South African research output has risen, but caution must temper celebration

Publish or perish? Shutterstock

Each year, Nature, a research output database, publishes its index of high-quality research outputs across a range of journals within the natural sciences. Topics range from climate change to human biology. The data on the index represent output by institution, by country and by extent of collaboration.

In 2018, only one African country featured in the top 50: South Africa, coming in at 38. It was at 39 on the 2017 list. The improvement is a result of fractional count, which is used to allow for multiple authors from various institutions and countries collaborating on a single publication. Simply put, this means that more South African authors published research in the 2017 to 2018 period, and they did so in collaboration with researchers from other countries.

The Nature Index is far from exhaustive. It doesn’t capture research outputs in, for instance, humanities or social sciences.

Another recently released publication by the Academy of Science of South Africa suggests that increased research production should be celebrated – with caution.

The Academy of Science of South Africa’s report includes much detail about where and how the country’s research community has increased its number of publications, citations and collaborations. But it also raises concerns that sometimes, quantity comes at the cost of quality. In some cases increased publication counts have not served the desired end: to spread knowledge at the frontiers of a field.

Quality costs

Universities around the world are increasingly positioned as competitive businesses. This often results in academics being judged on the basis of various factors that are used to measure productivity and efficiency.

Read more: Competition as a fetish: why universities need to escape the trap

Publication counts may well be the most commonly used such metric. For example, publication metrics dominate in the formula that’s used to develop university ranking systems.

But all factors are partial in their representation of what’s being measured – they cannot tell the full story of what’s being produced and what value it adds to a field of study.

The contributions that universities make to our understanding of the world is mainly built bit by bit, over time, as teams of researchers contribute some small new understanding. Disseminating these small contributions to all those working in the field is crucial to such incremental knowledge development. And academic publications are the key way to disseminate knowledge.

But publication is not the goal – it’s just the means. The goal is knowledge dissemination. This distinction is crucial but sadly poorly grasped. It is the blind drive for publications at all costs that leads to predatory publications.

As the Academy of Science of South Africa report reveals, South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training has battled to monitor the rise of the predatory publication. The country has seen a steep increase in dodgy articles. In South Africa, publications are awarded funding in the institutional block grant. While the department currently uses six international and national lists of journals to vet which articles should be subsidised, a number of publications of dubious merit slip through the system.

The Academy of Science of South Africa suggests that between R100 million and R300 million has been paid to universities by the state for predatory publications that by their very nature fail to meet the central goal of knowledge dissemination. This amount is in the form of subsidies that the Department of Higher Education and Training pays to universities for research publications.

In times of financial constraint, it’s not surprising that South African universities are pressuring their academic staff to publish and subsequently to increase institutional subsidies. But sadly some of the methods used by universities to drive productivity, such as incentives paid to individual researchers for their publications, have led to insidious examples of misconduct by both authors and some local journals.

In some cases, institutional practices seem to actively contribute to problematic practices evidenced in the very uneven distribution of predatory publications across the sector.

In conclusion

It is not all doom and gloom. Both the Academy of Science of South Africa report and the Nature Index demonstrate the great successes South Africa has had in building its research productivity. This should be celebrated. But we need to keep a careful eye on the flaws in the system that drive output for personal gain over research dissemination for knowledge building.

Universities need to look carefully at the message they’re giving through their incentive and promotion systems. In many cases the message is that publication is the goal to which academics are meant to aspire, and the prize is individual recognition and reward.