Scientists work in the Drug Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Cape Town.

Scientists at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.Credit: Nic Bothma/EPA/Shutterstock

The proportion of scientific articles published by academics in South Africa who are black, coloured or of Indian origin has risen almost tenfold since the end of apartheid, to about one-third, finds a report on scholarly publishing in the country. (Coloured, referring to people of mixed ethnic heritage, is a recognized racial classification in South Africa.)

In 2014, black academics authored 18% of research papers, Indian academics wrote 10% and coloured academics authored 4% (see ‘South Africa publishing trends’). Together, researchers in these groups were responsible for 3.5% of South Africa's research output in 1990.

But academic publishing remains disproportionately white, as South Africa struggles with the legacy of apartheid — the policy of racist discrimination that disenfranchised most of the country’s population, and ended in 1994. White people comprise 8% of the country’s 54 million inhabitants, but occupy about half of university posts.

The system is transforming as expected, given that the number of academics has increased by just over 1% each year on average for the past decade, says Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and a contributor to the report, published by the Academy of Science of South Africa.

Source: Academy of Science of South Africa

South Africa’s academic institutions have long struggled with chronic underfunding, exacerbated by sluggish economic growth.

John Mugabe, an expert on science policy in Africa, is relatively optimistic about the increase. He attributes it partly to black South African scientists returning from self-imposed exile after 1994, as well as to universities and science councils attracting black researchers from other African nations. The number of black South Africans gaining doctoral degrees and staying in academia is also rising, says Mugabe who is at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

But Mugabe also notes a worrying trend revealed in the study: the increase in the proportion of research output by academics over 50 — from 18% in 1990 to 45% in 2014. Academics under 40 publish less than one-third of papers, and this hasn’t increased much since 2005. Overall, “many of the young PhD graduates are not staying in academia but going to the corporate world and public departments”, he says.

Questionable practices

The total number of publications authored by South African researchers doubled from 7,230 in 2005 to 15,542 in 2014. That’s largely because of an incentive system introduced by the government in 2005, says the report. The system awards academics or their institutions roughly US$7,000 for each publication in an accredited journal, of which some universities pay up to half directly to the authors.

But the report suggests that the subsidy system can act as a “perverse incentive”, because it pushes academics to publish as many papers as possible, and that it could be driving “questionable” publishing practices in South Africa. These include academics publishing in predatory journals — those that ask authors to pay fees but do not provide conventional publishing services such as peer review — and an increase in the number of journal editors and board members publishing multiple papers in their own titles, which poses a conflict of interest.

In one example in the report, an academic (whose name was withheld by Assaf for legal reasons) published 113 articles in a journal from 2005 to 2014 of which he was a board member, and he received a portion of the government subsidy for his publications. In one issue alone, he published 11 out of 15 total articles.

Mouton says that these practices can be curbed through quality control. Although the subsidy system has its critics, at a time when research budgets are tight, universities desperately need the 1.5 billion rand (US$100 million) paid in subsidies, he says.