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64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998
Code Number: 014-118-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Editors of Library Journals
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 118
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Critical issues facing LIS journals: an author's perspective
PETER JOHAN LOR
Three of the critical issues facing library and information science (LIS) journals identified by the Round Table of Editors of Library Journals are discussed from the perspective of an author resident in a less developed country (LDC) in which the library and information sector is undergoing significant change. (1) Coverage: the "filtering out" of articles submitted by authors from LDCs may not be as great a problem in LIS as in other fields, but periodicals published in LDCs are impoverished by the tendency of their authors to publish in more prestigious foreign journals, which offer a greater likelihood of being read by their peers. (2) Language barrier and bias: speakers of languages which are widely used internationally are less likely to read articles in other languages because unfamiliarity with terminology and conceptual frameworks and with the legal and administrative context of library and information work in foreign countries constitute real barriers. (3) Balance between theoretical and practical content: because academic authors are highly motivated to publish, their work tends to predominate in high-ranking journals. This is illustrated by the unintended consequences of the South African system of state subsidies awarded for the publication of articles in "accredited" journals. The paper concludes with a listing of the likes and dislikes of LIS authors.
In presenting an author's perspective on the theme of the session, I do not lay claim to special expertise as an author. However, I have been fortunate to have gained experience in a wide range of professional practice, teaching, research and management situations. Furthermore as a South African author, I live in a country undergoing a transition which also has an impact on library and information services, and I am deeply involved in the establishment of a new national library association in my country. The new association, the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) has to take crucial decisions on its future publications, decisions which will affect the future of existing South African journals and magazines in library and information science (LIS). This background colours the perspective I bring to our theme.
My intention is to discuss three of the critical issues identified by the Round Table: 1. Coverage (specifically concentration on developed countries); 2. Language barrier and bias; and 3. Representativeness (the balance between theory and practice).
Much has been written about the "quality filter" which "filters out" contributions of authors from LDCs because "relevance" and "quality" are measured with a western, especially Anglo-American, and more specifically, American, bias. (1,2,3) I have not had personal experience of this. On the contrary, my impression is that foreign LIS journals go out of their way to publish contributions from LDCs, sometimes to the extent of stretching quality criteria to accommodate them. In our field at least, I submit that the predominance in most journals of articles from authors in developed countries is mainly the consequence of factors such as their greater capacity for research and development work at the cutting edge - which does not make the obstacles faced by authors in LDCs any less deplorable.
The hospitality of journals published in developed countries to submissions from authors in LDCs may pose a threat to their struggling journals, when the best writing is creamed off and published in foreign journals. For example, after the academic boycott ended, it was noticed that more South African authors were attempting to publish in foreign journals, rather than in the South African Journal of Library and Information Science. This was offset to some extent by an increase of unsolicited manuscripts from authors in other LDCs, which suggests that there is a sort of "pecking order" operating here.
Do LIS leaders in LDCs have a moral responsibility to publish in their own countries and languages? Their choice may be between publishing in the country's only general-purpose LIS journal, which is likely to have a small circulation and may be poorly edited and produced, and publishing in a more prestigious specialist foreign journal which is likely to be read by their peers working in the same field. Unfortunately these peers are less likely to read articles appearing in journals published in LDCs. In our field it is readers rather than journal editors who are to be blamed for bias against contributions from LDCs. If an American colleague (for example) is selecting articles to read from a bibliography or printout, no matter how relevant your article, he/she is much less likely to take the trouble to gain access to an article published in your national LIS journal than to obtain articles published in American journals, regardless of their quality. The fact that your national journal may be published in English, indexed in Library Literature, LISA and half-a-dozen other indexing or abstracting services, and available in several libraries in the USA, will make little difference.
As a general rule, the greater the volume of literature published in a country, the less likely an inhabitant of that country is to read literature published in other countries. To promote two-way communication between developed countries and LDCs, we need editorial policies and other measures to encourage the use of literature emanating from the latter.
