E-publishing in Developing Economies

Pippa Smart (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), Oxford, U.K.)

Carole Pearce (Journal of Social Development in Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe)

Nyerhovwo J. Tonukari (African Journal of Biotechnology, Nairobi, Kenya)

Abstract: Electronic publishing has been heralded as a worldwide solution to information dissemination. This article considers the current problems experienced by traditional journals published in the developing world, with particular reference to publishing in sub-Saharan Africa. The opportunities offered by electronic online publishing are discussed to determine how they can resolve the current problems in dissemination and improve quality. Two case studies of different initiatives are presented: an online-only journal, the African Journal of Biotechnology (AJB), and an online journal abstracting service, African Journals OnLine (AJOL). The article concludes that although online publishing is not a solution for all the problems experienced by journals in developing countries, it offers great potential for increasing the visibility and quality of indigenous knowledge within the global research community.

Résumé : Certains ont vu l'édition électronique comme une panacée pour la diffusion mondiale de l'information. À cet égard, cet article considère les problèmes actuels subis par les périodiques traditionnels édités dans les pays en voie de développement, particulièrement en Afrique sub-saharienne. L'article examine l'édition en ligne pour déterminer comment elle peut résoudre les problèmes actuels de la diffusion de l'information et augmenter sa qualité. Deux études de cas sur des initiatives différentes sont présentées : une sur un périodique disponible seulement en ligne, l'African Journal of Biotechnology (AJB), et l'autre sur un service d'analyses, African Journals OnLine (AJOL). L'article conclut que, bien que l'édition en ligne ne soit pas la solution à tous les problèmes encourus par les périodiques dans les pays en voie de développement, elle offre de grandes possibilités pour augmenter la visibilité et la qualité des connaissances provenant de ces régions au sein de la communauté de recherche mondiale.


The drive to publish the results of research is global, but presents special challenges in developing economies. African researchers and publishers face many of the same problems that affect the global research community, but they are also confronted by a number of complex issues that have resulted in a lack of indigenous publishing and a lack of access to relevant material. Apart from financial problems, there are many infrastructural and cultural factors that affect the dissemination of quality information and have resulted in a poorly developed information economy and a lack of representation within the international research community.

This article provides an overview of some of the challenges facing African journal publishers, and by extension the African scholarly community, which needs to read and publish up-to-date research that is relevant to local interests while remaining international in quality. Traditional publishing models imported into the African context have not been able to deliver the desired results for a number of reasons. The emergence of e-publishing models may provide African publishers with increased opportunities for the production and dissemination of scholarship and research findings, and two examples of Internet application in Africa are discussed. However, online technology is not a panacea for all the problems inherent in publishing in the developing world, and this article considers some problems not resolved - and some perhaps even caused - by the new models.

Why publish in-country

Most African journal editors and African scholars see potential advantages in publishing within their own region. If academic publishing is seen as an exchange of ideas and information among scholars working in the same area rather than as a tool for promotion up the academic ladder, it is clear that a regional pool of ideas governed by the interests of those living there is desirable. If this sounds parochial, consider how surprised Canadian scholars would be to find their publications largely dominated by the interests and theories of Malaysians rather than their own (although it is hoped they would welcome Malaysian contributions).


There are many areas of specialization of interest in a region that may appear quaint or exotic to outsiders. Central preoccupations in the region may only interest a niche audience worldwide. This applies to topics within technical and scientific fields, economics, politics, and social studies, and the humanities in general. If scholars could easily access the work being done by others in the region, they could build up a body of expertise in matters that are of great interest to them. Similarly, publishing their work for an audience of relevant peers renders it more likely to be rigorously scrutinized and debated by others who know the terms of the debate.


For too long African scholars have participated in, without leading, intellectual debate about matters close to their heart. Many still have to rely on works published outside Africa by non-Africans as the basis for their own work. These may address interests that Africans may not share or even wish to be party to. Data published by the UN on health, for example, which have to be ratified by the country concerned, may be of lesser quality than data collected by scholars, which are not constrained by such political considerations. Other kinds of work may be informed by political or theoretical attitudes that Africans consider hostile or alien - or may simply lack relevance, an aspect of particular importance to health workers (Yamey, 2003).

