Making your research accessible

Interview with Biomed Central’s Publishing Director Deborah Kahn

By 14 November 2012

Last week, two major conferences took place in South Africa; Biomed Central’s Open Access conference at the University of Cape Town and the Berlin 10 Open Access conference in Stellenbosch. Biomed Central’s Publishing Director Deborah Kahn* was at both conferences and spoke to Allison Stevens about the cross-cutting themes that emerged and other interesting topics and discussions to be taken forward.

Why is there so much opposition to the ‘Impact Factor’ as a means measure the quality of journals?

Eve Gray, Honorary Research Associate, to the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, explains this very well in her blog at bit.ly/OiPFId. I recommend a read of that. She explains that the rules that determine whether or not a journal is given an Impact Factor, are skewed to exclude the developing world and therefore that “‘Local’ or national research was relegated to a lower level – or irrelevance – and only ‘Third World contributions to mainstream science’ would be considered for inclusion in the ISI. In other words, a research article gets into the ISI if it addresses the interests of readers in the English-speaking North.” Despite this, the Impact Factor is taken as an important measure of “quality” by African universities and is used by international agencies for the evaluation of national research effectiveness

How might open access widen journal divide between different regions?

Larger open access publishers such as BioMed Central and PLOS give waivers to researchers from developing countries. African journals which want to publish under an open access model but which need income to cover their costs cannot afford to waive the fees of their authors in the same way. This makes publishing in PLOS or BioMed Central journals attractive to African researchers because they have their fees waived, while also benefiting from the increased visibility that an international open access journal gives their research. This could have the effect of drawing good papers away from African journals.

Do you have any advice for how we might measure whether an open access journal from a developing country is ‘predatory’ or not?

Check whether they are a member of OASPA (the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association), which has clear policies on how its members should behave. Look at the content of the journal – does it publish good research from authors with a good reputation? Does it have clear peer review policies which are clearly stated?

Marcel Hommel (Editor-in-Chief of the Malaria Journal) mentioned in his presentation that 90% of malaria mortality happens in Africa, but only 2% of malaria papers get published in African journals. How can African journals be regenerated?

There was considerable debate about this question at the last Open Access Africa conference, and as a consequence BioMed Central and the Wellcome Trust convened a “summit” meeting of including governmental and non-governmental bodies, universities, research funders and editors and publishers of journals of importance to African researchers on 17th May. The aim was to share experience and knowledge as a way of coming up with some ideas for long-term solutions. This group met again in Cape Town directly after Open Access Africa 2012, and as a consequence has put together some new working groups to try and address this ‘knotty’ problem

Some people think that open access content is inferior to ‘closed-access’ content. In your presentation, you highlighted that reputable open access publishers use the same standards of quality as traditional closed journals. How does Biomed Central keep journal standards high?

We have highly reputable editors and editorial boards, and clear peer review policies. We have a clear code of conduct for our Editors and all of our journals are members of COPE (Committee for Publication Ethics) and are expected to follow their standards of publishing. All of our journals have clear guidelines for authors on issues such as declaration of competing interests, and some of our journals come under open peer review.

At the BioMed conference Conrad Omonhinmin (a researcher from Nigeria) challenged all of to do more to address key open access issues and questions for Africa. Do you have any comments about this?

This was a theme of both our conference and the Berlin 10 conference. Much is already being done but more is needed, and there were many calls to action. BioMed Central tries to do what we can through our waiver fund, foundation memberships, Open Access Africa conference series, and the summit which I mentioned above, but there are many agencies, universities, funders and others looking to address these problems and it seems that progress is being made. The issues are complex, but there is a lot of will to succeed and I am confident that we will.

Are you able to give us any provisional information about where the next 2013 Open Access Africa Conference might  take place and any information about potential themes to be covered, or is it too early to say?

Too early to say, we will keep you posted.

Do you have any other comments or general insights?

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on these questions. These two conferences have been a great experience, as have all the Open Access Africa conferences. We have met some wonderful people working in scholarly communication here, and we are really pleased to have the opportunity to contribute and to work with them to help improve access to academic literature in Africa.

*Deborah Kahn, (Publishing Director, BioMed Central) is responsible for leading the publishing teams to provide an excellent experience for our authors, editors and referees, and for ensuring that BioMed Central continues to grow its portfolio of open access journals. Deborah’s career has spanned STM journal and book publishing, database publishing, and research and consultancy. She has been a supporter of open access since the beginning. A mathematician by training, she also has a Masters degree in Organisational Behaviour and a Diploma in Integrative Psychotherapy.

  • Lucy Browse

    Thanks Deborah, as you acknowledge, issues around effective global research communication are complex. The working groups and will to explore OA from a southern perspective generated by Open Access Africa and Berlin10 will give rise to new conversations and action around the opportunities and challenges that Open Access presents to developing countries.

    It is vital that issues such as the challenges APCs might present and the importance journals based in Africa continue to be sustainable are effectively addressed over the months to come. Advocacy for effective awareness raising and policy making at all levels seems to be key. As you say, it is good there are many people now exploring this south and north.