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Scientific production

In quest of greater impact

SciELO online library releases guidelines to internationalize its collection of journals

CATARINA BESSELThe year 2015 promises to be one of change for the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO), a collection of 280 open-access scientific journals published in Brazil. The adoption of new criteria for accepting and maintaining publications within the library database will oblige journals to enforce concrete measures to boost the international presence and impact of their articles by the end of 2016. Among the changes, the requirement to increase the number of articles written in English is of special note. Within two years, this portion must reach 75% of published papers, while the figure now stands at around 60%. “We’ve noted that the number of citations of articles is not growing, because the limit has already been reached in the Portuguese-speaking audience. We need to move beyond this domestic universe,” says library director Abel Packer, who discussed the new rules at SciELO’s annual meeting, held at FAPESP on December 2, 2014.

The new criteria also call for a greater contingent of foreign authors, members of journal editorial boards, and peer reviewers (see table); the recommendation is that 35% of authors, editors, and peer reviewers be affiliated with foreign institutions. In the opinion of Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, the internationalization of the periodicals will be reflected in their impact. “This endeavor, in conjunction with others, will contribute to integrating Brazilian researchers into the international world of science and will strengthen their competitiveness. Our scientific production is growing substantially and now the challenge is to intensify its impact,” Brito Cruz said during the meeting.

Specific goals have been set for each field of knowledge. For areas where exchange with foreign peers is already well established, like biology, branches of engineering, and the exact and earth sciences, the recommendation is that 85% of original and review articles be written in English. But in fields where scientific production has a more regional impact and is released predominantly in Portuguese—like linguistics, literature, the arts, humanities, and applied social sciences—the recommendation has been set at a lower level, that is, around 30%. These goals pertain to the entire grouping of journals within a given field, which means that the average can reflect journals that exceed the target figures, along with those that fall short. The idea is to make 20% to 25% of the periodicals in the collection predominantly international, rising from today’s figure of 14%. There is a new technical requirement as well: articles must now be structured in XML, or Extensible Markup Language, which makes it easier to process the manuscripts using computer programs.

Launched in 1997 as a special FAPESP program, the SciELO library has been credited with raising the quality of Brazil’s scientific publications. A periodical is only accepted into the collection after it has met criteria that attest to its quality; for example, it must have a qualified editorial body, be a diligent publisher, and comply with the technical conventions governing international science communication. By encouraging publications to obey quality standards, the SciELO program has helped many of them to qualify for acceptance by international databases. The number of Brazilian periodicals in the Web of Science (WoS) database jumped from 30 titles in 2007 to 134 in 2011.

What will happen if the stipulated goals are not met? “There are two ways of achieving balance: by accepting more international journals into the collection and by reducing the number of predominantly Brazilian journals,” explains Packer. The possibility that the SciELO library might disqualify some of its journals touched off some reactions. On November 18, 2014, the editors of collective health periodicals released a statement criticizing what they see as interference with their editorial autonomy. “The creation of this site was grounded on the generous idea of strengthening Brazilian publications and contributing to South-South dialogue, and over time it has contributed to enhancing the visibility of Brazilian periodicals,” reads the document, signed by nine journal editors. Packer does not agree with the charge that the new guidelines interfere with the editorial policies of publications. “This is about using maximum and minimum indicators that evaluate the evolution of a collection; they can differ by field and are based on performance expectations. One of SciELO’s goals is to help boost the impact of Brazilian science and this is among the reasons why FAPESP funds the program,” he says.

One of those who signed the letter, Moises Goldbaum, editor of the Journal Brasileira de Epidemiologia (Brazilian Journal of Epidemiology), emphasizes that collective health journals are in favor of moves to internationalize. But he voices criticism of what he sees as the imposition of a straitjacket by the guidelines. “A number of our journals already publish content simultaneously in English and Portuguese and also accept articles in Spanish, because we believe it’s important for South-South exchange. Similarly, we’ve noted that many Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa benefit from our articles in Portuguese, as do public health administrators in Brazil, who don’t always have a command of English, and they are a target of our production,” says Goldbaum, a professor at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine (FMUSP). He says it wouldn’t be hard to comply with the other guidelines. “I could manage to publish more articles by foreign authors in the Journal Brasileira de Epidemiologia if we included submissions that are not high in quality; we reject many poor-quality articles from abroad. I can also arrange more foreign editors, but I’m almost certain theirs would be an honorary representation. Since a good share of the articles explore regional themes, these editors might not be able to contribute,” he states. In Goldbaum’s opinion, the establishment of strategies for internationalization should be based on defining scientific and technological policies for Brazil that would improve journal funding and allow for the professionalization of editorial bodies. “Additionally, if our students would go abroad more often for dissertation research or post-doctoral work, and the result were joint research projects with foreign colleagues, the ensuing scientific production would be more qualified for international publication.