A natural audience

Apart from intellectual considerations centring around the dissemination of relevant local knowledge and critique, publishing locally should produce economies of scale in the distribution process. It should also have a practical spinoff in the educational system and for policymakers and decision-makers outside academia. African countries are sadly lacking in established markets for information. The bookshops and public libraries, to say nothing of school libraries, are inadequate; and the mass media (television, radio, and the press), in countries where they are not devoted to political proselytizing, are devoted to low-grade entertainment rather than information. The local availability of academic journals cannot address all these problems, of course, but it may help to swing the tide toward a better-informed society.

Although all scholars like to have some of their work published in elite Western journals, for most of them home is where they must make their career and reputation. Many scholars, even in the diaspora, feel strongly that they have a commitment to their own country and to improving the lot of their countrymen and -women. Publishing in Africa is one way of underlining that commitment.

Problems with traditional publishing models in Africa

There are many journals published in Africa today. However, the vast majority are languishing in obscurity because they are not known outside their institutions or region - for example, most journals published in Ghana cannot be found in universities or research institutions in Kenya (DFID, 1998). This problem also affects researchers, whose works published in such journals are often not cited, leading to duplication of research efforts. Traditional print journals in sub-Saharan Africa have not lived up to expectations because these journals mostly survive on grants, as only a few fortunate African universities can afford to buy them. Most of these universities also rely on grants to be able to afford these journals. Some use their journals to exchange with elite Western journals that they cannot afford to buy. Journal editors find it difficult and expensive to market their product, even if they do have (as is rarely the case) the business skills to know where to start. There are few professional publishers managing journals, and the majority rely on committed individuals who are not publishing professionals - and do not have either the skills or the resources to develop their publications.

The business models that large academic publishers in the West are developing are not only unavailable to African journal editors, in many cases they are inappropriate to the African context. For example, commercial advertising and sponsorship (even in the medical arena) is extremely restrictive and not a reliable source of income. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the funding and organization of library purchases. Within the developing world the model of consortia purchasing (of huge importance within Europe and the U.S.A.) is still in its infancy, although there are initiatives to build this type of group purchasing within Africa. For example, within Zimbabwe the Zimbabwe University Libraries Consortium has been established (Ndlovu, 2004), and Electronic Information for Libraries (eIFL), an independent foundation launched in 1999 as an initiative of the Open Society Institute (OSI), is working within many African countries to support such consortia-building (eIFL, 2004). However, it is likely to take many years and changes in government policy and funding before consortia purchasing becomes either commonplace or a model that African journals can incorporate into their business strategies.

The printed word itself, apart from daily newspapers, is not the primary means of communication for the general public in Africa. Books are expensive and reading habits are undeveloped, not least because little is published in the indigenous languages (see Bgoya, 1999; Trivedi, 2003). Although sub-Saharan Africa is a vast area where hundreds of millions of people live, only a few school textbooks are produced to be used among neighbouring countries. This has an impact on the way all Africans, even scholars, approach their libraries and their work.

The actual printing process is also suboptimal. Printers using out-of-date technology and unskilled labour reduce the saleability of the most carefully produced work, and small journal publishers lack the power over printers that big operators have. While incomes frequently drop, the cost of printing increases every year due to the need for printers to import their materials - particularly paper. In some countries the problem is compounded by the high cost and unreliability of the postal services, resulting in multitudinous claims by subscription agents. A third problem is the unreliable banking facilities, the lack of communication between banks in different countries, and the high charges made for currency conversion. There is also a lack of support staff and sometimes even basic computing equipment, all of which compounds the problem of making journal publishing successful.

