Electronic Journals and African Studies: An Overview and Some Trends1

By Damen, Jos | African Research & Documentation, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Electronic Journals and African Studies: An Overview and Some Trends1


Damen, Jos, African Research & Documentation


Many commercial and non-commercial initiatives regarding electronic journals have started in the last decade. They are, however, so widespread and ad hoc that a complete overview of all online journals is not possible. This paper offers a brief description of the current state of affairs concerning electronic journals from and about Africa and highlights some of the trends.

History

Paper journals have existed since 1665 when the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society appeared in London and Le Journal des Scavans in Paris. A hundred years later more than ten scientific journals were available, mostly published by learned societies in Europe. And by 1850, there were well over a thousand journals with articles specialising in all different scientific fields from ethnology to medicine and geology to philosophy. By 1980 there were well over 180,000 different scientific journals.2

The first electronic journals appeared in the 1970s. At first they were limited to the medical and physical sciences but with their obvious advantages, they developed quickly. Today, in 2009, well over 50,000 are available.3 A small but significant number of these e-journals are about Africa or originate from Africa. My (not very wild) guess is that approximately 2,000 e-journals are produced in Africa and about 2,500 e-journals contain articles about Africa.

Why did electronic journals become so popular so rapidly? There are several reasons. The advantages of e-journals are their easy access (via a PC on your desk or in your library), fast access (in theory from the moment the article is published), quick distribution and a rapid production process. There are of course also some disadvantages. A user of an e-journal has to buy access to it (in theory even temporary access). Also in many cases the library does not get a paper copy of the journal that can be stored and kept, and many journals have no permanent URLs. As a result, URLs can change over a period of a few years due to company takeovers or administrative changes, although luckily many publishers have given journal articles permanent URLs (DOI, Digitial Object Identifier). Another disadvantage of e-journals is the difficulty many African users experience when trying to access online journals: the bandwidth is insufficient, too many users have to use the same connection at the same time or there is no electricity available. A way around this could be to download articles so that the information can be used even when an Internet connection is not working.

Trends in availability

I see three trends in the availability and open access of electronic journals. The first is increased efforts by international organisations (UN, FAO, WHO), national organisations (of science or health) and universities to make more information open to the general public.

Secondly, some publishers are feeling threatened and in September 2008, the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (PSP) welcomed the introduction of legislation to protect the rights of authors and publishers of copyrighted, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. Other publishers use open access as a kind of advertisement for printed copies or other books or products. Google has signed contracts with 20 large libraries and numerous publishers to make (parts of) millions of books available online. The third trend is a limited one, but still important. Many commercial (like Elsevier) and non-commercial (like JSTOR) organisations are making information freely available to some countries where the population has a low annual income but wants access to online information and would normally not be able to afford costly subscriptions to e-journals and databases.

One important point is the visibility of research, with researchers wanting their articles to be published in the best journals. They know that if their research is invisible, the results of their academic work will remain unknown and unread. …

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