Author Archives: Ravi Murugesan


About Ravi Murugesan

I live in India and I'm an INASP Associate. I work for the AuthorAID project, mostly as a trainer, and I spend a lot of time on INASP's online learning platform.

Miles to go for Scholarly Commons to become a global academic norm

In part one of this series, INASP Associate Ravi Murugesan reflected on the development of a Scholarly Commons and the need to consider how the guiding principles can involve, and be relevant to, researchers in the Global South.

The development of Scholarly Commons is guided by the principles that:

  • Research and knowledge should be freely available to all who wish to use or reuse it
  • Participation in the production and use of knowledge should be open to all who wish to participate

Two months after attending the Scholarly Commons Working Group workshop, I went to the remote state of Tripura in the Indian northeast to give a talk on scientific writing and publishing. Here, I was reminded of the enormous gap between the ideal of the commons and the reality that many Southern researchers experience.

Tripura is a poor but peaceful state in the otherwise restive northeastern region of India. This was a scene outside one of the best hotels in Agartala, the capital of Tripura.

India has a good number of world-class research institutions and cities like New Delhi and Mumbai that host major conferences. However, Tripura – as with many other places in India – is off the map even for many Indian academics. That said, nearly every state in India has at least one major university funded by the central or state government. This funding allows for a certain amount of research to take place and covers subscriptions to journals through the national digital library consortium and some direct deals with publishers.

Public universities in India tend to have vast campuses with tens of thousands of staff and students. Most students are at the undergraduate level and much of the university activity is focused on teaching.

Scholarly research does take place but under constraints such as limited funding, insufficient collegial support, and of course, excessive teaching responsibilities.

While researchers may be motivated to make the world a better place or connect research to local development priorities, in reality, the primary aspiration is to publish in high-impact journals.

Northern researchers, just like Southern researchers, are under pressure to publish and may not get any ‘academic points’ for making their research data and outputs openly available in the spirit of the scholarly commons. However, Northern researchers do not have to work in the challenging research environments that envelop many Southern researchers. Opportunities to do high-quality research are limited in the South, and the focus in terms of research output is on writing  a paper that is fit for a journal with that magical number: the impact factor. Whether the journal is open access or not is often a minor consideration. Even well-known open access journals can be unaffordable for Southern researchers when APC (article-processing charge) waivers are not given.

I saw this in the library at Tripura University. The blue tape may be ugly but it does draw attention to these lists!

Imagine this: You are a young faculty member at a university in a developing country with perhaps a couple of decades to go before you rise up in a heavy-handed bureaucratic system to become a full professor with some freedom in research and teaching. Perhaps you grew up in a part of the world many people don’t know about. Perhaps your region, culture, language or race is marginalized even in your own country. Your experience of the larger world has primarily been through the lens of the media.

As an academic, publishing your research in the same journals as the world’s academic elite provides an opportunity to redress the balance.

It is not just a matter of personal ambition. In India, the Academic Performance Indicator (API) is a metric used in universities to evaluate the teaching and research performance of faculty members, but credit is heavily weighted towards publishing in journals – particularly those with high impact factors.

A couple of weeks after visiting Tripura University in India, I found myself in another remote part of the academic universe: Thai Nguyen University (TNU) in the northern, mountainous part of Vietnam.

With Jennifer Chapin of INASP and TNU researchers who took part in the AuthorAID train-the-trainers workshop in November 2016

Here too academics were driven to publish in high-impact journals and were focused on publishing in the journals of one particular publisher – Elsevier. A senior academic at TNU told me that cash awards are given for publications in high-impact journals, indicating that they deserve respect on the world’s academic stage, having overcome the barriers of location and circumstances.

It is not enough to encourage researchers in the Tripuras and Thai Nguyens of the world today to share their research data and outputs in the public domain. The national, institutional and collegial environments in developing countries put excessive pressure on researchers to focus on publishing – and getting published is not easy. So it’s not surprising that scholarly commons principles – such as maximizing the transparency and accessibility of research data – are not primary concerns.

It is essential, therefore, to make a case at the level of national university commissions or at least institutions, where academic structures and guidelines are put in place. It is also essential to influence policymakers and research funders to promulgate new approaches to research communication.

Making Scholarly Commons a global academic norm is not an easy journey and the going will be slow. But to begin with, it is imperative that we start convening and listening in diverse places around the world if we believe that research communication should be an open, well-connected artifact of humankind that helps us all progress.■


Miles to go for Scholarly Commons to become a global academic norm

This post is the first of a two-part series. In this first part, INASP Associate Ravi Murugesan describes his participation at a workshop organized by the Scholarly Commons Working Group.

Part 1 of 2

There are two ways to write a report of a major event: right after attending it – while the memory of what transpired is still fresh – or sometime later, after seeing the world through a new lens inspired by that event and considering the event again in the light of what one sees. I’ve opted for the second approach to reflect on the Scholarly Commons Workshop in San Diego that I attended in September of last year.

