“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I was recently made aware of a post by Jeffrey Beall, librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, with the curious title (let us call it that, curious) “Is SciELO a Publication Favela?” The post criticises the two largest Iberoamerican OA efforts, the SciELO and RedALyC portals for what Beall sees as a grave deficiency regarding their ability to make knowledge visible. According to Beall, “Many North American scholars have never even heard of these meta-publishers or the journals they aggregate. Their content is largely hidden, the neighborhood remote and unfamiliar.”
I suppose that by ‘North America’, Beall really means the United States of America and Canada, which already leaves at least one third of North America outside this myopic geography (or more, depending on which definition of North America one considers).
But is it really a shock and a blow to SciELO and RedALyC that, if Beall is right, ‘North American’ scholars are unaware of the two repositories?
No, it is not surprising. Beall’s version of ‘North America’ is composed of two English speaking countries. Yet SciELO and RedALyC are repositories centred on Iberoamerican schoarly literature, in which Spanish and Portuguese are the dominant languages. What is being suggested, it seems, is that Spanish and Portuguese scholars writing in their mother tongues should be deeply worried because English speakers are unlikely to read their work. Furthermore, we should also be ashamed of the quality of our work because a region that does not speak our language is uninterested in reading texts outside of their linguistic scope. This is analogous to suggesting that Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and Machado de Assis should have been deeply disturbed because most ‘North American’ readers would’ve been uninterested in reading their works in the authors’ original mother tongues. In Beall’s English-speaking suburbia, texts are only interesting if they are named, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sunstone, The Aleph or The Posthumous Memoirs of John Smith.
Reading through the post comments, Beall mentions that he has lived in Latin America and is a fluent Spanish speaker, so if one is generous at least we can cross out outright ignorance of the region as a primary motivation. This really begs the question of why Beall would then refer to two internationally recognised OA projects in such a derisive, offhand manner. As Dr. Antonio Sánchez Pereyra from the National University of Mexico mentioned in a critique to Beall’s post, SciELO and RedAlyC have received enough recognition far enough from Latin America that Beall’s opinion can be described as, again at best, uninformed.
Replying to reader’s comments, Beall asks, “If SciELO is so great, then why do so many Brazilian and other Latin American researchers prefer to publish in journals from commercial publishers?” It is a very legitimate question. Being a Latin American scholar myself and living in an English-speaking country and choosing to publish almost exclusively in English, perhaps I can shed some light. Firstly, there is a matter of prestige. Unlike the literary world where one always has an assured readership in one’s mother tongue, the academic world is vastly dominated, in terms of prestige, by English, the lingua franca of our times. There are around 350 million native English speakers, and the vast majority inhabit Beall’s linguistic gated community. However, there are an additional 700 million people around the world for whom English is their second language. The majority of the world’s top ranked universities inhabit this linguistic space. A very significant majority of the top journals in most academic fields are in English. If one wants to achieve maximal audiences, one has to write in English; not because one does not want to write in one’s mother tongue, but because if the aim is to achieve maximal global readership using another language severely curtails the pool of potential readers. Therefore one may ‘prefer’ to submit a paper to a commercial publisher.
Of course, this may imply a form of ‘Malinchismo’, a term coined in Mexico to refer to someone who prefers a foreign version of the world to the native or local one because ‘foreign’ is uncritically equated with ‘prestige’. I can only say that in my field, Social Studies of Science, there is a growing awareness – particularly in Asia and Latin America – that the need for local scholarship is becoming increasingly important for our regions. This does not mean denying the role that a globalised scholarship plays, but it does mean increasing the capacity for local studies to be carried out independently of the interest that the wider academic world may have. Last year’s 4S Annual Meeting in Buenos Aires, the first outside of the so-called Global North, had three official languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese. Though at times it trailed off into Tower of Babel territory, the effort was overall quite pleasing.
