Publish or perish? we do just ok

There’s been a sharp — and welcome — increase in South African research publishing. But is it sustainable, or are we chokers?

An analysis by Michael Kahn for the Centre for Research on Science and Technology (Crest) at Stellenbosch University says 2004 was a vintage year for local scientists. Kahn sifted through thousands of journals in the database of the Thom- son Reuters Web of Science.

He compared the research avail- able in the turbulent years prior to our first democratic election in 1994 with the figures for 2004 to 2008. From 2004 onwards, he said, publishing in South Africa showed “a steep upward climb” — even while the number of scientists remained stagnant.

The new generation of South African scientists built close relationships with their counterparts overseas, enabling them to increase their publication rates.

In his research, published in the South African Journal of Science, Kahn argued that the financial largesse of taxpayers (the publication subsidy has quadrupled in size) has made little difference. The international partnerships were what made the difference, while our historical strengths in plant sciences and medicine remained sturdy.

The worldwide collaboration increased hugely even though the South African system financially penalises such partnerships, offering less money to local universities if foreigners are involved. But the globalisation of science, like the international money markets, does make the country a little vulnerable to offshore decisions over which we have little control.

In many respects, we are still big fish in a small pond: Oxford University produces the same amount of research as all of South Africa. Researchers at one Ivy League university in the USA produced more in six months than all our 20-plus universities can provide in an entire year. It’s not likely to get much better. The chances of reaching the government target of 20 000 full-time researchers in 2018 are minimal.

“There is no coherent policy across government that drives the mission of high-level human resources development,” Kahn noted. “Instead this quest is bedevilled by racial politics.”

For more information, the South African Journal of Science is online at

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Christina Scott
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