Language barrier and bias
Although I am fluently bilingual (in English and Afrikaans) I have published more than 90% of my work in English. Afrikaans is fully equipped with up-to-date LIS terminology, but it is accessible to only a few million readers. Like any other author, I would like to reach an international audience. As a matter of interest, South Africa has eleven official languages but there is no significant LIS publishing in languages other than English and Afrikaans. The other languages lack LIS terminology and readership.
Clearly, the greater the volume of literature published in a language and the more widely read that language is internationally, the less likely a speaker of that language is to read literature in other languages. Why bother to read material in foreign languages when there is plenty of material to hand? In dealing with this problem, it must be admitted that reading scientific and professional literature in a foreign language requires more effort. I can read novels in Dutch, French and German, but have to make a real effort to read LIS journals in those languages. One reason for this is lack of familiarity with technical terms. More fundamentally, an English-speaking reader has difficulties with the conceptual framework within which French, Dutch or German LIS authors write. A German term such as Literaturversorgung is not easily mapped onto an English equivalent. LIS is a less universal field of knowledge than physics or botany. Legal, administrative and social contexts colour a great deal of writing in our field; this is reflected in references to organisations and structures, often designated by means of impenetrable acronyms and abbreviations. To make sense of articles on university librarianship or interlending in the Bulletin des bibliothèques de France one needs background on the French legal and administrative system.
The question arises: if the French (or any other non-English speaking nation) are serious about wanting people to read their literature, should they perhaps include some tutorial or explanatory matter in their journals for foreign readers? Can editorial policies (e.g. mandatory explanation of acronyms and abbreviations) and other measures be devised to encourage the use of journal literature in foreign languages?
Do LIS journals represent the real picture and the interests of those in practice, or do they tend to focus on theory? (4) This question is related to the question why authors write. In the case of academic authors, a steady output of publications is an important condition for continued employment and advancement. In addition the academic value system requires that they earn recognition by original contributions. Practitioners and managers have different incentives and rewards. They earn advancement and gain satisfaction from serving clients well and by carrying out functions professionally, responding to challenges, and managing their institutions efficiently. It is therefore not surprising that contributions from academics predominate in scholarly journals. Fortunately the desire to communicate, and the pleasure of expressing oneself in writing and seeing oneself in print, are not restricted to academics. But for the practitioner groups (except in somewhat artificial cases where librarians and information scientists have academic status) it is more a matter of personal satisfaction than of career necessity.
To illustrate some of the issues that need to be considered here, I would like to refer to the South African situation. In South Africa authors attached to universities and related institutions can earn additional state subsidies for their institutions by having articles published in "accredited" journals. Journals indexed in the various citation journals published by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in the USA formed the core of the list of "accredited" journals. (This provoked much criticism.) The South African national scholarly journals are all on this list too. Other journals have been added over the years following motivated requests from academics. Many other, equally deserving, journals have not, for reasons that are not disclosed.
Although well-intentioned, the system has institutionalised the "publish or perish" mentality and has had negative consequences, for example a tendency among authors to concentrate on neat little research projects rather than tackling larger, more complex areas where rapid pay-off cannot be expected, and to package their findings into multiple articles. This has also affected LIS in South Africa. The South African journal of library and information science (SAJLIS) is one of the national scholarly journals published by the state-subsidised Bureau for Scientific Publications of the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology. It was published for the South African Institute of Librarianship and Information Science (SAILIS), a professional association due to disband in July 1998. SAJLIS is the only "accredited" South African journal in LIS. As a carrier of national prestige, it has to be of "international quality" - although the editorial board comprises South Africans only. The emphasis is on papers reporting results of "scientific research", with natural sciences serving as an implied role model. Recently a more flexible policy was adopted, but in the mean time SAJLIS had become a vehicle for abstruse academic contributions in which the conventions of the natural sciences were followed, as exemplified by the use of impersonal constructions - almost more so than the natural science journals themselves, which can afford to be less self-consciously scientific. Although SAJLIS has received favourable comments from foreign academics, it is thought to be little read by the majority of practising librarians and information workers, as distinct from the minority of lecturers and professors in LIS at the universities, who churn out articles to keep the subsidies flowing. As a result the needs of practitioners were neglected. One former editor spoke scathingly of articles on "how I run my library good". However, many practitioners may well find such articles stimulating and useful. They need a channel for the dissemination of know-how. The professional community also needs a medium for discursive or reflective writing which stimulates the development of professional responses to challenges and opportunities in the environment. (5) This is as much a need of authors as it is of readers.
