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Journal publishing in the south: a story from Bangladesh

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Southern journals need to be self-critical and creative, and should comply with standards recognised internationally, writes Haseeb Md. Irfanullah

The sheer number of master’s and PhD theses produced every year and the presentations made at numerous annual scientific conferences are enough to measure Bangladesh’s vibrant research environment. The next logical step with a thesis is publishing the research findings, preferably in a peer-reviewed journal. Although our researchers prefer publishing their researches in ‘international journals’ (I will explain the inverted commas later), Bangladesh does host many science journals.

A complete list of those journals is not readily available; but we can work on a partial list managed on the BanglaJOL. On 10 July 2016, this database contained 139 journals, of which 123 were active science journals. I know several journals have been running for many years, but not included in this list. So the total number of Bangladeshi science journal should be little higher.

Publishing science journals

A quick analysis of the BanglaJOL journals revealed four facts about the publishers, journals’ regularity, journal age, and indexing.

First, almost all those journals are either published by learned societies of professionals or by academic or research institutions. In some cases, a rather recent trend, journals are published by local groups of professionals or by departments at universities. Second, about half of the active journals were found being published on time. Third, I found 40 per cent of the active journals were 1-10 years old, 22 per cent were 11-20 years old, 15 per cent were 21-30 years old, 8 per cent were 31-40 years old, and another 15 per cent were more than 40 years old – almost as old as the country itself. Finally, most of the journals on BanglaJOL were not indexed, although many had been published for more than two decades. Some were, however, indexed by several reputed agencies; only four of those were included in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR), thus had impact factor.

Many recently established journals have apparently been a result of a simple logic: every academic institution should have an outlet to disseminate its research so that the institution is positioned handsomely in ranking systems. In Bangladesh, there is no regulations or policy to publish a scientific journal.

Since most journals have low production costs (US$400 to US$ 1200 per issue) and the host organisations or the government pay for them (yes, the Government of Bangladesh does pay for many scientific journals, including my journal!), so no demand assessment or market survey is done or felt needed before launching a new journal.

An obvious consequence of this is a discipline could get overcrowded with journals. And the supply of authors, editors and reviewers become less than the demand. Significant number of individuals could be seen engaged with several journals with overlapping scopes. (Last year I met one assistant editor who was involved in five journals with similar broad scope!). Such individuals often become overburdened, editorial and reviewing process becomes slower, even if the supply of manuscripts is healthy. But getting quality manuscripts remains one of the biggest challenges of most Bangladeshi journals. As a result, manuscript quality is often severely compromised to publish an issue on time, leading to a sub-standard journal year in, year out.

Trends in research communications

Many universities of Bangladesh are now offering courses on research methodologies (of course, it is more common in some disciplines than the others). However, how to communicate research through presentations or posters and, more importantly, through research articles is still absent in our tertiary curricula. Professors or senior research students usually teach research students how to do these as needs arise. Since 2009, occasional, couple-of-day-long workshops on research communication have been organised by different research institutions. Oxford-based charity INASP and its AuthorAID are almost exclusively supporting such events in Bangladesh.

Over the last 12 months or so, the need for better understanding of research communication has reached to another level. The USAID-funded Gobeshona initiative has been organising a series of workshops for young Bangladeshi climate change researchers to improve their understanding and capacity to publish quality papers. This project aims at mentoring 20 young researchers publish their works in reputed peer-reviewed journals by December 2016. This innovative project hopes for an increased presence of Bangladeshi researches, done by Bangladeshis, in the international climate change processes.

Similar to capacity building for researchers, there is no regular attempts to improve the capacity of journal editors on editing and publishing skills. Editor-focussed events are also sporadic and essentially organized by INASP/AuthorAID and their Bangladeshi partners.

Beyond journal editing

Nowadays, the journal editor’s role is not only checking the science or style consistency in an article, or communicating with authors, reviewers and press to publish an issue on time. For a journal office runs by only a couple of people, as almost all journal offices are in Bangladesh, an editor also needs to ensure that, for example, the journal is properly indexed, it has a brand value among potential authors and users by using appropriate media, acquisition proposals from international publishers are strategically responded, and journal’s financing is sustainable.

Editors are now also expected to respond to emerging issues, like being part of Creative Commons, using new technologies (e.g. online submission and processing system or plagiarism software), stand on open access, or using ORCID identifier of authors. Many Bangladeshi editors are apparently not aware of these issues important for pulling a journal to an international standard.

There exist some flawed views among the senior scientists regarding journal publishing. A couple of years back, the president of a reputed Bangladeshi scientific society was repeatedly encouraging young researchers ‘only’ to publish their work in ‘international journals’, at a workshop I was facilitating. I did not want to embarrass this renowned scientist, thus restrained myself from asking: if his argument is rational, why his society had been religiously putting time and money to publish a so called ‘national’ / ‘local’ journal for the past 35 years, which was not even indexed by a single agency.

In a recent article, I advocated for senior editors mentoring young researches to become dedicated, passionate editors. Now the question is: how could editors who are static can mentor next generation editors in a dynamic publishing world? Altruism is one of the core qualities of a good editor. But an editor should also be eager to learn about the ever-changing journal publishing culture to innovate and to continuously improve his/her journal in the light of globally acceptable standards.

Transforming the publishing ecosystem

Bangladesh’s journal publishing needs a culture change. To start off, I propose an immediate action.

A dialogue can be organised among Bangladeshi editors and researchers to discuss prevailing publishing environment and standards of Bangladeshi journals. The first dialogue may end with a roadmap, which will outline how Bangladeshi journals can collectively work together, and make affordable positive changes to improve journal standards.

All participating journal will voluntarily agree to abide by those action points and to evolve effectively in the global academic publishing ecosystem over a period of, say five years.

Building capacity of the editors, creating international collaborations, initiating an editing helpdesk, establishing a ‘Bangladesh Journal Watch’ for journal quality monitoring or formulating a ‘science journal publishing policy’ under the Ministry of Science and Technology, for example, could be part of this roadmap. In subsequent years, this forum will follow up on the progress of this roadmap implementation.

We can seek technical help from initiatives, like Research4Life and INASP, who already have activities in Bangladesh. As country’s leading scientific think-tank, Bangladesh Academy of Sciences, could act as the platform for such dialogue.

Most of Bangladesh’s journals have so far been recognised and consumed domestically. In the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) era, we can imagine how important the creation of new scientific knowledge would be to fulfil 17 goals and 169 targets by 2030. Southern journals, like those of Bangladesh, should capitalise on this opportunity and position themselves in the global knowledge sharing and utilisation system. To do so, southern journals need to be self-critical and creative, and should comply with standards recognised internationally.

Haseeb Md Irfanullahis a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with keen interest in research and its communication. He is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh, and is an editorial board member of Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy (BJPT)