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 would surely 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.
Q: How would you characterise the current state of open access in a) your institution; b) your country; c) your region?
MK: As noted, at Cybrarians our main publishing model is OA. So, our journal is open access and all the papers of the two conferences we hold are openly available. We also organise an annual event during International Open Access Week.
The situation in Egypt is roughly the same as it is in other Arab countries. Today OA initiatives are random and depend on the efforts of individuals. There is no central organised policy, and there are no institutional, national or regional OA policies in place.
Most publishers in the region have no understanding of the concept of OA, and so only a small number of publishers are involved in OA publishing.
Defining open access
Q: Last year it was announced that the Egyptian government has created what it calls the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB). As I understand it, this provides free access to information for all Egyptian nationals. It seems much of the content is being provided by international scholarly publishers like Elsevier, Springer Nature, Thomson Reuters, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Emerald, and SAGE Publications, and it is in English. (I see John Wiley and Sons Inc. also recently signed a content deal with the Knowledge Bank).
Since these are subscription publishers presumably the Egyptian government is paying national licences to the publishers, but it is free at the point of use. Does this count as open access in your view? Is it problematic that much of the content is in English?
MK: Absolutely, this is not open access! Open access is mainly a way of promoting the publishing of information resources. The resources included in EKB are commercial, and the government pays the publishers to provide it. When money is paid to access information, it is not open access. True, the end user does not pay, but it does not a matter who paid.
As you may know, there are dedicated access point for public users of EKB. But providing it in English for the public is a big problem since around 40% of Egyptians are illiterate. Even for educated people, English is not their second, or even third, language.
Providing resources in English is fine for scholars in science and technology, who may already be studying English in an Egyptian university, but it is a problem for those in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, where English is not widely used. On the other hand, Arabic databases are few and far between, and often in English.
Q: Can you say a little more about what you understand by the term open access, and how it should be implemented?
MK: OA simply means making information resources freely accessible, and without any usage restrictions. Before it can be implemented, however, there needs to be an awareness within all areas of the research community, including institutions, publishers, editor, and authors.
In some developing countries, authors often prefer not to publish in OA journals. Research conducted in Oman, for instance, found that 75% of scholars do not trust OA journals, and 78% of scholars have no knowledge about OA initiatives.
Q: How is your journal funded?
MK: It is funded with the money we make from having it indexed in Arabic databases like Al Mandhouma, AL Manhal, and E-Maarifa, along with international services provided by companies like EBSCO and Gale/Cengage. This is the only source of revenue we have as we do not charge authors a publishing fee.
Q: Can you clarify: you fund your journal from the money you receive from a number of databases that index its contents? That is, these indexing services pay you for hosting (and presumably reselling) the content?
MK: The journal is indexed in a number of databases, and the full text is accessible via them. These are commercial databases, and so they pay us a royalty on a quarterly, or semi-annual basis.
Q: Can you give me a sense of how much it costs to run and manage the journal? Does the funding source you use cover all the costs?
MK: The journal costs are small. We are a non-profit and rent a host server for all our websites including the journal. The editor-in-chief does not receive a salary. So, we pay about $250 a year for hosting, which is really the only cost.
All the other tasks are undertaken by volunteers. So, the money we receive from the databases adequately covers the costs.
Obstacles and Challenges
Q: What do you consider to be the main obstacles and challenges facing the open access movement in your country/region right now?
MK: The main obstacle facing OA in Arab countries right now is the absence of a culture and knowledge about open access. It is easy to convince a publisher to spend some money to advertise his products, but it is very hard to convince that same publisher to provide free access to his publication.
In addition, knowledge about the main issues related to OA – licensing, copyright and so on – is low or absent. In short, we suffer from OA illiteracy.
Q: I think you are a librarian by training. But I wonder if perhaps your perspective is more that of a publisher in relation to open access. What do you think would be the perspective on open access of, say, a science researcher working in a lab in a university in the Middle East?
MK: Well, I obtained a BA in library and information science from Cairo University, and then obtained a master’s degree in 2006. In addition, I have worked as a librarian since 2002. But your question is not entirely clear to me.
Q: I ask the question because it seems to me that as a librarian and OA advocate your views on open access are likely to be somewhat different to the views of researchers in the region. As you note, many do not trust OA journals.
Moreover, while your journal does not levy APCs, I am wondering how many researchers in the Middle East will have access to the necessary funds to pay APCs for those journals that do charge, particularly if they have a need to publish in hybrid OA international journals, which generally costs around $3,000 per paper. I am wondering if they would be prepared to spend that much money to publish their work, assuming they could even afford to?
So, I guess I am thinking that if OA is to succeed more is needed than advocacy alone. There are important funding issues to consider, and these will be particularly challenging for those in the global South, won’t they?
MK: From my point of view, APCs are not conformant with the philosophy of OA. 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.
In short, researchers in the Middle East, especially in non-Gulf countries, face a big dilemma when they try to publish a paper in an international journal. For example, in Egypt one USD is equivalent to 17.6 LE [Egyptian pounds], so if I need to publish a paper internationally, and the APCs are $2,000, I have to pay 35,000 LE! This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a professor for 6 months!
On the other hand, publishing in local journals is not as expensive as publishing in international journals. It costs around 1000-2000 LE. But even so, that is considered expensive when you consider the level of salaries in Egypt.