Editors within African countries frequently operate in lonely and discouraging situations. If they are lucky they will have been trained by their predecessor and will have suitable linguistic, computing, and professional skills - remembering that the editor is frequently responsible not only for content, but also for production, distribution, development, and all other activities associated with professional publishers in the West. If no training has been provided, an editor must learn by bootstrapping. Some editors have been sponsored to attend workshops by organizations such as the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), but there are no professional bodies in Africa that train editors, and only the most adventurous individual contemplates joining an (expensive) overseas professional body. Commercially available training courses are beyond the reach of most universities and there are few if any courses designed to develop academic editing and publishing skills.

Universities are the main consumers of academic journals as elsewhere in the world, but subscription to most journals in developing countries is pathetic at best. Several libraries in sub-Saharan Africa have not subscribed to any journal for years (Arunachalam, 2003). They simply cannot afford it. The inadequacies of the libraries mean that many scholars lack access to exemplary and up-to-date research in relevant fields and subsequently find it difficult to keep up with and join in contemporary debates. Many lack training in writing research papers, and limited exposure to quality publications means they cannot learn from what they read. Equally, academics in developing countries, as elsewhere in the world, wish to publish at least some of their material in the most prestigious and international journals - behaviour encouraged and endorsed by university promotional boards (Adomi & Mordi, 2003). This leads to a vicious circle for struggling national and regional journals: if they cannot publish on time, with quality content, authors do not submit their best papers, and the journal has no opportunity to develop. Of course, when researchers do get their manuscripts published in prestigious Western journals, their work is often not accessible to colleagues in their country - perpetuating the problem of access and learning from reading quality research from colleagues and peers.

Online opportunities

Since the African university library is unlikely to recover in the near future from the funding attack it has experienced in the past 30 years, African scholars will have to identify other means to maintain their knowledge and to stay in business. International initiatives are starting to provide online access to international research. For example, medical information is being provided through the HINARI project (HINARI, 2004), agricultural research through AGORA (2004), and a broad range of academic research through PERI (INASP, 2004). But it is possible that these programs only provide another threat to national and regional journals.

Although access to the Internet is still patchy across the continent, business people and educationalists have taken great strides in the past five years to improve Internet access and coverage. Universities have also taken the initiative to provide e-mail and Internet facilities for staff and students, albeit often at Internet cafes on campus or in the library rather than in the offices of the academic staff. Similarly, some authorities have recognized a potential for online in place of print, and this has contributed to the development of the African Virtual University initiative (AVU, 2004).

It is therefore imperative that locally produced and published information makes use of the new technologies. Once African journals are publishing on the Internet they can be more easily accessed, abstracted, and indexed, leading to greater discovery of indigenous content by African scholars so that they will have a much richer and more up-to-date source of information than they could ever obtain through their local libraries in print. A key point of the electronic communication medium is that it is possible to archive a research article and make it freely available to the entire world in perpetuity. Moreover, this is consistent with public-policy goals for what is in large part publicly funded research (Bachrach et al., 1998). Open access to scientific research enabled by electronic journals is a great boon to science and a tremendous opportunity to researchers and the societies they represent.

An open access African journal

The African Journal of Biotechnology (AJB) was started in November 2002 and provides rapid (monthly) publication of papers on biotechnology and applied molecular biology. Manuscripts must meet the general criteria of significance and scientific excellence. The journal is published freely online, and everyone with access to a Web browser will have free electronic access to the full text of the articles. No registration or password is required. AJB relies on electronic submission and communication, and this reduces staffing and shipping costs. The journal is self-sustaining, relying on token author fees (which can be waived in some cases). The editors work on the journal without payment, as they feel that its importance to their field is greater than personal gain. The commitment of the editors is one of the main secrets of the journal's success, but looking into the long term, there is no certainty that this can continue indefinitely. Should their circumstances change, or new editors step in, it is possible that they will require remuneration, and this will challenge the existing model.

The journal was founded on two key tenets: firstly, to publish the most exciting research in all areas of applied biochemistry, industrial microbiology, molecular biology, genomics and proteomics, food and agricultural technologies, and metabolic engineering. Secondly, to provide the most rapid turnaround time possible for reviewing and publishing, and to disseminate the articles freely for teaching and reference purposes. All articles published in AJB are peer reviewed.

