At the end of last year I was contacted by Jamila Jaber, Library Director at the Islamic University of Lebanon (IUL), who asked me if I would consider doing an interview “with two researchers, one from a ‘developed country’ and one from a ‘developing country’ (from the Arab world for example).”
The aim, she explained, should be to allow for a discussion about scholarly communication and open access from two geographically different points of view.
It seemed like a good idea, so I asked Jaber if she could propose a candidate from the Arab world. She suggested Mahmoud Khalifa, who works as a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office and is DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. He is also President of Cybrarians, which publishes an information science journal and runs two conferences.
To provide a voice from the developed world I invited Jeffrey MacKie-Mason to take part. MacKie-Mason is UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. The resultant Q&A with MacKie-Mason was published on April 8th (here), and a response to that Q&A from Khalifa on 19th (here). Today I am publishing a Q&A with Khalifa (below), which I will ask MacKie-Mason to comment on.
One topic I have been particularly keen to explore is the growing interest in Europe and the US in engineering a global “flip” of legacy subscription journals to a pay-to-publish open access model. I asked MacKie-Mason to take part partly because he is an enthusiastic advocate for journal flipping. In fact, he believes it to be the only practical way of achieving open access in the near term.
A global flip would imply a future in which the pay-to-publish model would come to dominate the scholarly publishing environment. Instead of readers (or their institutions) paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors would have to pay to publish their own papers – by means of article-processing charges (APCs). Currently, APCs are around $3,000 a paper, although they can be both higher and lower than this.
Not conformant with the philosophy of OA?
Many in the global North remain sceptical about the global flip proposal – for reasons I have explored here. For those in the global South the prospect of all international subscription journals converting to pay-to-publish gold OA is particularly daunting, and indeed would be discriminatory since researchers in developing countries could expect to see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls, threatening to further exclude them from the global scientific endeavour.
Indeed, Khalifa believes the use of APCs is not actually conformant with the philosophy of OA. And he says: “One of the aims of open access is to provide access to information free of charge, and that is much needed in developing countries. If APCs start to be widely applied it will create new hurdles for researchers in the global South looking to contribute to science.”
To support his argument, Khalifa points out that a $2,000 APC is equivalent to six months’ salary for a professor in Egypt. In light of this, he suggests developing countries might be better to build up their local journals and focus on publishing in them.
The problem here, however, is that researchers in the developing world are increasingly being told by their governments and institutions that they must publish in international journals.
A further problem, says Khalifa, is that local journals are not generally indexed in international citation databases like Scopus and Web of Science. This means that they are not visible to the global research community.
The journals could, of course, try and persuade these indexing services to include them. And they could apply for an impact factor (IF). But this could backfire, says Khalifa, because most of the citations that local journals attract are from resources that are also not recognised by the global indexing services. “As a result, the total number of citations a journal will be seen to have received will be very low, and so it will not get a good IF.”
So even if local journals managed to gain greater visibility, they could find they are deemed to be low-quality journals in the process.
Another possibility, says Khalifa, is for the global South to develop its own own regional tools and databases. “This would enable us to evaluate our own journals and develop our own IF reports and other metrics.”
But this would be a big task and would presumably require substantial funding. Currently, governments and research institutions in the South appear more focused on having their researchers publish in international journals than building up local solutions.
It is therefore hard not to conclude that a global flip of legacy subscription journals to open access would be bad news for the developing world. For more on the issues please read the Q&A with Khalifa below.
One further thought: Those who maintain that publishers of international journals do not (as frequently claimed) overcharge for their products might like to ponder on the fact that it costs Khalifa just $250 a year to publish his journal.
The Q&A begins …
Q: Can you say something about yourself, your institution, and why and when you started to take an interest in open access?
MK: I work at the Library of Congress Cairo office. In 2002 I also established a non-profit organisation called cybrarians.org. This is focused on the library field in Egypt and other Arab countries.
I have been involved in open access since 2004 as a publisher of an e-journal in library and information science. We adopted open access as our primary publishing model.
In 2016, I was selected as DOAJ ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. As such, I am in charge of promoting a culture of open access in the region. I also review all the applications submitted to DOAJ from the area.