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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 21, December 1997 


Publishing Returns to University of Zambia

Samuel Kasankha

Samuel Kasankha is Acting Publisher, University of Zambia Press, PO Box 32379, Lusaka 10101, Zambia. Fax +260 1 253952; e-mail:

Scholarly research and publishing are an integral component of the academic world. The importance of publishing to any academic is perhaps best underlined by the maxim `publish or be damned'. Indeed, publishing in the academic world determines scholars' standing or status both within their local community and internationally. At the University of Zambia (UNZA), for instance, one of the major considerations in awarding promotion to a lecturer or researcher is how much work they have published.

The year 1996 was significant in UNZA circles because, apart from the introduction of the semester system, it also witnessed the rebirth of scholarly publishing, in the doldrums for at least ten years. This process started with the appointment of a Senate Publications Committee to replace the UNZA Press Committee as the overall publishing policy- formulating and supervisory body.

The UNZA Press Committee was a baby of the University Council and, following the confusion about composition of the Council that momentarily reigned at change of government in 1991, it died a natural death eventually. This in effect led to UNZA Press, the printing and publishing department, operating without any supervisory body and thus failing to achieve any of the objectives that the press was originally established for in 1989.

Mismanagement and internal feuding between the printing and the publishing sections of the department led to a total collapse of the publishing function, largely due to the fact that the publishing section was by design totally dependent on profits from the printing section. The printing section saw their publishing counterparts as people who were trying to reap where they did not sow and although the printing and production services were established precisely to generate funds for publishing, the experiment ended in miserable failure because the UNZA Press Committee did not enforce their own policy. In addition, the machinery mostly operated below capacity with low business, poor workmanship and inability to meet agreed deadlines. As a result there were no profits at the end of the day to support publishing.

The replacement of the UNZA Press Committee with a committee of Senate was accompanied by another significant policy decision taken by the University Administration: the printing section of UNZA Press was separated from the publishing section, renamed UNZA Printer and given the go-ahead to start operating as a full-time commercial entity. The publishing section, which retained the name UNZA Press, reverted to its original status as a `publications office' under the Registrar's department and is responsible for the publication of six officially recognised scholarly journals, a monograph plus two academic books per year. Additionally the Inaugural Professorial Lecture series was introduced. The department will operate as a secretariat of the editorial boards and handles administration and production of the journals and books.

Of the six journals, African Social Research and Zango, and the monograph Zambian Papers were previously well-known and established publications with long subscriber lists from university libraries and subscription agents abroad. They were last published in the early 1980s though enquiries still pour in to date. The Zambian Law Journal was like a lone crusader which continued to publish, even with great difficulty, largely due to continued support from the School of Law and from funds realised from international subscriptions and local sales. These four publications were beefed up with the introduction of the Journal of Science and Technology, the Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of Humanities. The two books to be published annually can be on any subject of an academic nature. An editorial board will be appointed to assess each book manuscript as and when it is submitted and only merit will determine which one gets published.

Although local academics have for long bemoaned the death of scholarly publishing, the new developments have been received with mixed feelings. One professor with a good publishing background dismissed the venture as being doomed to failure: his assessment is based by and large on past experiences and a discernible lack of confidence in the UNZA Press to manage this task. `UNZA Press have performed very badly in the past,' he said. `If the same people are going to manage these journals, I don't see myself giving them my manuscripts so that they rot for years on end without publication.' There is also the problem of academic credibility. Some senior academics have low opinions of the editorial boards because some members of them are their juniors. `Some of these people on the editorial boards are too junior to handle, let alone veto, my work', said the same professor.

Because of the long absence of local journals, many academics have over the years established relations with foreign journals in which they publish regularly. It is an attitude problem that is difficult to deal with, especially in that it is considered prestigious to publish in an American or European journal. Apart from prestige, such journals enjoy a wider market share.

Others, though not too sceptical, have expressed worries that it will be easier to reintroduce the journals than to sustain them financially. For a start, all the six will benefit from a Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) general purpose grant. Thereafter, each must devise ways of surviving. This is where the UNZA Press marketing section will have to work extra hard to break into the market and ensure sustainability.

The scepticism is shared by UK-based publishing consultant Hans Zell, who argues that journals management is a hard specialist task and cannot be effectively started with as many as six journals. He further believes that journals should not be introduced merely to provide an outlet for scholarly research, which seems to be the case with UNZA, but to satisfy demand in the market. There was therefore need for the University to do prior market research.

It will, as a result, be difficult for the local journals to break into the international market, especially given that African journals have in the past performed very badly. They have generally failed to stick to publication schedules; have failed to honour subscriptions; have sometimes been of poor physical quality; and have, overall, very low rating. Most American and European subscription agents and libraries will now normally wait for years before they can `trust' an African journal and press orders.

Roger Stringer, a trustee of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, agrees with most of the above observations and suggests that it would be more logical to start with one publication. `It is extremely difficult to win the confidence of readers,' he observes, `especially since Africa's best writers prefer to send their work to overseas journals.'

Although odds seem heavily stacked against UNZA's new publishing initiatives, enthusiasm is high enough for them to register initial, if not total, success. The Publications Committee, under the chairmanship of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Jorry Mwenechanya, has maintained a schedule of meetings and related follow-up activities to ensure effective support at all times for their publishing policies. The various editorial boards, for their part, have shown great commitment and, despite an initially poor response to calls for papers, there has been a steady increase in the submission of articles by a hitherto reluctant academic community.

By mid-August this year, the Zambia Law Journal, the Journal of Humanities, the Journal of Science and Technology, and Zambian Papers 19 have been published. African Social Research, Zango, and the first four in the Inaugural Professorial Lecture series were in press at the time of writing this article. The two books for 1997 from the Unesco History of Africa series have also been published after rights for the Zambian market were bought from UNESCO.

To ensure there are sufficient human resources for the tasks ahead, the University has recruited two more editors and a typesetter to join the team of a publishing manager, editor, marketing officer, customer services officer and graphic designer. The Press has moved into new office accommodation and the complement of innovations was completed when a brand new set of computers and other equipment arrived in the country. Plans are underway to create a Web site for UNZA Press on the Internet.

The UNZA Press staff are determined to prove that, if they performed poorly in the past, it was due to lack of policy direction and support rather than ineptitude on their part. But producing the journals may be the easier part. The real task ahead for UNZA will be getting customers for their products; sustaining sales such that, even where there is no donor funding, production continues, deadlines are met and subscribers are not frustrated by indefinite waiting for their copies. To be able to do this, one major hurdle that must be removed is the tedious University bureaucracy, especially in the finance department where to get a small amount of money released can mean weeks, if not months, of lobbying, fighting and a real test of one's nerves. Still, there is room for optimism, as the decentralisation process currently underway in the University offers a real prospect for relief. [end] [BPN, no 21, 1997, p 9.]

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