From November 2002 to October 2003, articles published by AJB came from 17 countries in and outside Africa (see Table 1), and members of the editorial board come from 14 countries. Hits on the journal's website (http://www.academicjournals.org/AJB) have been growing by 5,000 to 10,000 monthly and come from more than 90 countries. AJB's success so far can also be attributed to Bioline International and INASP. Bioline International hosts AJB freely on its website (http://www.bioline.org.br/jb); INASP provides an abstracting service for African journals (see below). Both organizations provided the initial (and still ongoing) promotion of the journal.

Table 1: Country origin of articles published in the African Journal of Biotechnology (Nov. 2002 to Oct. 2003)
Country Number of article(s)*
Nigeria 35
U.S.A. 12
Egypt 10
Germany 8
Senegal 7
South Africa 4
Japan 3
Kenya 2
Iran 2
United Kingdom 2
Mali 1
Italy 1
Canada 1
Cameroon 1
Jordan 1
Australia 1
Turkey 1
Total 92

Note: The country given is where the corresponding author is based and from where the manuscript was sent (although the research may have been undertaken in a different country).

*Does not include rejected manuscripts.

Researchers' reaction to AJB has been very positive. Even though the journal does not have any budget for marketing and promotion, manuscript submissions now average 30 a month. News of the existence of the journal is passed from authors to their colleagues, and more than 1,500 had signed up to receive the table of contents monthly as of October 2003. There have been several requests from scientists outside biotechnology for the editors to broaden the journal or establish a general science journal (although this is unlikely to happen in the near future). The greatest appeal of AJB is the speed of its publication. While many journals (in Africa or elsewhere) take months to publish and even more than a year in some cases, most AJB manuscripts are published about a month after submission. This is because all transactions, submissions, and communications with reviewers and authors are done by e-mail. Since no physical printing is involved, most manuscripts are quickly converted to PDF and HTML files for uploading onto the Internet. Feedback from authors who have published in AJB has been very encouraging.

Several factors led to the establishment of the African Journal of Biotechnology. One of the main reasons the journal was started was to provide a channel through which African research could be published and distributed widely. A frequent excuse for rejecting African articles is that the content is not of much interest to the international journal audience. Therefore, high-quality articles that should have gained international standing are resigned to publication in obscure journals that might only have readership within their own university or institution. Being a journal whose primary focus is Africa, all research work done in the continent is considered important and of interest to the AJB. The journal - being truly international - also publishes work from outside Africa. The journal feels that foreign papers enrich its contents and expose readers to research going on in other parts of the world - thus benefiting African research. Also, since AJB is freely available on the Internet, researchers from everywhere in Africa can easily read and learn about research going on in other countries.

The African Journals OnLine (AJOL) initiative: www.ajol.info

Recognizing the opportunities offered by online publishing, several organizations have provided support to journals in developing countries to enable them to gain a position in the online journal market. For example, support for full text is offered by Bioline (2004), which provides a full text online service with sophisticated data conversion and linking possibilities; by INASP, which supports hosting on commercial services such as Ingenta and Extenza; and by the African e-Journals Project (2004). Support has also been made available to enable journals to benefit from online sales packages - such as the ALPSP learned journals collection (ALPSP, 2004), Project MUSE (2004), and Sabinet Online Ltd. (2004).

The African Journals OnLine project operated by INASP provides another means of online publishing opportunity for African journals (AJOL, 2004). Following consultation with librarians and researchers in Africa, INASP drew up a proposal to launch an online site to host and promote tables of contents and abstracts from selected journals. The proposal received support and funding from UNESCO, the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.A.), and NORAD and was launched in 1998 with 10 science and 4 medical titles.

