Perverse incentives and the political economy of South African academic journal publishing

Keywords: rent-seeking, publication subsidy, cultural economy, South Africa, research incentives


Academic publishing in South Africa attracts a state research incentive for the universities to which the authors are affiliated. The aim of this study was twofold: (1) to examine the composition of the research value chain and (2) to identify the effects of broken links within the chain. The methodology selected was a lived cultural economy study, which was constructed through incorporating dialogue with editors, authors and researchers in terms of my own experience as a journal editor, read through a political economy framework. The prime effect is to exclude journals, especially independent titles, from directly earning publishing incentives. The behaviour of universities in attracting this variable income is discussed in terms of rent-seeking which occurs when organisations and/or individuals leverage resources from state institutions. Firstly, this process commodifies research and its product, publication. Secondly, the value chain is incomplete as it is the journals that are funding publication rather than – in many cases – the research economy funding the journals. Thirdly, authors are seeking the rewards enabled by the incentive attached to measurement systems, rather than the incentive of impacting the discipline/s which they are addressing. Fourthly, the paper discuses some policy
and institutional matters which impact the above and the relative costs between open access and subscription models. Editors, journals and publishers are the un- or underfunded conduits that enable the transfer of massive research subsidies to universities and authors, and, in the case of journals, editors’ voluntary work is the concealed link in the value chain enabling the national research economy.


  • The South African scientific publishing economy is built on a foundation of clay: this economy distorts research impact and encourages universities and academics to commoditise output.
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