The Scholarly Commons Working Group (SCWG), which organized this workshop, is an initiative of the nonprofit organization FORCE11.

According to the live draft of the Scholarly Commons principles:

“…the Scholarly Commons defines a system of scholarship and research production and dissemination that:

Promotes the best research and scholarship possible by

  • Making the process and products of research and scholarship maximally transparent
  • Maximizing participation of the world’s scholars and researchers
  • Capitalizing on the most productive technologies

It promotes the most rapid and wide dissemination of scholarship and research possible to all who need or want them.”

Perhaps one way to think of Scholarly Commons is ‘open access++’!

‘Open’ is a big theme at INASP. We have a longstanding commitment to open-access publishing in developing countries through our Journals Online project. Through AuthorAID online courses – regularly offered as MOOCs – we educate Southern researchers about contemporary issues in publishing including open access and open data. For these reasons – and the clear intention to involve the ‘world’s researchers’ in the building of the scholarly commons – I keenly looked forward to the Scholarly Commons workshop.

I’m not going to write a workshop report as such because at least two people have done this already: Danny Kingsley and April Hathcock. Instead I’m going to throw a light on the ‘Southern’ aspect of the workshop and in the next two posts that are part of this series I’ll go over a couple of events after the workshop that led me to wonder what it would take to implement the lofty principles of the commons in the Global South, where INASP works.

On the first day of the workshop, the participants were given an opportunity to suggest and advertise ‘unworkshop’ sessions for the second day. I proposed a session titled ‘Making the Scholarly Commons relevant in the Global South’. I thought at least a few people might be interested in discussing this, but I was stunned when nearly half of the workshop audience showed up! There were even two celebrities from the research communication world: Cameron Neylon and Ivan Oransky.

We spent a few hours having a candid discussion and we have a detailed report, which is part of the main proceedings. April Hathcock touches upon this session in her blog post, but I wouldn’t quite agree with her statement that this session ‘was relegated, literally and physically, to the margins, ghettoized from the main discourse’. Going by the large number of people who chose to attend this session and how everyone was actively involved – even those who didn’t have much experience working in the South – I would say this was one of the main sessions of the workshop even though it was spontaneously organized. The message was clear: Southern issues should be prioritized in the Scholarly Commons agenda.

Throughout the workshop, not just during the ‘unworkshop’, I kept wondering how all this talk of Scholarly Commons would be received in academic environments in developing countries. Or would there even be an audience to receive it? ■

Click the link to read Part 2 – Miles to go for Scholarly Commons to become a global academic norm


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Three encounters with medical journal editors

In July I was invited to give a talk at a medical writing workshop in Bangalore organized by The BMJ. It was the first of my interesting encounters with medical journal editors this year. The workshop was held at Bangalore Baptist Hospital for about 100 medical doctors and most of them appeared to be students and young clinicians.

My talk was based on an article I wrote last year for SciDev.Net on how to target a suitable journal. Before my talk I got to attend a session led by Dr. Amar Jesani, who is the editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics. Unsurprisingly, the focus of Dr. Jesani’s talk was publication ethics. He presented intricate examples of scientific fraud and explained how journal editors have to always be alert these days. The questions from the audience indicated that many of them had no idea that publication ethics was such a big issue. But it was also the elephant in the room, I thought. Dr. Jesani however minced no words in condemning ethical violations and urged everyone at the workshop to work and write ethically.

Photo 1

The theme of publication ethics resurfaced at the 1st conference of the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), held in New Delhi in early October. WAME was formed in 1995 and has nearly 2000 members, with a large representation from developing countries.

Photo 2

I’ve been a member of WAME since 2012 and have learnt immensely from the discussions on the WAME email list. So when I heard about the WAME conference that was to take place in India, where I live, I was one of the first to sign up. I went to the conference with a poster about INASP’s partnership with a research centre within the medical school at the University of Colombo. This blog post by Jocalyn Clark mentions some key issues discussed at the conference, and I made a Storify of some WAME posters.

For me one of the high points of the conference came at the end: there was a rousing keynote address by Dr. Hoomen Momen on how well medical journals are addressing the most important health problems in the world. The gist of his talk was that a lot more needs to be done in an environment where medical journal editors are often preoccupied with matters such as getting indexed, getting and growing an impact factor, etc. But Dr. Rod Rohrich, a WAME leader, had earlier spoken about how medical editing is many things: a science, a service, and a business (at least when editing is seen in the context of publishing).

Photo 3

There were arguments to sway people in different directions, but I left with a sort of neutral point of view, which I think helps for the work I do as an AuthorAID trainer. It also helped for my next encounter with medical journal editors — near Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Photo 4

Near the end of November, a two-day workshop on international publishing standards was organized by the Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians for medical journal editors in Sri Lanka. My colleague Andy Nobes who is connected to INASP’s Journals Online project will soon be writing a detailed post about this workshop, so here I’ll write about what I learnt from the workshop wearing my hat as an AuthorAID trainer, or as someone who works primarily with researchers in developing countries.