The criteria for inclusion on the AJOL website are that the journal is publishing regularly, is peer reviewed, and is scholarly in content; there is no charge to the journals. Since the start of 2003 an additional criterion has been the ability of the journal to supply its abstracts to INASP in electronic form. It is not possible to ensure all these criteria are met (in particular the peer review), so inclusion of titles must be on faith that they meet the requirements of the service, and INASP only rejects titles that look obviously inappropriate. Unfortunately, due to the weak publishing environment, many of the journals do not publish on time - and many cease publication for a period - so it is hard to determine whether some have become dormant or have ceased publication entirely. The quality of content is an issue, and a further item of development under consideration is the implementation of an evaluation system to provide the journals with a qualitative analysis of their publication - but this is unlikely to be introduced until 2005 (at the earliest). Statistics on the service are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: AJOL statistics
Jan 2001 Jan 2002 Jan 2003 Dec 2003 Total to Dec 2003
Hits on website each year 6000 44,064 83,500 121,068 254,632
Registrations on the website each year 1151 1268 2415 3877 8711
Number of journals on AJOL 45 71 113 178 178
Document delivery requests each year N/A 9 261 630 900

Formal evaluation was undertaken in 2000, and again at the end of 2002, surveying the journal editors, registered users, and librarians around the world. The results of this evaluation showed that the service was greatly valued by the participating journals and by many of the users. It was felt that inclusion in the service provided the journals with increased visibility and in particular had increased international submissions. It is an interesting feature that as the number of titles has grown, this aggregation has brought increases in such areas as usage and visibility, and the users stated the importance of a site offering a range of publications, particularly when many of them only publish one or two issues each year. The importance of promoting the service was also highlighted as an important component - particularly the ability of AJOL to promote a number of journals to markets that the individual journals would be unable to reach through lack of resources (time and money).

The evaluation provided valuable data on what people expected from the service and how this had changed since it was first launched. In particular there is a great deal more interest from journals in publishing their full text on the service. Users want better functionality from the service, and librarians want better quality control. Finally, the journal publishers requested that AJOL provide more of a support community for the journals - perhaps the role of an association.

This online program has achieved its objectives in providing African journals with additional visibility in the international academic research community. One important failure of the program - which may not be a great surprise to many Western journals - is that the online visibility has not resulted in a noticeable increase in the number of subscribers to the print journals, and therefore to the financial viability of the journals. The reasons for this failure are hard to pinpoint, but surely include the constraints of library budgets coupled with a lack of confidence in the reliability of the publications (a downward spiral in which a lack of subscription leads to a lack of funds to publish - and infrequent publishing leads to a lack of subscribers).

Responding to the comments made during the evaluation and to the operational needs of the service, many changes will be introduced throughout 2004 and 2005. Probably the most important of these is a move from a U.K.-based operation to an African-managed service, which is planned to take place during 2005. To enable this, the database management system is being changed using Open Journal System technology, created by the Public Knowledge Project in Canada (see article in this issue). Using this software, AJOL is being developed so that individual journals can take control of their own area within the website: load their own content directly onto the database using Web-based forms; load abstract-only or full text; customize the look and feel of their journal area; and use the full functionality of the software by encouraging online submission and peer review management.

It is acknowledged that not all journals will be able to take control of their own areas because of online connection problems or a lack of technical expertise. Therefore AJOL plans to establish a management organization based in Africa to co-ordinate the service and to assist those journals who are unable to manage their own content. This team will also be responsible for the document delivery service (which needs to be both print and electronic) and for providing training and support to the collaborating journals.

These changes to the relaunched service represent a new development in response to both the changes within the journals and the need for increased sustainability by distributing the activities and costs. The proposed change has been met with enthusiasm by many journal editors, but also with some concerns - the one most frequently voiced being an unfamiliarity with the online environment and a fear about how their journals will be judged on the world market. Familiarity with the online environment is growing rapidly, and there have been noticeable changes in attitude to the Internet, even within the past year. Ultimately it is hoped that the service will continue to expand, and will be able to link to other sites (either single- or multi-journal sites) to provide a gateway to all African articles - and enable them to become part of the global research resource.

As an adjunct to this project, requests have been made from different regions to launch similar services: a Nepal JOL is already under development, and requests have been made from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - so this model may prove to be one solution to the communication problem that developing country researchers encounter in promoting themselves within the international market.

