Publish and be damned . . . or perish?

There have been some interesting articles recently in The Guardian recently about academic publishing. In his blog, Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers has vowed never to publish in or referee for any scientific journal published by the Dutch company Elsevier. He – and the majority of academics, I guess – are horrified about the huge profits that Elsevier (and other companies it has to be said) make from academic publishing. More than 10,000 academics have signed up to Gowers’ protest.

The current system depends on the goodwill of academics reviewing and editing scientific papers – essentially for free – while the publishers charge very high subscriptions for the ‘most prestigious’ journals. And it seems that some of their practices in terms of bundling journals are questionable to say the least.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust is looking to establish an open access journal. Even that bastion of learning and wealth, Harvard University, is pleading poverty when it comes to journal subscriptions, and encouraging its academics to publish in open access journals.

Now, I’ve been publishing my research now for many decades – in scientific journals and books (as well as writing and editing books). I’ve never used an open access journal, and I guess now that I’m retired it’s highly unlikely that I ever will.

One thing’s for certain, open access does not mean free. Someone has to pay – and it’s usually the author who pays an upfront fee once a manuscript has passed through the normal peer review process and accepted for publication. Thereafter, everyone can access the work through the Internet.

One of the main arguments in favor of open access is that since much of the research is publicly funded – by the taxpayer – there is no justification for hiding it away behind a pay wall. In searching for information for this blog, and some editing and writing I’m doing in connection with a new book on genetic resources and climate change, I am unable to access the scientific papers I would like to without making a pay-per-view payment (usually around USD30 or so for many journals). I don’t have access to that sort of money. In any case, it seems outrageous to me to be charging a pay-per-view fee for papers that were published more than a couple of years ago. I’ve seen these fee requests for work published 30 years ago, and which lies locked up in the cyber vaults of the publishers.

Some open access journals, like PLoS (Public Library of Science) have become very succesful. I also saw reference to another which prides itself on how it was established and is run – the International Journal of the Commons.

But there’s another issue that is not addressed very much in the debate on open access, indeed on academic publication in general. Most academics progress through their careers on the strength of their scientific papers, and are expected to publish in journals with a high impact factor (whether or not perhaps one of these is particularly relevant to the field of study), and on the expectation that this will lead to more citations.

When I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s I used to enjoy a weekly bulletin that was published (by the Education faculty, I believe), called Teaching News. In one issue there was a very interesting article about the dangers of using citation indices. The author argued that a scholarly paper of the highest quality on say, rural poverty in Wales was unlikely – just because of the nature of the study and the likely size of the readership – to be cited very frequently. On the other hand, a less erudite paper on the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s would probably be cited (condemned even) many times. A ‘raw’ citation index would never take into account the academic quality.

But impact factors and citations are taken into account in the promotion stakes. So while encouraging more use of open access journals (which I applaud) – and this is now a condition of some funding bodies – it flies in the face of promotion policies, the demands of university rankings, etc. This is an aspect that has to be addressed forthwith.

PRECODEPA – one of the CGIAR’s first research networks

Establishing a regional program
In April 1976, CIP opened an office in Turrialba, Costa Rica, hosted by the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE). My role there was to support the regional office based in Toluca, Mexico, and to carry out research on breeding potatoes to tropical conditions, and once we’d realized the problem of bacterial wilt, searching for resistance to this insidious disease.

In July 1997, the regional leader, Ing. Oscar Hidalgo (a Peruvian bacteriologist) departed for his PhD studies in the USA, and instead of transferring me to Toluca, the Turrialba office became the regional headquarters. And in doing so, my responsibilities changed considerably; I became CIP’s primary link with the national potato programs in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

I was supported by my boss in Lima, Dr Ken Brown, who had joined CIP in early 1976 to support the Outreach Program, and soon becoming the head of the Regional Research Program, replacing Dick Wurster. Ken was a cotton physiologist, and had spent most of his career in various parts of Africa, especially Nigeria, and just before joining CIP had headed a cotton research project in Pakistan. Ken was a fantastic person to work with – he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from Ken.

Towards the end of 1977, Dr John Niederhauser, proposed the idea of a cooperative regional network among several countries. I worked closely with John over about six months developing and refining ideas, and travelling together to meet program leaders (and even ministers and vice ministers of agriculture) in six countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. In April 1978 a meeting was held in Guatemala City to launch the Programa Regional Cooperativa de Papa – PRECODEPA, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).


