Challenges facing continuity of publications

2014-04-05

Republica National Daily

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In theory, academic journals are supposed to be published in a regular cycle of, say, one or more times a year. This kind of regularity, again in theory, distinguishes journals from other one-off or occasional publications with no declared regularity.

When journals are regularly published over the course of several years, they not only become a recognized brand for academic discourse but they also build up a corpus of published texts that could potentially influence the trajectory of specific disciplines, and social sciences and humanities in general.

Hence the longevity and regularity of journals are very important for their success and impact. In this article, I discuss the challenges facing journal editors regarding the longevity and regularity of the journals under their care. Among the 130+ journals published since 1952, I would say about a fifth has ceased publication.

These dead journals include some that played important innings in their time, such as Education Quarterly, Regmi Research Series, Kailash, and Population and Development in Nepal. Among those that are still alive, some have had relatively long lives.

The journal Nepali has completed 50 years of publication and holds the record for the oldest continuously published journal from Nepal. Journals such as Purnima, Tribhuvan University Journal, Ancient Nepal, The Himalayan Review, and Pragya have been around for over 40 years now.

However, longevity and regularity are two different things when it comes to Nepali journals. Not all journals that are alive have been published regularly.

The data I have presented elsewhere suggest that when it comes to Nepali journals, regularity cannot be their outstanding definitional character.

If we were to insist on defining only those periodicals which were in fact “regular” – meaning their publication regularity matched their claimed periodicity – as journals, only a few Nepali publications would qualify as journals.

What this means is that a journal in Nepal, more often than not, refers to a serial publication whose periodic appearance cannot be predicted a priori.

What are the factors that influence journal regularity and continuity? Politics, broadly understood, has been a factor that has influenced the lives of Nepali journals in ways that are more indirect than direct.

The intellectual openness of the post-1990 era, the guarantees of civil liberties that gave rise to journal-producing solidarities, and the rise of identity-based politics have provided the foundational environment for the establishment of many new journals and their continued publication in the past two decades.

At a more micro level, internal political dynamics within professional bodies of academics have also determined what those bodies have been able to do as organizational entities, and that includes the commitment to publish academic journals.

Internal squabbles debilitated the Political Science Association of Nepal (POLSAN) within a few years of its founding in 1990, and its journal Nepali Political Science and Politics became defunct after its combined issue number six/seven was published in 1998.

On the other hand, the Nepal Geographical Society (NGS), established in 1961, is still active and has been publishing its journal The Himalayan Review for over 40 years now.

After politics, the second factor that has an influence on the longevity and regularity of Nepali journals is the lack of a business plan to keep journals alive in the long run. In particular, the unavailability of money to cover the publication costs of a journal is often described as a factor that has delayed the publication of some journal issues.

This has come out mostly in private and public conversations, but there are some published writings that state that many journal publishers do not have earmarked money to cover the costs of publication.

Occasionally, personal donations from concerned faculty members have been collected to partially cover the costs of printing some departmental journals.

In some cases, external funding has supported the publication of journals of some Tribhuvan University (TU) central departments. When the funding dried up, the concerned journal was discontinued. The situation in other campuses of TU is not much different, either.

In most cases, there is no separate budget to cover the printing costs. These costs are mostly not recovered from the sales of journal issues to individuals and institutions.

In other countries, institutional subscriptions by university and college libraries go a long way in covering the financial costs of keeping journals alive.

In Nepal, libraries are more often than not under-funded and expect gift copies of journals instead of paying institutional subscriptions for them.

There are a few exceptions. The Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) has earmarked separate money in its annual budget to not only cover the costs of the two issues of the journal Contributions to Nepalese Studies it publishes each year but also to pay a small honorarium to Nepali contributors.

Perhaps that explains why this journal is one of the most regular journals published from Nepal.

Journals published by bodies within the Nepal Government – Ancient Nepal, Vikas, Prashasan – have also had relatively long lives in part because the costs involved in printing and editing them have been covered from budget headings in related offices. Donor grants have also been used to pay for journals published by academic NGOs.

For instance, the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies publishes its journal Nepali Journal of Contemporary Studies under its grant from the Ford Foundation and also pays its contributors a small honorarium from the same source.

Collaborations between editorial groups and commercial publishers in Nepal have effectively worked for significant durations.

In particular, editorial promoters of three journals have worked with commercial publishers to demonstrate that once ways to produce the print-ready copies are found by the respective editors, such publishers are willing to do the rest, namely, invest in the printing of the journals and take the risk of marketing and selling them through subscriptions and retail shops.

