Can we overcome our academic inertia?
The first academic journal, Le Journal des Sçavans, was published on January 5, 1665 from Paris. Over the past three centuries—according to the latest STM Report 2018 by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) Publishers—the number of peer-reviewed journal grew by about 3.5 percent a year. In recent years, however, this growth could be as high as 6 percent. Global databases like Web of Science and CrossRef indicate—with an annual addition of 3 million journal articles—by the end of 2020, the total number of published research papers would be more than 80 million. It means, by the time you finish reading this opinion piece, 40 new journal articles will be published!
In this huge volume of global research, Bangladesh's research is quite small. The world's largest journal publisher Elsevier manages Scopus, one of the biggest online platforms that catalogues academic journals. Out of more than 70 million research articles it holds, about 48,500; 0.07 percent are from Bangladesh. Scopus currently maintains 22,000 active journals, including 16 from Bangladesh. To put this into the South Asian context, 526 journals on this database are from India, 97 from Pakistan, 7 from Sri Lanka, and 6 journals are from Nepal.
Journal Impact Factor is a globally-recognised scoring system that indicates the impact, as well as the reputation, of an academic journal. The more a journal's papers are cited, the larger its score gets and the greater its impact on the academic discipline it belongs to. Every year, Philadelphia-based Clarivate Analytics publishes Journal Citation Reports where Impact Factors of journals are declared. In the latest report published in June 2019, about 12,000 peer-reviewed journals received "Impact Factor 2018", and only four of them are from Bangladesh. I have been involved with the Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy since 2006. My journal received its first Impact Factor in 2010. Since then, no new Bangladeshi journal received an Impact Factor.
Given a very small number of Bangladeshi journals are in the above two databases, one may wonder how many academic journals are actually published from Bangladesh. In the absence of an exhaustive list, this is very difficult to answer. In 2007, INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications), an Oxford-based charity, established an online platform called BanglaJOL or Bangladesh Journals Online. This platform currently has 143 Bangladeshi journals. Given the huge increase in universities in the last decade—from 82 in 2009 to 151 in 2019—we can estimate Bangladeshi academic institutions and academic societies are publishing another one hundred journals outside the BanglaJOL.
Being included in the Scopus or receiving an Impact Factor means that a journal has maintained the basic publishing standards. But, most of our journals do not do that. The BanglaJOL, for example, has classified 48 percent of its 143 journals as "inactive", as they are not published online regularly, and on time—one of the major practices to measure a journal's standard. As per the Journal Publishing Practices and Standards (JPPS), about 40 percent BanglaJOL journals are yet to attain minimum publishing standards; many of which are published by old, prestigious learned societies.
Although almost all Bangladeshi journals are struggling to get international recognition, there is in fact no motivation or incentive for improving their standards. A recent analysis has identified several reasons for, let us call it, "academic inertia". First, the cost of publishing a journal in Bangladesh is very small, on average around USD 1,000 per issue. It is mostly paid by the concerned society, research institution, or often by the government ministries. So, funding is not an issue to publish a journal in Bangladesh. Second, the manuscripts journals receive from Bangladeshi authors are sufficient to publish normally two issues per year. So, these journals do not need international authors as a source of manuscripts. Third, despite being internationally-unrecognised, authors of Bangladeshi journals are largely okay with the quality of these journals, since publishing papers in these journals are helping them to get recognition, and also promotion, to be specific.
This inertia is harming Bangladesh's research ecosystem and reputation. A large amount of Bangladesh's research published in Bangladeshi journals remain unrecognised by the global academic community. Our public research spending—for example, during 2009-2018, the Ministry of Science and Technology funded around USD 45 million in research—that supports those researches also remain unappreciated.
In addition, most of our non-indexed journals are vehicles to advance our career by taking advantage of the limitations of the current recruitment and promotion rules, for example, of the universities. The University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh has proposed a unified guideline for recruitment and promotion of public university teachers, which demands publishing in journals with Impact Factor or indexed in Scopus. But this may not help to improve the poor standards of many Bangladeshi journals.
To break this academic inertia and to make Bangladesh's journals better, as a first step, we need to organise dialogues and conversations among Bangladeshi researchers, journal editors, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (which coordinates 10 national agricultural research institutes), UGC, and the concerned ministries. Such discussions will fill in the knowledge gaps on academic publishing standards, remove our misunderstandings, help us to understand where globally Bangladesh's research and research communication stand, and update us about the global scholarly publishing system.
These should also build trust among the stakeholders for taking collective actions to improve Bangladesh's academic publishing ecosystem. The final outcome of these discussions should be a clear framework outlining the road to improve.
The framework will highlight how to establish a national system to oversee and guide our journals' quality and standards. And how Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education, UGC, Directorates of Archives and Library, and BARC can work together and formulate "National Journal Publishing Rules". These rules will gradually be echoed in the recruitment and promotion rules of the universities and research institutes of Bangladesh, updating which is direly needed. The proposed rules should also establish a "Bangladesh Journal Watch" to monitor the quality of Bangladeshi journals in light of the global academic publishing system.
Now the question is, can we soon start the conversation under the leadership of the UGC, prepare a framework to improve Bangladesh's academic publishing system in 2021—the Golden Jubilee of our independence, and aim at making drastic improvements to our academic journal system by 2024—the year Bangladesh graduates to middle-income country? Are we ready for it?
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems.
His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah