully from innovations in research publishing, and the shift to open access and ‘open science’ more broadly.

In order to challenge the status quo, especially when there is an increasing need for scholars to ‘publish and to publish well’, we need to increase efforts to train and support researchers in the Global South in all aspects of publishing: from selecting a good research project, to collaborating effectively with others, to writing articles, to responding to requests for revisions and to communicating with editorial staff. This is more important than ever if we want to truly transform the research environment for the benefit of all.

There are many developments and innovations in scholarly publishing that can help researchers to share and publish work in ways that enable access and maximise their reach and potential impact, and also move beyond traditional ways of publishing. These include publishing pre-prints, writing peer review reports and performing transparent peer review, while gaining credit and visibility for all their contributions to a research article by using the CRediT taxonomy of roles when publishing a research article. Increasingly, to be successful, a researcher must build awareness of and knowledge about the range of publishing options available for research.

Also very important is to encourage and support researchers from the Global South as peer reviewers, so that they can improve their skills of review, their exposure and their immersion in the publishing world. This question also relates to issues of credit: authors who are better known reputationally among their colleagues are more likely to receive a fair review of their work. This would include invitations to speak at respected conferences and to serve on editorial boards and on high-level scholarly committees.

Fortunately, Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are among the cohort of researchers who have been the keenest to embrace new technologies, opportunities and options that can help them to share their research. When starting a career in research, being able to build a portfolio of output is key to furthering career progression and making a mark. Many ECRs work on pilot and small-scale studies in cutting-edge areas, on projects that may have limited access to research funds. These researchers can struggle to deliver scientific output that is attractive to many traditional publishing venues, particularly where ‘impact’ is a criterion in the decision to publish.

Moreover, ECRs from the Global South often seek advanced training in the Global North, because of the lack of funding to build, sustain and retain scientific talent in the Global South. Africa must invest in its own science infrastructure by funding more world-class labs that can compete with labs in the Global North for the best students and post-docs.

There are particular challenges for ECRs everywhere in the world, including overdependence on a Principal Investigator (PI) who is incentivised to exploit their labour and the availability of fewer positions in the most competitive sectors of the science job market than the number of qualified candidates.

There are also basic business challenges to publishing for researchers in the Global South. Prominent among them is funding for article processing charges (APCs) and other publishing costs. Another important obstacle is the bias of an industry dominated by reviewers and editors from the Global North who may not be familiar with authors and labs in the Global South. Often submissions from African labs have the best chance of being accepted for selective publication if they are co-authored by colleagues in the Global North, even if the work comes mostly or exclusively from the South.

One of the few downsides to the universal shift to digital publishing is that it has opened the door to predatory publishers. This is because unscrupulous actors can – with relatively small effort – create a credible-appearing website and marketing campaign to attract submissions by making false claims. These specious claims commonly include listing editorial board members who are respected but have not agreed to serve, ensuring authors of validation through peer review that is not provided, and other sneaky tactics. Unfortunately, these deceptions may be discovered by vulnerable researchers – who are often in the Global South – only after fees are paid. But this is not an argument to make publishing harder: it is an argument to publicise the identity of transgressors and to bring to bear the full weight of existing laws against fraud to stop these perpetrators.

As an intellectual system, we need to adopt a more holistic and inclusive view about what we value in research – one that recognises the importance of negative, null, confirmatory and incremental findings as part of the research endeavour, and one that encourages all valid research output to be shared. Initiatives like the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) are working to encourage a global shift in the mindset around how research is valued and how researchers are assessed. The ECR community would benefit disproportionately from a shift in how research is valued, to a focus on the intrinsic value of what researchers do and deliver, instead of a focus on where research is published.

If we can lower the barriers to research sharing, increase the speed with which research is published, and welcome valid scientific outputs in a broad range of forms, inefficiencies in the structure of research careers will decrease significantly. As this transition unfolds, special consideration must be given to the concerns of researchers about the potential exploitation of shared data/results – in which others are enabled to use it to advance their own careers, patent opportunities and financial interests at the expense of and without proper attribute to those who share it. Given the history of colonialisation in Africa, one can imagine why it is imperative to promote good citizenship in the form of allocating appropriate credit and attribution and by respecting IP.

Traditional publishing systems are slow and include many processes that introduce inefficiencies. Reducing the barriers to publish – including the bureaucracy and the requirements it imposes on authors – will help to speed things up. In simple terms, the quicker and easier it is for researchers to share and publish their work, the quicker research can reach its intended audiences and beyond. As noted, it is paramount that any innovation that publishers bring to publishing systems and processes be designed for the needs of researchers in less well-resourced environments and for Early Career Researchers.

Open research publishing platforms, open access and post-publication peer review modes of publication may provide a new way forward. The aim of open platforms is to deliver a publishing model that retains the desirable and essential bits of our current publishing system (e.g. certification, validation, discoverability) while reducing the barriers to publication, access, equity and efficiency.

Peer review after publication is a model that is receiving increasing interest and traction, significantly accelerating the speed with which results can be shared. This is better for the progress of research and also better for authors. Authors can be understandably hesitant to expose their work without the benefit of review and revision, but this hesitation will ease as the culture shifts from peer review as a ‘judgement’ to peer review as a collegial conversation in the community interest. Moreover, given that peer review remains a vital but incredibly time-consuming and ultimately subjective activity, it may be promising to experiment with disconnecting the research-availability decision (‘publish’) from peer-review comments.

A final point to make is that countries beyond the Global North provide examples of different, potentially better, ways of operating when it comes to academic publishing. The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) launched AAS Open Research in 2018 in order to offer African researchers the opportunity to publish scholarly output in all forms in a manner that is both fully peer reviewed and rapid. By making the excellent research that is coming from the South accessible rapidly, without barriers and in all its forms, advances in scholarly publishing are positioned to continually enable research to become more and more inclusive and global.

Liz Allen is Director of Strategic Initiatives at F1000 and leads on shaping new initiatives and partnerships to foster open research publishing. Prior to joining F1000 in 2015, she spent over a decade leading the Evaluation Team at Wellcome.  

Elizabeth Marincola is Senior Advisor for Open Science at the African Academy of Sciences. She is a longtime leader and advocate for open science and open access publishing. 

 

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