Earlier this month I attended a remarkable conference at the British Library. For the first time, academics and representatives of the publishing industry in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa were brought together to discuss their experience of producing, distributing and accessing academic books. The conference, on 7th and 8th March, was part of the Academic Book of the Future project, in which UCL is involved, and was funded by the AHRC and the British Library.
The two days were of great potential use both in trying to understand how to expand our range of resources from the Global South and in ensuring that the resources we produce here are accessible throughout the world. A detailed account of the whole conference has been created from tweets by delegates. At the risk of oversimplifying, I will try to summarise here just the main messages in the following areas: publishing, access, and digitisation:
Academic publishing in the south is clearly facing numerous problems, starting with a lack of investment in education and a lack of training in academic writing, editing and publishing. Data on the publishing industry is patchy and multinationals dominate the markets, with pressure on academics to publish abroad and with big name publishers rather than at home. Censorship and civil unrest in some countries can stifle academic work in the social sciences and some publishing markets (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan) do not function, although the market in Iran is now opening up. E-books are published in “walled gardens” on incompatible platforms, and print is still the dominant medium. The language of publication can be a political issue, with local languages not considered acceptable. Piracy is a big problem and a disincentive to multinational companies to license content. Open access publishing was described as a “doubtful panacea”, privileging the few readers with good Internet access and institutions with technical knowledge, but disadvantaging authors – presumably because they can’t pay Gold OA fees. Academics in the south need to be more involved in peer review. There was some self-criticism and a desire for southern publishers to be better at promotion, and for southern universities to collaborate in negotiations on price. Differential pricing for different countries would be helpful but is unusual. There was an emphasis on the need to involve the public outside universities. One example of this from India was the vibrant Bengali blogosphere focusing on cultural debate.
Access both to print and to the Internet is very restricted, and the mobile phone is the technology with by far the greatest reach. Even in South Africa the example was given of an article taking four hours to download. Books and journals published in the North were too expensive, and the example was given of a £50 book costing a month’s wages in Africa, although locally published versions of the same title were seen as less desirable. Multinational publishers were criticised for buying archives and local collections and them putting them behind paywalls, making them inaccessible in their country of origin. When material is published in local languages there are few translations.
Like open access, digitisation was presented as potentially useful but problematic. One audience member pointed out that it can be seen as theft, and there was general agreement. Funding from external sources can be short term, and can distort the value of local collections. Shamil Jeppie from the University of Cape Town, talking about his work with the Timbuktu manuscripts, pointed out that digitisation cannot capture the tactile physical nature of this material or help with problems like dating mss. Digitisation was just a gateway, although essential to capture vulnerable collections. He reminded us of what is being lost currently in Iraq and Syria. Dr Satti, the Director of the National Library of Sudan, pointed out that the selection of content for digital projects could be divisive in culturally diverse societies if the processes were not participatory and transparent. A cultural revolution was needed to deal with the debates over freedom and state control generated by the rise of digital technologies. Again lack of technical infrastructure was a problem. It was not possible to know what collections had been digitised in India because they were not accessible. Digital tools and metadata schema for local languages did not exist. No Indian language has a working digital lexicon for digitised content. On the positive side, Tanzania is about to have the first official Trusted Digital Repository in Africa.
Among all the problems summarised above there were many positive moments and some memorable ones too. Sukanta Chaudhuri used his keynote to advocate an alternative knowledge order, with wider social sharing of knowledge, breaking down institutional barriers and involving amateur scholars as well as academics. More south-south collaboration was essential. He also asked that all digitised content that is out of copyright should be made available free of charge.
On a practical level the importance of recognising the ubiquity of the (not necessarily smart) mobile phone was stressed, with a need for small packages of content that are easy to download. Simple, static websites were recommended for the same reason.
Examples of good practice include the African Books Collective, which distributes African writing from 149 publishers in 24 countries. It is based in Oxford but is managed by a consortium of African publishers. The Knowledge Unlatched model was also presented as a possible model for collaborative publishing in the south.
Finally, among many highlights there were two particularly memorable moments. The first, to universal hilarity, was when Sukanta Chaudhuri, from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, accidentally referred to the British Library as the British Empire. Everyone laughed, including the British Library curators in the audience.
The second memorable moment was when Sari Hanafi, Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut, held up a copy of his book on Timbuktu. It was the British Library’s copy. He didn’t have a copy of his own, as the publishers (Routledge) either could not or would not ship to Beirut. That seemed to symbolise the gulf between the north and the south.