David Mills is Associate Professor at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. He is also Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), and Vice-President of Kellogg College, Oxford. Having trained as an anthropologist, David focused on studying higher education. As part of this, he writes about publishing practices in African universities, and how they are being changed by the pressures and incentives of a global research economy. Here he speaks with Jatinder Padda about how he came to his interest in African publishing.
David, a belated welcome to ABC! We’re delighted you’ve joined the team, bringing your scholarly expertise on publishing practices in higher education. You took up the role at the start of 2023. How are you finding it so far?
I have long admired ABC’s ground-breaking work, so it was an honour to become one of its three directors, along with Nii Parkes and Executive Director Stephanie Kitchen. It has been a very steep learning curve for me. There have been a lot of changes at ABC, and our challenge is to build on all that the previous directors and team have ably achieved, whilst anticipating a future of rapidly changing technological needs.
As well as supporting African publishers, ABC distributes books through a whole range of international intermediaries, and through its new e-book platform. ABC needs to be able to access and provide a whole range of data (from book pricing to ONIX metadata) to these different stakeholders. Nii’s and my job is to support and work with Stephanie as she steers ABC through these challenges.
How did you come across African Books Collective?
Living in Oxford, I was vaguely aware of the Collective and its connections to the city. It is only when I got interested in African academic publishing that I began to realise all that had been achieved since the 1980s, both through ABC and grants to the Bellagio publishing network. I have come to learn and appreciate the work of the pioneer African publishers.
What made you turn your ethnographic lens to higher education? And then why focus on African higher education?
As a doctoral student, I arrived in Uganda and rented a room with the university’s deputy librarian. I was immediately intrigued by Makerere and its academic coloniality. Its student halls of residence had been built to echo Oxbridge-style colleges. It was an elite university model that was already out of place in Britain. Its legacy continues to shape student life today. It made me realise the powerful role that campus cultures play within universities. I spent a lot of time at the university bookshop and at Fountain Press, keen to read the voices of Ugandan scholars that never reached Western journals and presses.
An area that comes up in your research is ‘predatory publishing’. Could you speak about that a little, explaining the term and why it is important?
Yes, I don’t like the term at all. The term was coined by a US librarian called Jeffrey Beall who saw it as his personal mission to shame profit-oriented commercial open access publishers. He began assembling a list of such publishers that became increasingly controversial. It frustrates me that the discourse continues to get deployed across the sector, by academics and policy makers alike. It is used to denigrate and dehumanise a whole swathe of publishers and journals. Yes, there are some commercial publishers that do no real peer-review or editorial control, but they could be seen as providing a subversive service – of sorts – rather than ‘preying’ on researchers. Some may adopt ethically problematic practices. Many more are struggling in difficult conditions to build publishing capacity and credibility. It’s a crude label that doesn’t get at all the different issues involved in publishing. I would rather we didn’t use it.
The challenges publishers in Africa face are well documented, including global marginalisation of African/black voices, the lack of a level playing field with their peer publishers in other continents, lagging technologies, lack of distribution across the continent, unsupportive governments, and sometimes donor policies in higher education. What needs to happen within Africa /outside Africa to allow parity of voice in global higher education spaces?
Your question cuts to the heart of the issue. The challenge for African publishers is to negotiate the deep epistemic injustices and material inequalities built into colonial-era knowledge systems. In the future, African governments will have to work together to fund and support publishing and research infrastructures, and so university policies will be able to incentivise African-centred publishing. This will be the best way to build regional and continental research and knowledge ecosystems. One day African journals will be fairly represented in global citation indexes and have the same reputational prestige as their Northern counterparts. It will take time but the tables will turn.
Africa as a continent has the highest youth population globally. To what extent can the potential of these young people be realised through publishing to share knowledge and new ideas? Or do you think knowledge production via other online avenues provides alternative options?
I am probably biased, as I work in a university, but I have an absolute conviction that life-long learning is at the heart of self-formation. Education is not just about skills and jobs. And knowledge is key to the journey.
Are you able to share any plans you have for ABC? Are there any aspects of work ABC publishers are doing that you would like to see replicated, accepting of course that the publishers are autonomous with their own missions, markets, and challenges?
E-books and digital publishing offers huge opportunities for Africa’s publishers, as people change their reading habits. Social media allows authors to reach new audiences. We have to be quick to adapt.
Any final thoughts to share with our audience?
I enjoy learning about our African publishers and the amazing things they are doing. We are doing a special issue in ‘Logos’ on African publishing , full of interviews with publishers across the continent. Do look out for it.