Q: What do you think the priorities ought to be in order to move OA forward in your country/region?
MK: The first step should be to spread awareness of open access, and why it is important for the scientific community. This awareness should be directed at publishers, editors, librarians, and faculty members in the academic community.
By doing so we can encourage new OA activists to emerge, who will go on to lead the OA movement in their respective communities. After a while, the scientific community will develop a greater interest and belief in OA.
Q: From what you say I am thinking that open access solutions for the Global South will need to be different to those implemented in the Global North. But should we not aim for a global solution? Is it practical or possible to have different geographical approaches to open access?
MK: In my opinion, the practice of OA is the same everywhere in the world. The South will be able to implement and practice open access when the local community believes in it. If modern publishing solutions are offered without a firm commitment to OA it will come to nothing.
Based on what I have heard from my fellow OA ambassadors in different parts of the world I have come to believe that OA will have different geographical approaches, and the concept of OA and how it is promoted will likely differ from region to region.
So, for example, in Arab countries, we need to concentrate on understanding open access and its culture. In a country like India, by contrast, there is already a strong open access culture and practice. So in India, they should perhaps concentrate on promoting best practices for OA and the ethical issues associated with publishing in an OA environment. Each area has its own needs.
Q: I am wondering what you make of Elsevier’s response to European demands for a global flip of subscription journals to OA. It has proposed what it calls region-based OA, in which Europe would pay publication fees to publish its articles but only those in Europe would get gold open access to them. Those outside Europe would only get green open access. That would seem to suggest that those in the developing world could end up getting an inferior form of OA – unless they were able to/willing to pay publication fees themselves. What are your views on this?
MK: This is totally unfair! One of the main goals of OA is to serve developing and poor communities by providing free access to information. The principle of OA that was agreed did not assume that different levels of access would be provided to different geographical regions. If we consider the economic conditions of those in the South, and their pressing need for development, it is clear that they need more support.
Q: Whatever the consequences, there is today in Europe and North America a growing call for subscription journals to be “flipped” to open access. If all or most international journals became OA, and started charging authors to publish their research, what impact would that have on those in the Middle East? Today it costs anything from several hundred to over $5,000 to publish a single article open access. Would flipping all journals to OA improve the situation for the research community in the Arab World?
MK: As noted, we still do not have any national OA policies. We first need leading organisations to set those policies for the scientific publishing in general. For sure, flipping journals to OA would have a great impact on the scientific community overall. It would need a lot of work in the South as most local journals are still published in printed format!
Q: Yes, I can see the challenge for local journals, especially those that are still only available in print. But looking at it from the perspective of the researcher again: as in most parts of the world now, Egyptian researchers are encouraged to publish in international journals (and I believe local universities give them bonuses based on the IF of the journal). So, I am still curious as to how these researchers would fund their publishing activities if all international journals flipped to OA and charged APCs. How would those based in the global South be able to afford to publish their research in international journals?
MK: Indeed, as I mentioned, in Egypt a professor would need to sacrifice six months’ salary in order to be able to pay an APC of $2,000 to publish a paper in an international journal. And while university bonuses are payable for publishing in international journals, they are very small and would not cover the costs. These bonuses are usually around 5000 LE [$282].
As I see it, we in the developing world need to adopt two approaches. First, we need to develop our own journals so that they can qualify for inclusion in international citation databases. Once we have earned a good impact factor (or equivalent metric) for our journals we will no longer need to publish in international journals.
However, the problem is that unless a lot of other local journals are indexed by the citation database they will find it difficult to get a good score. For that reason, I do not encourage local journals to apply for an IF.
Q: Can you say more about this?
MK: The issue is that when the calculation is made most of the resources that cite journals from the global South will not be recognised by, say, Scopus. 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, for instance, if an Arabic journal was considered by ISI, it would fail to get a good score because the resources that cite the journal will not be recognised by ISI.
The second approach I think we should take, and one that I am more in favour of (even though it would be very hard to establish and build up), is for us to create our own national or regional tools and databases. This would enable us to evaluate our own journals and develop our own IF reports and other metrics.
This is a huge project and I hope one day I might be able to obtain the funds for a national project like that.
Q: There are those who argue that open access has opened the doors to a flood of predatory journals. There seem to be two views about this. The first says that they are a big threat to the research community and could seriously corrupt the scholarly record. The second says that the whole problem has been overblown by opponents of open access and, in most cases, so-called predatory publishers are simply new and naïve operations (often based in the global South) that are honourable and well-intentioned but who need to be trained in the “best practices and standards in publishing” that have been developed over the years in the North. Do you subscribe to either of these views, or do you disagree with both? What do you think about predatory publishing and its likely impact?
MK: I agree partially with the first view, and totally with the second.
However, let me say a little more about this issue: Why do people make a direct connection between OA and the appearance of predatory journals? In some communities predatory publishing existed long before OA. I see predatory publishing as a consequence of non-scientific and non-ethical practices, not OA.
In the Arab community, for instance, most printed journals do not perform peer-review, they will accept papers from any researcher, and they are subject to plagiarism. Essentially, they have no publishing standards. What should we call these journals? It’s extremely predatory behaviour.
One of my missions as DOAJ ambassador for the Middle East is to assist editors to implement the best practices in e-publishing in the OA environment, I think this is a good first step on the way to eradicating predatory journals.
The final part in this series can be read here
See also here for more on OA Big Deals