Beall, however, has been blinded by what sociologist Robert Merton called “the Matthew effect”, a phenomenon well-known to the sociology of science. In this Merton referred to a verse from the Bible, Matthew 25:29, which in the King James version reads, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” Merton had in mind the phenomenon that, ceteris paribus, scientists with greater amounts of prestige will be awarded more prestige by the reward systems of science than scientists with less prestige who do the same quality work. This is a close variant of the vicious circle that has been so much criticised in relation to the academic publishing ecosystem and the prestige afforded to academic outlets. Publishing in a Big Name Journal will make a paper appear more prestigious in the eyes of a scientific community than a paper published in a Modest Journal. But being a Big Name Author will often make having a paper accepted in the Big Name Journal easier, regardless of the quality of the paper. The result is that prestige will increase for both. On the other hand, being a Modest Author means that there are greater chances to publish in a Modest Journal even for high quality papers. Modest Authors may prefer to go the Modest Journal way even if the rewards are less in terms of prestige, and so on and so forth.
Just like in Mr. Beall’s Neighborhood where few people speak Spanish or Portuguese, relatively few people in Iberoamerica are fluent English speakers. Even in academic circles, being fluent in English and writing English to a high standard is a relatively rare skill. Whenever I have had contact with Latin American students at any level, I have always tried to stress to them the importance of speaking English if they want to enter head on into the globally relevant academic world. I was lucky enough to be exposed to English from a very young age and to have a multilingual education, access to English books and many other resources, but the majority of Latin Americans are not as privileged. Does this, however, mean that Iberoamerican academics should be prevented from having a publishing outlet of their own? Or that they it is legitimate to have those outlets regarded as less because North of the Río Bravo there is the prejudice that Anything That is Not Published in English is Immanently Less?
So far I’ve focused on what I read as Beall’s underlying linguistic bias against SciELO and RedAlyC, but there are even graver misunderstandings (let us call them misunderstandings) at hand in Beall’s projection. Beall writes that both platforms “do a poor job of distributing it or increasing its visibility, despite the fact that both services are open-access.” Let me tell you about another platform that does a poor job at that: arXiv, which I have been studying for the better part of two years now. In terms of targeted distribution and targeted visibility, arXiv is probably one of the most rubbish sites on planet Earth. It is also one of the most successful sites – if not the most successful – for the quick dissemination of groundbreaking knowledge in many scientific disciplines. arXiv founder Paul Ginsparg described the site’s frontpage to me as ‘steampunk retro’, which should really be read as ‘painstakingly primitive’. The site is as user unfriendly as they come when it comes to browsing content. Moreover, it is not indexed by any of the major commercial publishers, even though arXiv preprints are increasingly being used as references in published papers across many fields in indexed publications. arXiv preprints are not included in the larger commercial citation indices loved by Beall, though they do appear in Google Scholar (which Beall describes as “a database poisoned by fringe science”). More importantly, they are included in the non-commercial and open access INSPIRE-HEP and NASA ADS databases. Putting aside Google Scholar, which I hate to admit I am using almost exclusively now in my own work and find a generally excellent resource despite its internal secrecy, INSPIRE and ADS are little known and little used outside of their specialised professional fields. How then can arXiv run such a successful operation?
A thorough discussion of arXiv escapes this post, but I’ll mention what I think are the most relevant characteristics for the matters at hand. arXiv has been created to respond to the communication needs of the communities it serves and it works well alongside commercial publishers which still have their role as top-grade imprimaturs in the physics knowledge ecosystem. There is no ‘either me or them’ attitude in arXiv. Also, arXiv’s primitive categorisation of papers into bins relevant to the communities it mirrors offers just the bare bones minimum organisation to make the papers accesible and visible, and no more. The site has consistently avoided giving users the capacity to find papers according to ‘interestingness’, citation count, or other factors of prestige. This at least theoretically levels the playing field within the site. It also means that papers will be chosen by readers using more subtle social clues, which we are currently investigating in our ongoing research at Cardiff.
arXiv works on the principle that as long as it is of refereeable quality, it is up to users and not publishers to make the connection between knowledge and readers. It does so quite successfully too, storing now more than a million papers and servicing more than two million downloads per month. All this, without the help of commercial publishers. All this because it recognises that given a pool of professional users needing an outlet for their work and readers who need universal open access, there are far more creative options than the commercial publishers and their evangelists would like to believe. I applaud SciELO and RedALyC for offering that type of channel to the Iberoamerican community, even if as we all well know, a lot of work remains to be done.