Problems with online publishing in Africa

Although the traditional methods of publishing have become unsustainable for the future of scholarly communication with Africa, online publishing is not a quick fix. The situation in which African journals operate directly impacts on the journals' ability to publish online. For various reasons Africans and African universities (perhaps with the exception of South Africa) are among the worst equipped in the world for using the facilities of the Internet (Africa Online Holdings Ltd., 2002). Their lack of computing equipment is being slowly addressed, although most scholars still do not have computers and e-mail connections in their own offices. In some countries the bandwidth available to Internet users is very small, so that it may take up to an hour to download a document that takes a Westerner a few minutes on a home laptop. Although there are continual improvements, there remains a need for governments to invest in meeting Internet requirements in sub-Saharan Africa. Many scholars do not have an Internet connection or a computer at home and may also lack basic typing and computing skills.

Similarly, editors with only basic computing skills need to negotiate a steep learning curve when their journal goes on to the Internet. Technical and moral support from organizations such as ALPSP (the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, see www.alpsp.org) and INASP is very useful, and it is hard to see how a journal could undertake this step unaided. Online publishing may also require more rigorous production and subscription maintenance, as well as dealing with subscription agencies who may have unpredictable demands and needs, and poor communication skills. The latter make no compromises with developing countries, their technologies, and the difficulties they face.

As successful online publishing requires more technological and administrative skills in the publisher's office, the budget requirements for publishing may be increased (particularly if the online journal runs in conjunction with the continuing print journal). Fear of losing archival copies is still of concern to librarians, researchers, and journals, and this is one reason for the continued prominence of print copies as a failsafe mechanism for ensuring content is not lost.

Open or closed access to online journals

Within the Western academic community, there is a strong call to make journals open access, and different pricing models are being proposed to enable this to happen (that is, to move away from a subscriber-pays model). Within the developing world journal community this is causing some concern. Many journals are funded by universities or associations, but they rely on subscription revenue to provide the necessary money to continue - very few make any kind of profit. Although there is interest in making content freely available (and an acknowledgment that this may be required to promote their content), there is a concern that this will undermine precious sources of revenue that are relied upon to sustain publication.

For many journals, it appears that balancing the need for revenue with the wish to make information freely available is an intractable problem. The most popular proposed model for open access (the author-pays model) is unlikely to work within most developing world journals where the majority of researchers do not have publication funds. Another consideration is the infrastructural and cultural problems in transferring money between countries (and in some cases within countries) where banking systems are not reliable. And it should be remembered that many of the titles publish outside the recognized research-funding arena - for example, in the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

So is there an alternative to the author-pays model? Another solution would be funding from donor agencies and parent institutions. However, currently available funds are already allocated to specific expenditures, so it may be difficult to re-allocate them. In some cases more funding may be forthcoming if it can be shown that the research results reach more people, but with the funding problems already experienced by most of the parent bodies (such as the universities), it is unlikely that they will be able to find more money to support publication.

There is also the possibility of making the journal less costly to produce - by going online only (like the African Journal of Biotechnology discussed above). Another possible model is to publish online regularly, but to print combined issues to minimize print and distribution costs. For example, the African Journal of Food, Agriculture Nutrition and Development has recently made the decision to publish online quarterly, but to print only two issues a year to save on print and distribution costs (personal communication).

Perhaps the current answer for the majority of journals is a delayed open access model, making the content free online only after one or two years (as already instigated by many Western commercial publishers). Some journals, however, report that back issue sales still provide valuable additional funds, and so again, this may not be suitable for all.


Online publication is much cheaper and faster than the traditional, problematic methods of publication and distribution. It offers journals in African and other developing countries the opportunity to take a place in the global publishing community. In the future, all or most journals will be published online because it is the best and fastest way to communicate research findings and subsequently to create new knowledge. It is imperative that African journals and authors embrace this model for research communication to ensure their continued existence and recognition of the importance of indigenous research.


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