It is not a universal practice in a plastic sense of it but, in academia, the slogan is ‘publish or perish’. However, Cameroon born South African academic, Prof Francis Nyamnjoh is saying in this story originally titled African Academics May Perish Even When They Have Published that African academics could still perish even when they have published. Below, he expatiates on the make or mar issue for the African in the profession!
A weak publishing industry in Africa, including the lack of distribution hubs and an intra-Africa book trade; curricula, pedagogy and learning processes still rooted in the colonial situation and the absence of a scholarship culture, are factors that are undermining the development and production of academic books on the continent.
The shortage of academic books written by African academics has forced African universities to rely heavily on imported works, even for studies with African-specific content such as history, literature, music, politics, sociology and economics.
According to Francis Nyamnjoh, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, various factors, including mediocre content, invisibility (because of the subject matter or because the writer may be unknown and from a developing country), the remoteness of the publisher (which may not have a wide reach) and poor marketing and distribution, mean that African academics perish even when they have published.
“The technical and financial difficulties facing the publishing industry in Africa also work against African scholars seeking to fulfil the academic requirement of publishing,” said Nyamnjoh.
He argues that, despite the euphoria of political independence and the subsequent attempts at decolonisation of higher education, African universities are still rooted in the colonial situation. Although African universities have, almost without exception, Africanised their personnel, they have not necessarily changed their curricula, pedagogical structures and other learning processes.
On the current status of academic publishing by African scholars, Nyamnjoh thinks the historical pervasive denigration of the African in Western literary and academic production has also continued to undermine the efforts of Africans seeking to publish with recognised Western academic publishers.
A finite scholarship culture
But, drawing from his Kenyan experience, Ishmael Munene, a professor of educational research, higher education and education leadership at Northern Arizona University in the United States, said the low output of academic books by scholars in African universities is directly linked to the finite scholarship culture.
“In most universities across Africa, the culture of discovery, creativity and innovation are muted as the culture of reading for examination purposes takes centre stage, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels,” Munene told University World News.
Many lecturers and professors at African universities dictate notes to students before asking them to do an assignment that requires in-depth research in the library, which invites trouble. According to Munene, examinations are merely recall and lack creativity or the application of knowledge so that, by graduation time, any semblance of scholarship is utterly missing.
“Unfortunately, persons who obtained their bachelor, masters and PhD degrees in such a system are hired as lecturers to teach in the same university and quite often claim their manuscripts have been unfairly rejected by publishers of tertiary-level core textbooks,” said Munene.
According to Munene, the poor pay of lecturers in most African universities has apparently usurped incentives for lecturers and professors to undertake rigorous research that would translate into academic books.
He recalled that, in Kenya, academic staff were involved in moonlighting as part-time lecturers outside their universities or were engaged in private consulting businesses.
“Under those conditions, academic publications are not seen as a priority,” said Munene.
Publishing and promotions
In such circumstances, unclear scholarship criteria for promotion seem to have worsened the situation, not just in Kenya, but across many universities in the continent.
The issue is that promotion requirements in the academic ranks are not clear in terms of scholarly publication. Munene explained that some academics had been promoted with no or minimal scholarly records.
But, in many other cases, lecturers had been found presenting theses, dissertations and journal publications as part of their scholarly production for promotion purposes.
In the worst case scenario, Munene said, there were instances in which some lecturers had been promoted for publishing in predatory journals. Because of the lack of clarity on what counts as scholarly output, it had been difficult to urge academics to engage in scholarship that leads to rigorous publications.
Nyamnjoh and Munene are in agreement on how the Western orientation of scholarship has continued to shape and influence not just what is taught in African universities but what is published and researched.
So entrenched is Western intellectual thought in African academia that some African academics are hamstrung in exploring the African continent from an Afrocentric perspective, lest they be accused of straying towards primordial barbarism.
These challenges have been amplified by the poor reading culture of tertiary-level books.
According to Solani Ngobeni, the director of publications at the Africa Institute of South Africa, a weakly developed reading culture, short print-runs that are not economically viable, a lack of distribution hubs and the absence of an intra-Africa book trade, have not made it economically attractive for low-paid scholars to spend time on research with the aim of writing books.
And, since scholarly books do not sell in high volumes, publishers in the continent are usually hostile to academic publishing in favour of textbooks for primary and secondary schools.
Nnamdi Madichie, an associate professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, said the majority of publishers in Nigeria had been unwilling to publish academic books because of economies of scale. But, to complicate the situation even further, very few universities in Africa have presses with which to publish scholarly works.
In a study “Scholarly Publishing: The Challenges Facing the African University Press”, Ngobeni says university presses on the continent are currently available only in Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Regrettably, commercialism has found a way into university presses and bookshops in African universities, whereby the publishing and selling of textbooks and imported motivational books have become a key preoccupation rather than stimulating the production, marketing and sale of academic books.
Weighing in on the issue of the low book publishing output of African scholars, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda, lays the blame at the door of the World Bank and African governments as well as the rise of the entrepreneurial culture in higher education.
He criticises money-generating degree programmes in Kenya and Uganda that allow public universities to admit high tuition fee-paying students, albeit having marginal high school grades. “As a result of competition for the parallel students, the issue of who has the right to teach, or what to teach is not always backed by university academic rigour,” he says.
Like Munene and Nyamnjoh, Mamdani views African universities as colonial projects, whereby questions of quality have been thrown by the wayside, leading to a dramatic decline in the quality of teaching and in research carried out.
Mamdani has also criticised existing approaches to research, especially at doctoral level which he says simply reproduces knowledge that is required outside Africa.
Although Madichie thinks the time is ripe for revamping the textbook publishing industry in Nigeria and in other African countries, Munene argued that the way forward is for reforms to be undertaken in higher education that would entrench creativity, innovation and scholarship in universities. He stressed the need for clear criteria on how scholarship could contribute to promotions and remuneration.
“In other words, salary increases should not just be what the unions negotiate but should have a component tied to academic merit as measured in, among others, the publishing of tertiary-level books, journal publications and innovation,” Munene told University World News.