Open Access publishing in and about the Middle East and North Africa: prospects and challenges
By Anne-Linda Amira Augustin
Media scholar Alena Strohmaier and political scientist Dimitris Soudias from the Re-Configurations team in Marburg introduced the summer academy’s group into open access publishing in and about the Middle East and North Africa.
Soudias began his introduction into the topic by talking about neoliberal subjectivities and the economization of research in general, he states:
“In terms of subjectification, many funders and institutions evaluate research through such factors as funding acquisition and publication record – the latter of which is increasingly measured through spurious bibliometrics, such as journal rankings and impact factors. In turn, far too often our self-government (subjectivation) obeys. We use our human capital as academic entrepreneurs (or innovators) to compete against each other in a precarious, but growing academic market in a constant pursuit of optimizing, or maximizing our CVs. And whether we want to admit it or not, researchers judge each other (e.g. for jobs) on their publishing record. Additionally, and more problematically, as Jean-Claude Guédon, Professor of comparative literature at the Université de Montréal and an expert in open access publishing states, ‘We judge people less by the content of what they write than on the basis of where they publish. In doing that we are just subsuming the whole issue of scientific evaluation to the question of journal competition and that leads to very large problems.’”
Soudias further explains that, according to various studies, since academic knowledge has become more digitalized, prices per article (monopoly rents) across the sciences and humanities have increased by over 400 per cent in the past 30 years. Hence, universities spend more money on subscriptions to academic journals, while having to cut the number of journals they subscribe to. In this respect, they have to limit access to academic knowledge to high-prestige journals. Soudias critically remarks that this situation only refers to western academia, however, it will widen the gap of access to academic knowledge pushing western academia further and thwarting researchers in non-western academia who lack funding to get access to journals. However, he notes that attempts to bridge this gap already exist with criminalized web portals, such as Sci-hub or library genesis, which are bypassing pay-walls. Nevertheless, these portals are constantly coping with legal challenges and posed by the power of big publishing houses.
Open access is a reaction to these developments, aiming to overcome the “cynical situation in which publicly funded scholars give their publications away to commercial publishers for free, which libraries then have to buy back at horrendous costs.”
Alena Strohmaier, then, introduced one attempt to overcome this cynical situation and presented the international, interdisciplinary open access journal “Middle East – Topics & Arguments (META) published half-yearly by the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the University of Marburg. Stohmaier asserts that, “META is committed to providing open access to knowledge, to facilitate exchange within the international academic community and to actively contribute to the interregional transfer of knowledge. Both shall promote and advance a cooperative ‘researching with’, replacing obsolete models of ‘researching on’, and in the process counteract exceptionalist and culturalistic discourses on the MENA region.” Furthermore, in terms of META’s objective, it “takes up a fundamental challenge posed in Area Studies, which is to not only gather but to combine specialist disciplines on an interdisciplinary level. The journal’s interdisciplinary nature follows a dual purpose: on the one hand it stimulates discussion between the social sciences and humanities within the field of Area Studies, while on the other it correlates Area Studies to the systematic disciplines. In this way, regional academic discourses are integrated into a global framework and comparability is ensured beyond the confines of the region.”
Three Tunisian scholars, Professor Wahid Gdoura from the Higher Institute of Documentation (ISD) at La Manouba University of Tunis, Souheil Houissa and Mohamed Ben Romdhane, both researchers and teachers at the ISD working in the field of open access, joined us to discuss the situation of publishing in Tunisia and in the wider Arab World. They have worked on the advancement of open access in Tunisia since 2009, and more intensively since 2012, to strengthen and enlarge the infrastructure in Tunisia. Gdoura admits that Tunisian researchers normally try to publish abroad to increase their visibility because Tunisian research is not well known outside the country. Gdoura and his team presented their various efforts in the advancement of open access. These activities comprise symposia, study days, and a yearly open access week, as well as participation in international conferences and colloquia.
According to Gdoura, open access is on the most important means to support researchers in Tunisia and the wider Arab World. On the university level, there is lots of support from colleagues, the dean as well as the university council. However, they have not reached the political decision-making level yet: there is a lack of policy concerned with open access. Gdoura also mentions the difficult situation of knowledge production and open access in Arab countries. Arab universities lack access to knowledge and information, because university libraries are too poor and badly equipped. Given the various political and socio-economic problems in most of the Arab countries, the prices for accessing academic and scientific articles that are paid in western academia are simply too high for most of the Arab universities. Thus, open access offers a promising pathway toward better access to knowledge and participation in the international academic sphere, but there is still a long way to go.
If you want to know more about open access in Tunisia, check out the Facebook group Open Access Tunisie. Moreover, Peter Suber’s book Open Access was highly recommended as an excellent general introduction into the topic.