Academic journals are central to the careers of academic staff of tertiary institutions, especially universities. They are considered an important way to assess academics for promotion, especially in the non-humanities disciplines.
In fact, they carry more weight in promotion discussions than, for instance, books, monographs, occasional publications – the proceedings of in-house seminars or workshops, or occasional publications by an institute – and book chapters. A reason for this is that they have a relatively quick turnaround in publication, compared to books and monographs that take longer, often years, to produce. Others include the fact that many journals are published regularly; content is peer reviewed. Journals offer academics global visibility on online platforms. The journals' impact factor can also be measured.
The impact factor is a scientific ranking of every journal to determine how often its contents (articles) are cited by scholars all over the world. The number and frequency of citations validate the credibility and authority of the articles and the journals in which they are published. High impact journals are, therefore, highly coveted by scholars. They are more difficult to break into as they publish only the best in the discipline.
Academic journals vary in quality. But most share certain features. A journal has a stated period in which it appears; an editorial office domiciled in a tertiary institution or a professional association; an editor-in-chief or editors. Journals also have an editorial advisory board, often made up of eminent scholars, as well as an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). This is the registration number each journal carries that is unique to it and identifies it.
In terms of content, every issue contains an editorial that introduces the articles, the table of contents, the main articles and book reviews. Notes on contributors can appear at the beginning or end of the issue. A table of contents could be placed on the outside back cover.
Unfortunately, many journals circulating out of Nigerian tertiary institutions are in breach of some or most of these basic standards. Contributors to such journals and their home institutions and countries lose credibility and respect. That diminishes their ranking in the world of scholarship. Low quality journals give a bad reputation to their host institutions and means they can be regarded as promoters of mediocrity.
These are some of the issues I have identified around many Nigerian academic journals. I have also contributed to this discussion in a major publication .
One problem is that journals are founded merely to aid in promoting a clique of scholars. Once they obtain the expected rank within academia, they let the journals die. Many such journals do not proceed beyond the maiden issue: the “vol.1, no.1” syndrome.
Another is that the creators give journals ridiculous, prosaic titles in an attempt to create a brand. An example is the penchant for adding the word “International” to satisfy universities' demand for publications in “international” (actually, foreign) journals. Another is the adoption of an omnibus title encompassing several related and unrelated subjects: for example, Journal of Culture, Religion, Education and Environmental Studies. It suggests an all-comers' journal rather than one adding to specialised knowledge in a particular discipline or field.
Some journals are domiciled in non-academic settings, such as non governmental organisations and commercial (for-profit only) publishers without academic pedigree. These are often predatory journals. Such journals dispense with the fundamental prerequisites of academic publishing: peer-blind review and copy-editing. The former requires every manuscript to be diligently assessed by at least two experts and subsequently revised by the author to meet a required standard, both parties being anonymous to each other. Predatory journals merely publish any material for money.
Another problem is the dumping of articles. This is exemplified by practices like putting as many as 20 to 40 articles in a single issue or allowing a single author to publish more than one article in a single issue of the journal. These are products of patronage and cronyism, designed to aid a friendly person to gain undeserved promotion. This promotes mediocrity.
Such journals often have an unchanging list of editorial advisory board members, sometimes for a decade at a time. They also appoint inexperienced and incompetent editors or delegate editorial tasks to senior but uncommitted scholars. They rush to publish, leaving little or no time for reviewing, revising and copy-editing papers.
The proliferation of sub-standard journals may be attributed to the proliferation of universities. Also, the declining number of experienced and committed scholars, who are spread thin and overburdened across several institutions. Another reason is the desire of impatient young scholars for promotion without due process. There is a rising tide of academic titles' reduction to mere status symbols or awards by proprietors and chief executives as reward for loyalty. In addition, some editors are basically incompetent and inexperienced, lacking the mentoring afforded by publishing in journals of international standards.
There are a few approaches that journals in Nigeria could take to ensure these problems are tackled. Each chief executive (a university's vice-chancellor or rector) should pay attention to the quality of journals published in their domains or subscribed to by their staff. They should discourage, rather than reward, mediocrity in the form of sub-standard scholarship.
The National Universities Commission should set minimum benchmarks based on global best practices.
Universities should enforce standards, and recognise and reward academic staff that publish in high impact journals. The Academic Staff Union of Universities should support a nationwide scheme of objective quality control. All should work together to block loopholes exploited by mercenary publishers and mediocre academics. There should be one national standard of excellence which every scholar and institution should subscribe to without local or regional variation. The best quality control measure is self respect and self regulation by scholars.
These are my specific recommendations:
- Journals to be domiciled in academic units with competent, experienced editors.
- Editors must ensure rigorous peer review and authors' compliance, as far as possible, with reviewers' strong recommendations. They should publish quality papers, not names.
- Authors to justify articles: Indicate what they add to knowledge explicitly; use abstract and key words for effect.
- The National Universities Commission should rank journals every three years: bad ones to be named and shamed.
Ayodeji Olukoju does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
By Ayodeji Olukoju, Distinguished Professor of History and Strategic Studies, University of Lagos