/ 6 March 2015

Dark days for black researchers

Perishing by publishing: The question of what good and relevant research is continually troubles the research conundrum.
Perishing by publishing: The question of what good and relevant research is continually troubles the research conundrum.

Certainly, publishing should be the focus whenever we seek to find the absent black professor.

Academics have strong views about publishing. For many black academics in particular, publishing in journals has become an exasperating experience over the decades.

Usually the minimum required by higher education institutions is a research output that can be a big ask, especially for academics who have to overcome a number of obstacles. The other obstacle is often the time academic journals take to respond to authors.

Academic research continues to be an area of contention in many universities, and many academics concur that research can be used to catapult or constrain their careers. Arguably, all journals seek good research. The question of what “good and relevant research” is also continually troubles the research conundrum.

It is a critical commonplace that the inconsistency of academic journals makes numerous researchers doubt the credibility of some of these publications. Several academics even insist that certain cabals are gatekeepers in some journals that publish academic research, especially nationally. They would claim that pals publish one another in the few journals we have and keep outsiders at bay.

Publishing in academic journals has become a very muted but ebullient discussion that simmers endlessly in corridors. Some black academics, for example, perpetually complain that journal editors do not favour black intellectualism; and many point out that journal editors silently appear to be finding out that their research is far from “accomplished”.

We have heard so many times that the black academic has to contend with a number of hurdles: these include lack of mentorship, language proficiency, inadequate preparation as well as apathy towards research. We have to concede, though, that there will be academics who produce badly executed research. Editors always argue for the maintenance of standards.

The question of standards crops up whenever people speak of transformation in higher education, especially when this has to do with the promotion of black academics. There is the concern that promoting blacks in any area may lead to lowering standards – and academia is no exception.

Our country needs academics who are of unquestionable stature – people who demonstrate scholarship. However, two crucial aspects may thwart the ascendance of black academics.

First, they need to publish in reputable journals and this sometimes has the challenges already mentioned. And second, they need to demonstrate knowledge by generating novel approaches and ways of seeing.

But our universities are often complicit in the waning of black scholarship. Novice black academics are frequently not assigned mentors who will prepare them for the rigour of academia. This may also be evident among their white counterparts. But here we may have to explore how other researchers understand research – that is, as an individual journey where senior academics do it alone.

Irrespective of who holds the reins of academic journals, Africa continues to require relevant research from all its intellectuals. In a country laden with education, economic and health challenges, research needs to address these. We need to move beyond just examining the experiences or beliefs of research participants and rather explore practical solutions as well.

A few black researchers who try to do this prefer international journals of high repute and those of questionable quality. Two decades after apartheid we would have thought that there would be abundant numbers of able and diligent black professors who are respected in Africa and abroad for their research output. We still need inventors; people who generate knowledge, intellectuals who lead in knowledge production.

Academic publishing bears prospects of promotion and is a subject so close to academics. Again, cynics have contended that usually the academics who are promoted through their research output do not maintain their reputation as worthy intellectuals.

Yet it is time now that intellectuals define themselves rather than wait and let institutionalised cultures define their mettle. At some point, black intellectuals need to find space and discard doubts as they step into uncharted waters.

Coming from a certain past some definitions and cultures have been proven to be warped. Recognising this, we need new ways of seeing and novel ways of understanding our trade without sacrificing academic excellence. But there are many reasons attributed to the low number of black professors in academia; the failure of transformation in a number of campuses, few opportunities for advancement, apathy created by institutional cultures and the continued intentional marginalisation of some individuals are among these.

No institution wants to promote mediocrity, but there are instances where academics do display this rigour but still are not elevated up the academic ladder.

There have been concerns in all higher education institutions, but recently many concerns about black professoriate have come from the historically white campuses. People have been pointing out that these institutions are failing to promote black academics to attain professorship.

Professorship in a university has many implications, including serving on decision-making bodies such as the senate. When black academics are absent from these, other colleagues deride them. The publication of articles then goes a far longer way than mere promotion and financial benefit.

Numerous junior lecturers tell you they would rather teach than conduct research. They do not show the ambition to write and soar in academia.

The major reason is that undergraduate education generally does not magnify the importance of research. Undergraduate students seem to believe that research is something that other people do when they get to their doctoral degree.

For students, research is a mystery – and those who become academic staff take this mindset with them when they accept teaching positions. As universities seek to improve student throughputs, they continue to search for the improvement of research. All conscientious institutions want to produce virtuous researchers and worthy research.

In Africa, research has the potential to answer problems that damage African communities. Much research has been done in the area of HIV and Aids; and numerous institutions continue to do so. Arguably, the findings from such studies assist immensely in advocacy.

However, the African communities conducting that research and recording the research findings for publication still have many other challenges to deal with. Poverty, food security, absence of peace, ailing economies and weak education systems are some of the challenges in the continent.

The first are those who have made writing and publishing in journals part of their profession. These academics publish regularly.

The second are academics who would like to write and publish but maintain that they lack the ability and still need to learn the skill. They frequently attend workshops on writing and publishing. Sometimes these do not work, though, because for a number of years they may continue attending these workshops without developing their craft.

The third group’s members maintain that they do not have any interest in publishing but are at the institution to teach. With incentives, they might attempt to write – but usually unwillingly, and then the chances of rigorous research are remote.

In the fourth and last group, though, there are many academics who try again and again with no success. There can be various reasons for this, including bad research as well as their institutionalised marginalisation.

There are a number of reputable journals internationally that are high quality – but not on the department of higher education’s list of acccredited journals.

The government’s subsidy-incentive model is superb because it encourages research among researchers. But the very same model can promote undercooked research that is encouraged by motives other than academic.

Subsidies might enable researchers who do not have the necessary resources to increase their research accounts for future research. But the same subsidies can also kill off academic freedom – by limiting researchers to the list of journals that the government compiles and controls.

There are also journals in which many of South Africa’s academics feel they will never be published, irrespective of the quality of their work. One colleague of mine intimated that, by adding a colleague’s name as co-author, he was finally accepted by a particular local journal. Clearly, then, even though many journals profess rigorous scrutiny of papers, there are still unethical practices.

Lately there has been the trap of predatory journals that lure the novice and seasoned academic alike. These are the journals that make it easy to get published if you pay an administration fee. A number of them have produced questionable journal articles that are below any traditionally adequate academic standards.

These predatory journals can never help develop academics, who constantly need critical acumen to remain as, or develop into, resourceful individuals. What boggles the mind, though, for many academics and researchers is that some of these predatory journals are on the list of accredited journals the higher education department formally accredits.

It is only fair to say, though, that as long as there is proof that articles are peer-reviewed, journals should be given the benefit of the doubt. It is when there is no proof of this critical engagement that journals pose problems. Despite challenges such as the language medium of journals, all academics should understand the value of good and relevant research. Research is one of the most important legs of scholarship in higher education.

Universities need academic output that is highly regarded. Motivated individuals will motivate themselves as they improve their craft. But it will still be hard to try when there are strong opposing currents and few enabling environments.

Professor Vuyisile Msila is head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. He writes in his personal capacity