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Excellence or quality – metrics and values in scholarly communications

In June 2009, in the process of scoping a project to research ways of building capacity in African scholarly publishing, a workshop was held with a group of experts from a variety of perspectives and a variety of approaches to the question of scholarly communications. Supported by the IDRC and the Shuttleworth Foundation, this workshop turned out a very lively event and – we believe – provided seminal insights into the questions that need to be addressed in order to build African research communications capacity.
This workshop has now been captured on a website that hosts videos of the keynote speeches (ten minute presentations, so they work well this way). It also contains commentary on the speeches and discussions as well as the key findings that emerged from this discussion. The website was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation and provides a discussion form for these ideas to be carried forward. One lesson learned, perhaps, was the value of discussion in a a small and focused group of experts from a variety of contexts and a variety of specialisations.
In yesterday’s blog I took to task the Thomson Reuters analysis of African research developments, arguing that, by focusing only on the production of journal articles and on citations in an international journal index, they were taking too narrow a view of what constituted research development. So here, from the Scholarly Communications, is the keynote address by Jean-Claude Guédon, of the University of Montreal, who gave the opening address of the workshop.

Jean-Claude Guédon – Scholarly Communication in Africa: Project Scoping Workshop from Creative R&D on Vimeo.

Guédon starts by introducing vocabulary issues that need to be clarified on order to understand the research communications environment. In particular, the difficulty in discerning the difference between ‘quality’ and ‘excellence.’ According to Jean-Claude, quality is a matter of the minimum thresholds that are needed for functionality, a matter of what skills or levels of professionalism are needed to deliver a particular function. The concept of excellence, on the other hand, is a matter of competition, with specifically defined parameters creating the rules of the game in which this competition is played out.
He continues to the topic of scholarly publishing, which has artificially constructed competition as its basis, so that it has become all about creating excellence. Jean-Claude’s advice is to disengage from this situation, by reviewing the notion of what constitutes excellence. He also says we need to look at the whole value chain of scientific communications, as well as the data that underpins research and ensure that it is preserved and made available. He also speaks about the benefits of a collaborative knowledge environment, as well as the need to reposition knowledge and society.
The message is that we need to unpack the language of excellence and competitiveness before we subscribe too blindly to the race that that involves. Developing countries cannot ignore this side of scholarly performance and it is important that they prove their ability to achieve the accepted standards of performance in what has become, for better or for worse, a dominant measure. However, this should not be expanded to be the only, or the dominant measure of performance. Rather, there should be a balanced approach, with great emphasis placed on the need to build capacity by developing the quality standards that could ensure truly professional performance.

Posted in African Scholarship, Digital Divide, Open Access, Policy, Research.

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