One of the biggest challenges faced by journal editors in Sri Lanka, I came to know, was getting articles from authors. Many Sri Lankan journals apparently do not publish enough articles to qualify for indexing, and indexing is key to growth and even survival. For medical journals, getting indexed in PubMed is especially important but this is not easy (though it is apparently easier than getting an impact factor). Currently only one medical journal in Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Medical Journal, is indexed in PubMed. The editor of another Sri Lankan journal spoke about his experience getting rejected twice by PubMed over a five-year period, but the second time he was encouraged to apply again.

Why is indexing important? A journal that is indexed in respected academic databases such as PubMed is considered prestigious. A study published in JAMA found that a journal’s prestige was the most important factor among the surveyed authors in selecting a target journal. Although this study was published in 1994 and included researchers at only one American university, it could be somewhat true across the world. Over the past five years I have met researchers in several developing countries, and they often rely heavily (too heavily in fact) on the impact factor – perhaps the most popular “prestige metric” – while identifying suitable target journals.

So it can be a vicious cycle for journals in developing countries: because they’re not indexed they don’t attract enough submissions, and because they don’t publish enough they’re not indexed. For authors it is “publish or perish”. A corollary for journal editors is perhaps “get indexed or perish”!

Incidentally when I was in Colombo I came to know of a new critical literature review on the problems faced by “peripheral scholarly journals”.

On the second day of the workshop I gave a talk on how Sri Lankan medical journals could connect better with authors. I proposed the implementation of an online learning platform that would be open to all medical researchers and journal editors in Sri Lanka, on which there would be courses in scientific writing, communities of practice, etc. The idea was that such a platform might encourage Sri Lankan authors and journal editors to be part of a single community rather than separate communities. Journal editors are well placed to train authors on how to write well and to lead discussions on increasing the impact of medical research in a local or national context. By doing this I imagine they would also increase the visibility of their work and their journals – and perhaps get more of the high-quality submissions that they acutely need?

At INASP we are supporting our institutional partners in implementing and using Moodle, an open-source online-learning platform. We ourselves have been using INASP Moodle for more than three years and have found this platform to be valuable for our training and capacity-building initiatives. I must add a disclaimer that I’m a “Moodler” and I always like to spot opportunities to use Moodle!

As this year comes to an end, I’m more convinced than ever that it is critical to bring together journal editors and researchers in developing countries to address and overcome what are essentially common or related challenges. Only then can research play a bigger role in national development. Otherwise there’s a real risk that the research endeavour will continue to be dominated by the “get indexed or perish” and “publish or perish” narratives. We actually need to bring together even more actors in the research ecosystem, as Sue Corbett has explained in her recent posts on the wisdom of crowds. Hopefully 2016 will be a year when we see a more collective effort to make research work for development.

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Chemistry researchers attend a participatory INASP research writing workshop

Last month I had the pleasure of facilitating an AuthorAID research writing workshop in Nairobi jointly organized by INASP and the Pan Africa Chemistry Network, a unit of the Royal Society of Chemistry. This was a two-day workshop held on 20 and 21 November 2015, and it was organized right after the PACN Congress in Nairobi. Twenty of the congress delegates took part in the workshop. All were chemists: most were early-career researchers and some had substantial experience. They came from Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. And they were all keen to improve their skills in writing research papers for publication. We have many slide decks on the AuthorAID resource library related to writing and publishing a research paper, but for this workshop I wanted to do something different. On the flight from Mumbai to Nairobi, which was my first time traveling on the comfortable Dreamliner, I reflected on … Continue reading

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AuthorAID researchers begin to take up Research Square’s free editing offer

Ravi Murugesan provides an update on the free editing offer available to some developing country researchers in the AuthorAID community thanks to the support of Research Square. Researchers spend months or even years carrying out a research study. When they get to the happy stage of having enough results to write up a research paper, many researchers face a new challenge: writing in clear, precise English. This is particularly difficult for researchers who have limited proficiency in English. At AuthorAID, we work with researchers living in developing countries around the world, and we have often sensed their need for manuscript editing support. Editing even a short research paper can take hours of effort, and is ideally done by a trained English language editor. However, manuscript editing is expensive when one has limited funds, like many of the researchers in the AuthorAID network. With this in mind we were delighted when … Continue reading

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How to target a journal that’s right for your research

(The article below was originally published on SciDev.Net on 15 December 2014.) Hitting a target is not easy, and neither is selecting a journal for your research paper. An appropriate target journal is one that publishes work on the subject your paper addresses and which, because of its various qualities, serves your needs and aspirations. Some researchers are under pressure to publish anywhere, while others are lured by prestigious but often unattainable journals. Either case can lead researchers away from journals that might give them the audience and impact they need. Here I outline how to target a truly appropriate journal for your research. Stay away from predators Academics involved in research are often evaluated based on their research output or publications. Whether they get a degree, get hired, get promoted or get tenure is often tied to the quantity and quality of the publications they have recently authored. And … Continue reading

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