South Africa's new library association, LIASA, is still in the process of conceptualising its publishing activities, but in order to reach out to a broadly based membership, it will probably opt for a "magazine" rather than a "journal". (SAJLIS itself will probably be continued under the auspices of another body.) The term "magazine" implies that the emphasis of LIASA's periodical will be on news and less academic articles that will stimulate discussion and inform practice. It also has obvious implications for the language and style of the contents. Academic authors may need help in relearning how to write - not to "write down" to practitioners, but to write concisely and lucidly.
Pain and pleasure
To conclude, what are the things that authors find a pain in the neck, and what gives them pleasure? In dieting and exercise the saying is "no pain, no gain". My own writing is always accompanied by pain. I am always writing against deadlines. But deadlines are a necessary evil. Without them my reading and research would continue indefinitely and I would never start writing.
Some dislikes: (6)
- Instructions to authors that are difficult to locate, incomplete or ambiguous
- Lack of standardisation of reference styles
- The requirement to submit three or more copies of double-spaced typescripts
- Failure to acknowledge receipt of typescript submitted
- Lack of feedback on the outcome of the evaluation of the typescript submitted
- Lengthy delays in publication
- Sloppy, unprofessional editing
- Failure to send the author a reprint of the article or a copy of the journal
- Finding in the published article a glaring error which one did not spot before submission.
- Writing requires effort. Colleagues sometimes say to me: "It's easy for you; you can write". But if an article is good it is good because one has burned the midnight oil wrestling with conceptual frameworks, structuring and restructuring one's text, polishing, cutting out superfluous material, cutting out more, abridging what is left... Of course, the pain of authorship is largely self-inflicted. After all, one only has to say no.
What do authors like?
- An editor who keeps contact, provides encouragement, and dishes out the occasional compliment. (It works like a charm.)
- Professional handling of the editorial process.
- Seeing oneself - at last - in print in a well-produced journal.
- The ultimate reward is being read - discovering that someone has actually read something one wrote and has absorbed something useful from it. That makes it all worth while.
- Penava, Z. and Pravdic, N. Comparative evaluation of information flow from national and international journals: an empirical study in a small country. Journal of Information Science, 15(2), 1989,:71-80.
- Arunachalam, S. "Accessing information published in the Third World: should spreading the word from the Third World always be like swimming against the current?" in Wise, M. (ed.) Workshop on access to Third World conference proceedings... Boston Spa: IFLA Programme for Universal Availability of Publications, 1993, pp.3 - 20.
- Lor, P.J. Information dependence in Southern Africa: global and subregional perspectives. African Journal of Library, Archives and Information Science, 6(1), 1996,1-10.
- The relationship between LIS theory and practice should not be oversimplified. It has been said that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. Cf. Goldhor, H. An introduction to scientific research in librarianship. Urbana (Illinois): University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science, 1972, p.36.
- This need was not adequately met during the apartheid period, when many South African librarians were avoiding political issues and seeking "refuge in a sanitized profession that emphasized library functions, technology and organization structures". (Cf. Lor, P.J. 1996. A distant mirror: the story of libraries in South Africa. Daedalus, 125(4), Fall 1996, 235-265.) The heavy emphasis on information "science" was criticised as elitist and technicist in the report of the National Education Policy Investigation. (Cf. Library & information services: report of the NEPI Library and Information Services Research Group. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.54.)
- Several of these aspects are dealt with in Mury, M. & Walters, M. Writing for journals in library and information science: a report of a survey. Serials Librarian, 31(4), 1997, 23-40.