The inaugural meeting of PRECODEPA in Guatemala City, April 1978. L to R (sitting): Ken Brown, me, Richard Sawyer, John Niederhauser (CIP), Carlos Crisostomo (ICTA-Guatemala), unknown. I don’t recognise/remember the two gentlemen standing in the rear.

The SDC was just the right donor agency – one with a long-term commitment. Although I’m not able to determine the current status of PRECODEPA, it was supported by the SDC for more than 25 years, and expanded from the initial six countries to 10 or more, with French and English-speaking countries participating. Of course the original members were all Spanish-speaking – one of the major advantages of this regional program in its early years.

For the next three years, much of my time as CIP’s regional leader was spent supporting PRECODEPA and contributing my own work on bacterial wilt and seed production. However, I have to say that my role during this period – especially during the inception design and development phase – has essentially been removed from the record. And for reasons I could never understand, John Niederhauser chose not to recognize the important contributions that CIP (and me) made to the overall success of PRECODEPA.

Why was PRECODEPA needed, and what did it achieve?
While potato was an important commodity in most of the countries of the region, it was never in the same league as other staples such as maize and beans. Mexico had (and still has) the largest area of potato cultivation in the region, but even this pales into insignificance compared to maize. While agriculture ministries supported potato production, this crop was not a top priority, nor did the countries have the resources (both finance and staff) to support and maintain a fully-rounded potato program. Thus the principal idea behind PRECODEPA was a distributed research effort among the member countries, with each taking leadership in one or more areas of potato research and production which had a high national priority, and sharing that expertise with the other members of the network. This also facilitated support from CIP in that CIP specialists were able to meet with their counterparts from one or two countries in the region rather than all of them, and then the national programs supporting each other, as explained earlier.

Thus, Mexico took a lead in seed potato production and late blight research (Phytophthora infestans; some of the pioneer research funded by the Rockefeller Foundation was carried out in the Toluca valley); Guatemala concentrated on post harvest storage, Costa Rica on bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum), and Panama on potato cyst nematode (Globodera spp.) After 40 years I cannot remember the lead activities for Honduras and the Dominican Republic. With support from the SDC and back stopping from CIP each country developed its capabilities in its lead area, offered training and technical support to the other members, and in turn received support from the others in those areas where it was ‘weaker’.

Among the first national members of PRECODEPA were Ing. Manuel Villareal (Mexico), who had once served as CIP’s regional leader for Region II, Ing. Alberto Vargas (Vice Minister) and Ing. Fernando Cartín from the agriculture ministry in Costa Rica, Ing. Roberto Rodriguez (IDIAP) from Panama, and Ing. Polibio Vargas from the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, after 38 years, I am unable to remember the names of the Guatemala (ICTA) and Honduras representatives. In 1979, I think it was, Peruvian scientist Dr Jorge Christiansen was appointed to PRECODEPA and based in Guatemala.

The fact that all original members spoke Spanish was a huge advantage. This greatly facilitated all the nitty-gritty discussions needed to achieve consensus among the members about the advantages of working together – as equals. The fact that the SDC supported PRECODEPA for so many years is one indication of its success. On the SDC website there is this succinct assessment: PRECODEPA’s achievements include increases in yields, output and profitability; substantial reduction in the use of pesticides – representing savings for Central American farmers and reducing the impact on the environment and consumers; the beginnings of a processing industry (French fries, crisps) – meaning regional products entered a market previously dominated by their powerful northern neighbours; production of quality potato seed and the development of a regional potato seed market; and training for thousands of farmers and technicians.

I’m proud to have been part of this innovative program – one of the first such research networks or regional programs established by the centers of the CGIAR.

CIP’s direct involvement
CIP contributed specifically in a couple of areas. In an earlier post I have described the work we did on resistance to bacterial wilt. Some of those resistant materials found their way into the Costarrican seed potato program.

Seed production through rapid multiplication techniques was another important area, and I supported in this by seed production specialist Jim Bryan who spent a sabbatical year with me in 1979-80. We developed further (from Jim’s initial work in Lima) the techniques of stem, sprout and single-node cuttings [1], bringing these to the field to produce disease-free seed potatoes, and help establish a vibrant seed potato industry in Costa Rica.

Since I left CIP (in March 1981) PRECODEPA increased in size, and the members continued to share the coordination of the program among the members. As the information on the SDC website indicates, PRECODEPA was indeed the blueprint for other regional programs on maize and beans, and for other collaborative programs around the world. It was a model for the various consortia that have developed among the centers of the CGIAR and national program partners.

[1] Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.