OASPA’s membership is our global community of open access scholarly publishers and related organisations. In the third of a series of interviews highlighting the diversity, activities, and different approaches of our members to open access publishing, OASPA’s Events and Communications Coordinator, Leyla Williams, talked to François van Schalkwyk, Editor and Trustee for OASPA member African Minds.
How long have you been part of OASPA at African Minds, and what made you apply to be a member?
We joined OASPA in May 2017. There were many reasons for joining, but the most important was to establish legitimacy with academics because many still equate open access with poor quality or, worse, predatory publishing. Joining OASPA gave us a stamp of approval because the application process for joining OASPA is a rigorous one. It also helped us to make our publishing processes more transparent.
When and why did you set up African Minds, and how do you seek to fulfill your aim to ‘grow and deepen the African knowledge base’ through publishing?
In 2000, I set up a company that offered publishing services to research NGOs in South Africa. These NGOs wanted to publish their research, and we offered them design, editing, typesetting and print management services. We encouraged our clients to use print-on-demand and we set up distribution channels for their publications. By 2008, we realised that some of the NGOs wanted a publisher rather than a service provider. So we began by setting up African Minds, first as an imprint and, by 2012, as separate legal entity in the form of non-profit, public benefit trust, with a board of trustees and an editorial board.
All our books are open access with no embargo periods, and we also sell printed books; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We explore all available dissemination channels to increase access to knowledge.
We did some research on university presses in Africa and found that at one university over 60% of the books authored by academics at that institution over a 3-year period were published by a predatory publisher. We believe that our emphasis on working closely with authors and on being transparent contributes positively to growing the African knowledge base. We are a small team, but we try our best to deepen authors’ understanding of the publishing process by being responsive and accessible. And by placing the emphasis on access rather than on sales.
Why is open access book publishing particularly important in Africa and the rest of the Global South?
On a practical level, it is a real challenge for us to circulate printed copies of our books across Africa. Postal services are unreliable and couriering books is prohibitively expensive. Publishing books open access democratises access across the continent.
In a precarious financial climate, how do you ensure your operations are economically sustainable?
We aren’t a conventional publisher. We aren’t reliant on income from book sales, so we don’t face the same challenges that commercial publishers do. Our overheads are low, and we have no permanent staff. We donate a much of our free time to running African Minds although this is beginning to change as the number of publications increases. All publishing costs are covered by the publication fees which, in turn, are paid from authors’ research funds. Although I should note that not all our titles incur publication fees. We are mindful of the fact that academics from some universities in Africa, and in some disciplines, struggle to secure research funding. In such cases, African Minds waives all publication fees. The forthcoming title, African Markets in Nairobi by Mary Njeri Kinyanjui is an example of such a title.
You publish predominantly in the social sciences at African Minds. Why is it important to you that social science research is openly accessible?
Unlike in the natural sciences, where the focus is still largely on journals, books are still very important in the social sciences and humanities. We want our books to be accessible and used; our open access model takes care of distribution and access, and print-on-demand makes print copies available to those who still prefer paper to pixels.
What have been some recent highlights of your work at African Minds?
Our progress at African Minds has been gradual but noticeable, and really gratifying. We used to feel rather insignificant, but we are beginning to establish ourselves in the world of academic publishing. We are receiving more publishing proposals and manuscripts from across the African continent, and this is very positive and important to us. Whereas authors initially seemed locked into traditional publishing models, they are beginning to the see value of making their work more accessible.
What are the challenges you encounter as a small publisher?
While our reputation is growing, it’s still difficult to get noticed in world saturated with content. It is a challenge to compete with large publishers for the attention of both readers and authors. Also, when it comes to open access, there’s still a great deal of emphasis on journals rather than on books.
How do you ensure your publications are visible as a small publisher?
We have been submitting our titles to the Directory of Open Access Books and we upload them to Zenodo to ensure that each book has a DOI. We also encourage authors to upload their books to their personal websites and institutional repositories. We work closely with authors to get them to promote their work within their academic networks. We also make books available for free at seminars and conferences. This not only gets our books in the hands of local and international academics but the surprise of getting books for free draws attention to our different approach to academic book publishing.
Why is it important for you to be a member of OASPA? What have you gained from your membership so far?
As I said earlier, joining gives us a degree of legitimacy and that is really important to us as a small and relatively new publisher. Interviews like this are important too; it’s not often that we get to have conversations about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
What’s in the pipeline for African Minds?
We’ve started to consider broadening our list by publishing books outside the social sciences. But my main focus is on improving the visibility of our list. This includes exploring what co-publishing could look like for open access books. I believe that the networked nature of contemporary society presents opportunities for collaboration within and between networks to increase the visibility of new knowledge. Co-publishing our open access books with international publishers would make our titles visible in new networks and to new audiences. And we could, in turn, increase the visibility of books published abroad among networks of African academics. I would imagine that open access publishers would welcome any opportunity to broaden the reach of their publications. There may be wrinkles to iron out like who gets to sell print copies and whether are there any reputational gains or risks when co-publishing. But I’ve not yet found anyone interested enough to start a conversation. So, if anyone reading this interview is interested in exploring this further, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.