Low benchmark
Carlos Menck, professor at the Biomedical Sciences Institute of USP and editor of Genetics and Molecular Biology, agrees with SciELO’s new criteria, but he proposes a new focus for the discussion. He is not very satisfied about the fact that the impact factor of the journal he heads, published by the Brazilian Society of Genetics, has been on a slow upward climb despite efforts to internationalize it: the journal has been available in XML since 2012, when it was accepted by the PubMed database; its texts are in English; half of its articles are signed by authors from abroad; and acceptance of manuscripts is increasingly rigorous (60% of the articles by Brazilians are rejected for reasons of quality, as are 80% of those by non-Brazilians). He admits that there is room for improvement; around 40% of its articles were not cited in 2014. “That’s a high figure but we’ve been managing to improve it. I don’t agree with the idea, backed by some editors, that journals can be published without caring whether or not they’re cited. That doesn’t make sense,” he says. “If our impact factor surpasses 1 in the coming months, I’ll jump for joy, but even that benchmark is low. We need to have various Brazilian journals with a sustainable impact factor of at least 2. There’s something wrong with our strategy,” says the professor, who is considering publishing the journal under a contract with a major international publisher. “The advantage is that the publisher bears the heavy costs associated with editors, like taking care of the editing, helping publicize the articles, and improving the publication’s website, within an internationally competitive environment where you strive for editorial quality as well as making money. And the editor is free to concern himself with the quality of the articles,” says Menck.

The Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) has shown an interest in hiring a foreign publisher to release some 100 Brazilian scientific journals in open-access online format—sparking a strong reaction from Brazilian editors. “The Capes proposal could be redesigned to favor the visibility of some journals that are truly of international quality,” says Menck. In his view, hiring international publishers could help Brazilian journals. “The alternative would be to have a world-class Brazilian publisher. We’re far from that, and this is certainly a challenge to be faced in Brazil, as this is a very strong industry in financial terms. It will be an even bigger challenge to get Brazilian publishers to reach an international level,” he says.

Data presented at the annual meeting by Rogério Meneghini, of SciELO, suggest that the impact of periodicals that have moved to a commercial publisher in other countries has not automatically risen. Likewise present at the meeting, Hooman Momen, until recently editor of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, described the features that characterize top-tier international journals. He advocated creation of an advanced platform for the editing and publishing of Brazilian periodicals to bolster their international competitiveness. He emphasized that SciELO could assume responsibility for operating this platform.

When it is decided that a scientific journal should be lent a more international character, some editors and authors often feel a bit uneasy; furthermore, the results only come in the medium term. A case that illustrates the challenges of this path is the Journal Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry), whose current score of 1.63 ranks it second among Brazilian periodicals in terms of impact. Fifteen years ago, when Professor Jair de Mari of Unifesp was editor-in-chief, a decision was made to publish the journal in English. The first step was for the journal to become bilingual. Its regular issues then began to be released only in English, while supplements continued to appear in both languages. Eventually, everything was published strictly in English. “There were criticisms about the fact that a journal with the word ‘Brazilian’ in the title was being published in English. We had to work hard to get the Brazilian Psychiatric Association, which publishes the journal, to understand that there was no other choice than to adopt English if we wanted the journal to fulfill its purpose of science communication,” points out Flavio Kapczinski, one of the journal’s editors-in-chief. “Some said that the non-English-reading Brazilian public would be alienated. But English is the lingua franca in our field, and periodicals in Japan, China, and Europe have adopted English as their tongue,” says Kapczinski, who is a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

In the case of this journal, recognition has also depended on other factors. “Brazilian psychiatry had reached critical mass, with two highly internationalized graduate programs receiving grades of 7 from Capes and another two receiving 6. This triggered a significant inflow of good articles and helped attract articles by foreign researchers,” says Kapczinski. With the journal receiving quality articles, it now selects 20% of submissions. “In order to keep the journal competitive, it’s important to evaluate papers quickly, deciding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and publishing the manuscript online as soon as it is accepted. Authors expect a quick answer from the journal, so they can submit their article elsewhere if they get a ‘no’.” About half of the journal’s body of editors and peer reviewers are from abroad. Kapczinski sees the changes proposed by SciELO as welcome. “Even more than that, they are absolutely necessary. There is no way to internationalize a journal without internationalizing its procedures. The role of a periodical is to serve science, not just guarantee a slice of the market,” he says.