The challenges faced by scientific journals in developing countries
Shiva Raj Mishra is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Queensland and an Editor of Health Prospect, a local journal from Nepal. Dinesh Neupane is a PhD fellow at Center of Global Health in the School of Public Health, Aarhus University, Denmark.
The boom in scientific publications has been beneficial for large publishers in the West to expand their reach, leveraging the emerging markets of Asia and Africa for growth and expansion. However, some local journals with a long history of being affiliated to local academic and medical institutions are suffering a catastrophe, as their country’s researchers seek publication elsewhere.
The volume of papers published in local journals in developing countries such as Nepal has dwindled over the past decades. Only few scientific journals in Nepal have been indexed in PubMed since 2009. In addition, only a few of those indexed journals are publishing regularly. Due to numerous challenges, once flourishing journals like the Journal of Nepal Health Research Council and the Kathmandu University Medical Journal have published less than four issues per year over the past few years. On the other hand, the number of publications focusing on Nepal are on an increasing trend (figure 1), with the majority published in international journals.
Figure 1: Publication growth in Nepal; number of papers with “Nepal” as MeSH term in PubMED from 1951-2016
Our personal experience has been that the impact factor race which lures scholars to get better impact for their papers has outcompeted home country journals that are either not rated or have a low impact factor. Similarly, international journals published from developed countries publish more frequently, are listed in databases, and have fast peer review processes. Adding to that, local research institutions and universities prefer international journals and give more credit to them for publishing over local and national journals.
In the majority of cases, researchers’ preference of journal is dependent on the quality of a journal which they often infer from its indexing status in key databases. Warlick and Vaughan write that researchers give preference to publication quality, while free access and visibility are specifically noted incentives for selection of open access journals.
Local research has local importance and is valued locally. Local journals can influence policy and practice because of their higher local readership than many international journals with their restricted scope and coverage. Despite the lack of precedent for this from developing countries, one well-documented observation of Canadian journals states that local journals in Canada disseminated more research findings of national interest and were more often referred to than their international counterparts. Articles from the Erudit platform (a Canadian publication platform) were downloaded five times more often than their international equivalents. Another study from Brazil showed that, for general areas of interest, the overall H-indexes (ie, a measure of authors’ productivity and citation impact) in local journals were comparable to those in international journals. This suggests that the current practice of choosing international journals as a vehicle for disclosure of scientific information of local interest is not necessarily advantageous. Further, many international journals may not be easily accessible due to poor internet connections and the need for paid subscriptions.
Encouraging the publication of research of local interest in international journals creates negative incentives on academic publishing in two ways. Firstly, international journals are more likely to publish issues of global/international interest, reducing the incentives for local researchers to do research that addresses local practice. Secondly, international journals are very restrictive on the scope they publish and have a high rejection rate. As a consequence of this, authors may fall prey to predatory publishers, in a rush to report their work.
There are certain requirements for indexing which maintain the quality of journals and constantly nudge the journal editors to try and improve this quality. For instances, Pubmed/MEDLINE requires journals to follow stringent criteria in peer review, editing, and publishing. However, due to a lack in technical know-how, many journal editors are not positioned to improve their digital outlook or move away from email to electronic submission, which would increase efficiency, save time, and improve journal layout, making it more attractive to the scientific audience. This is another challenge. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) should play a role in capacity enhancement of developing countries’ editors and reviewers. A collaboration between the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and developing country libraries and journals led to the creation of the JOL (journal online) platform that is helping local journals metamorphose in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such platforms can give greater visibility and reach to local as well as international audiences. Bringing indigenous knowledge and ideas to the scientific domain can thus be sped up. Furthermore, it is advantageous for developing country researchers to learn skills in editing and reviewing, helping old and newcomers to embrace scholarly practice.
Journals from developing countries are the source of indigenous knowledge. They need comprehensive support, including both technical and financial, to have a good editorial team, vigorous peer review, and indexing in popular databases for wider dissemination. It is also important to understand the dynamics of authors and peer reviewers in developing countries and the challenges and constraints under which they work.