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.■


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.
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5 Responses to Miles to go for scholarly commons to become a global academic norm

  1. Thanks for this Ravi. I very much appreciate it. What I think though is that it is exactly what young non-tenured researchers in rich western countries say: I would like to share, but to get tenure or that grant I need that publication in a Q1/high impact journal. And that they need to have that security because they are building up their life, family, home etc. I do appreciate that differences in absolute terms are great and should be taken very seriously, but basically it is the same story. We need to target the incentive structures in the current system, but at the same time try to make sure that sharing openly really pays off. I am not sure yet what routes are the best for reaching that second goal. Maybe one of the keys may be in the hands of rich funders: they could include Global South participation in their grant evaluation criteria. Another is perhaps making sure that research from all countries is being respected and connected to. These are all slow and difficult process that offer no immediate solution for young researchers. A third one may be using a double strategy: while going for that high impact publication you could at the same time share your paper as preprint and reach out using plain language explanations, social media and more. Would that be a viable strategy for researchers you met in India and Vietnam? And was there any training or advice available for these matters in the universities you visited?
    I appreciate this all is not easy. But with the growing number of students hoping for a career in science I wonder whether going on on the path of hypercompetition will offer a solution, or just the incidental lottery prize for the few and disappointment for the many. Wonder what you think! And please continue sharing these stories…

    • Hi Jeroen – Thank you for sharing your thoughts. While on the surface Northern and Southern researchers deal with the same question ‘what do I gain by sharing my research outputs openly’, in the South there are often deep issues related to conformity, conservatism, rules and authority that put together make it very hard for developing country researchers to ‘break free’ and be innovative in communicating research.

      For example, many researchers I have met are intrigued by the idea of sharing research openly even if there are no incentives, but they are worried about ‘theft’ of research ideas or data. Perhaps this worry is greater in certain developing countries where people see corruption and unethical practices in day-to-day life. Furthermore, developing country researchers may have limited opportunities to do high-quality research compared to their Northern counterparts, so there may be a greater tendency to ‘guard’ one’s work and gear it to meet tangible incentives or rewards.

      I think we need to talk about what’s likely to work better for advocating the scholarly commons: a bottom-up approach or a top-down approach. I tend to think a top-down approach – first addressing the issues of local incentives, what researchers are expected to do in an institutional or national context, etc. – is worth considering although this could involve a lot of tedious and bureaucratic work. This is just about advocacy, not the building of the commons which can go on in parallel.

      To answer your questions:

      >> While going for that high impact publication you could at the same time share your paper as preprint and reach out using plain language explanations, social media and more. Would that be a viable strategy for researchers you met in India and Vietnam? And was there any training or advice available for these matters in the universities you visited?

      A couple of years back I was at a conference in Africa and encouraged researchers to put out pre-prints, but I was almost rebuked by a highly accomplished academic from the US who said that pre-prints are okay only in certain fields of physics and math. I’m sure her advice, given her eminence, made a strong impression on the audience. Developing country researchers have enough challenges already to deal with conflicting advice, and they might be inclined to follow what the ‘establishment’ says.

      As for plain language summaries, this is difficult in practice because a lot of developing country researchers don’t have English as a first language and don’t have money to pay for language-editing or writing services.

      Social media: Use of Twitter is very low among academics in developing countries, from what I’ve seen. Everyone seems to be on Facebook and WhatsApp, but I don’t know how well these are used for research communication.

      Ultimately the cachet of publication in a big-name journal gives many researchers a sense of ambition along with tangible rewards or incentives. And the journey to accomplish this involves so much work, revision and disappointment that one may have little time or energy to do much else. This is perhaps the elephant in the room.

  2. avatar Mona says:

    Thanks for all efforts you done

  3. Hi Ravi,

    Thanks for this, both the post and your extensive reply to Jeroen. As I said on Twitter, I think it’s important that a) the scholarly commons is not only about urging researchers to work openly, but as much about urging institutions, funders etc to change (the top-down approach you also advocate), and b) it is not about an all-or-nothing, now-or-never change , but about creating and using possibilities to take steps in the right direction, while allowing for greyness and different speeds.

    I find it interesting that all the issues you quote (reliance on impact factor and the resulting publication culture, worry about theft or scooping of ideas and results, authority figures making claims about e.g. preprint sharing, unfamiliarity or reluctance to use social media for research communication, the feeling of having little time and energy left to invest in these other forms of research sharing) are exactly the barriers researchers at my own (Western European) university mention as holding them back from engaging in more open ways of doing research. So somehow, less conformity, less conservatism, less rules and authority still keeps people feeling captive to the same system?

    I would never deny the situations are very different. The factors you mention are very real, and at work at a much different scale. I do wonder, however (and this is a very genuine question) whether there are reasons that the *principles* of the scholarly commons (not any specific proposed solution or way towards that) could/would not apply to certain situations / communities?

    Finally, about plain language summaries/explanations (the one I left out above): wouldn’t there be a lot of value also in having those available in local languages, not necessarily in English?

    I much appreciate the opportunity to discuss these things and learn from your perspective!

    kind regards,

    • Hi Bianca – Thanks for your comment. I think it’s important to keep communicating that the scholarly commons is, as you say, ‘about creating and using possibilities to take steps in the right direction, while allowing for greyness’. Some people could find the vision of the commons too idealistic or remote from their realities, so we should emphasize the journey.

      When I was a research fellow in the US about 10 years back, there was absolutely no discussion in my lab about how to communicate research other than writing up papers for journals with a high impact factor. A lot has happened in research communication since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many research groups in the West still function in the same way. Researchers there may be more well equipped to publish their work in leading journals compared to developing country researchers, but maybe there’s more pressure to continue certain academic traditions – such as publishing in an elite set of journals – that have been handed down by one’s illustrious academic forebears. Maybe this is one reason people feel, in your words, ‘captive to the same system’.

      As for whether the very principles of the scholarly commons would not apply to certain situations or communities, one example I can think of is research that is done with an objective that involves commercialization or patenting. I don’t recall if we discussed this in San Diego or if it’s been discussed elsewhere, but if not it could be something to talk about – should we differentiate (1) the outputs of pure academic research which can reasonably be expected to be in the public domain, from (2) the outputs of commercially-minded or funded research which may be guarded and patented? And what about the occasional link between the two (eg, research that initially starts out being a pure scholarly endeavour but takes on a commercial aspect at some point)?

      I realise I have moved away from my original narrative about how to make the scholarly commons more relevant for developing countries! So coming to your question about plain language summaries in local languages – I think this is certainly an area where the concept of the commons would make sense in developing countries. In Vietnam, for example, there is a healthy tradition of publishing research in Vietnamese journals but researchers get more points for publishing in English language journals. So a shift is happening that may slowly lead to Vietnamese journals being sidelined except in some subject areas. Even if this is inevitable, publishing plain language summaries in Vietnamese and sharing research data in open and reusable formats would help the scholarly commons universe grow!

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