This model was pioneered by the editors of the journal Kailash in 1973 when it was published by Nepal’s foremost commercial publisher, Ratna Pustak Bhandar.

This relationship worked very well throughout the regular phase of the publication of Kailash (1973-1990). Similarly, Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) has been published by Mandala Book Point since 1996, and the literary journal Bhrikuti has been published from Bhrikuti Academic Publications since 2008.

When these three examples are put together, we can conclude that this model has worked for over three decades and hence is feasible in Nepal.

In recent years, several commercial publishers have privately shown an interest in publishing journals if an editorial team would take care of the process of preparing their contents.

Hence the argument that there is no money to publish journals in Nepal cannot be supported under all circumstances.

Those entities that do not have a separate budget for journal publication, TU’s central departments in particular, should explore ways to link with commercial publishers to publish journals.

When one looks at the landscape of Nepali journals, the third factor that seems to influence the longevity and regularity of journals is their institutional editorial homes.

Journals started by institutions, more often than not, have survived for long periods when compared to those started by individuals and have also been revived after being defunct for significant number of years.

This suggests that institutions do matter but that is not to say that institutional journals necessarily have had a long life.

In other words, with respect to keeping journals alive and regular, my analysis of various institutional setups presented elsewhere suggests that institutions do seem to matter, but no institutional model seems to have a distinct a priori advantage.

With respect to keeping journals alive in the long run, the fourth factor that seems to matter is the commitment of individuals involved in their editorial production.

In other words, among the journals that have had a long life, many have been sustained by the labor of love of certain editors or sets of editors.

One needs to think here, for instance, of the work done by Kamal Mani Dixit to keep Nepali going for 50 years, Nirmal M. Tuladhar to keep Contributions to Nepalese Studies alive as its managing editor for over 25 years, the work done by the late Fr. John K. Locke to edit the journal Kailash for most of the 1980s, the work of Dr Bal Kumar KC in editing Population and Development of Nepal for 10 years, and the work of the Pant brothers – Mahesh Raj and Dinesh Raj – who have edited Purnima for a long time.

But given the high irregularity of Nepali journals, we can also conclude that on many occasions, the ambitions of those who have established journals have far surpassed their managerial capacities and intellectual commitments to keep those journals going.

This is most obvious from the fact that many journals have not survived beyond the first issue or have died within five years of their establishment, and/or have been very irregular from the time they were founded.

When one looks at the mortality and morbidity features of Nepali academic journals, we must conclude that many were founded by individuals who had motives other than promoting the interests of a specific discipline or social science and humanities research in Nepal in general.

These motives include wanting to be identified as an editor of a journal (even if only one issue is ever published) to score points in the prestige economy, and editing a few issues of a journal in which one’s work can be published so that marks to get promoted in the professorial hierarchic system are secured.

With respect to the longevity and regularity of journals, the fifth factor that seems to matter is the general shortage of good articles to publish in any particular issue of a given journal.

I have yet to meet an editor of a Nepali journal who says that s/he gets more good articles than can be published in the journal that s/he edits.

In Nepal, no journal editor is fortunate to receive hundreds of good article submissions each year, as is the case with some leading journals published in other countries. Editors of Nepali journals clearly work in an environment of scarcity when it comes to academic articles.

This situation is clearly related to the larger lack of incentives for doing research and publishing its outcome in the form of journal articles in Nepal. It would require an overall restructuring of the incentive structures for doing research in Nepal to redress this situation in the long term.

Given this situation, asking some questions related to why there are not enough article submissions to journals in Nepal might be useful in the short or medium term.

Is it because there are more journals in existence than can be supported by the Nepal-related research community? If the number of journals is really in excess of the number of researchers who can produce good output, then is it time to think about merging separate journals on the same or related disciplines to create more robust and effective journal platforms, as has happened in the history of journal publication elsewhere.

Is this merger idea realistic in the present Nepali context, and if so, what would be the terms of reference for such mergers.

I don’t have answers to these latter questions, but the promoters of journals in Nepal need to think about them collectively.

In conclusion, we can say that although the post-1990 period has been especially good for journal production in Nepal, some of the basic challenges facing this enterprise from its early days in terms of continuity and regularity of production still persist.

These challenges need further public scrutiny and collective thinking if journal publication is to become a more effective part of the academic endeavor in Nepal.

This concludes the three-part series on Nepali journals in the social sciences and humanities. Parts I and II were published on 24 June and 1 July respectively.

This series was derived from a longer article published in Studies in Nepali History and Society vol 15 no 2.

That article can be accessed in the website of Martin Chautari.

(Source: The Republica Nepal)