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Global challenges, local knowledge

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From the environment to gender studies, there is plenty of research taking place across Africa into issues that impact local people. Sian Harris looks at some of the challenges and opportunities for the continent's researchers

In recent months, environmental scientists and policymakers in Kenya have been sharing expertise on climate change in light of the recent Kenya Climate Change Bill.

These discussions, organised by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACT) with funding from the INASP-led VakaYiko programme, highlight how local research can affect local policy in Africa.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that ‘climate change poses challenges for the least-developed countries and vulnerable communities, given their limited ability to cope. People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.’

As the international responses to climate change continues to be debated in global summits, the Kenyan roundtables,  and work in the country to enable policymakers to shadow researchers, reveal a search for evidence to inform a country’s response. Such evidence comes from local scientists, as well as those elsewhere in the world. Searches in the African Journals Online (AJOL) platform – a collection of over 500 African journals on diverse topics – reveal hundreds of articles on climate science and the environment published by African scientists in the past year alone.

It’s not just climate change. Across the continent there is plenty of research affecting local people: into issues such as agriculture, AIDS, youth unemployment and Ebola. There is also a move, supported by INASP and others, to connect research with local policymakers.

Challenges of growth

In the past 10 to 15 years, thanks in part to a shift in policy from the World Bank, African higher education and research have begun to attract greater investment, from outside and within countries. This has led to a growth in research, research training, research publications and number of universities across the continent. Interest in collaboration from universities in other parts of the world has also boomed, leading to more partnerships and investment in continental, regional and national organisations.

There are challenges: universal primary education and an expanding middle class have led to a surge in undergraduate numbers. Higher-education capacity is feeling the strain.

Transforming access

One change in recent decades is access to published research. From the early days of online journals, access initiatives like INASP, Research4Life and EIFL have been working with scholarly publishers and helping researchers in low- and middle-income countries to access the same materials as researchers elsewhere.

Today, libraries across sub-Saharan Africa, have access to up to 50,000 online journals and 20,000 e-books through INASP’s partnerships with national library consortia or digital library programmes. They also have 45,000 titles via Research4Life and other schemes and an increasing quantity of open-access resources.

Joel Sam, director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute for Scientific and Technological Information in Ghana, told delegates at the recent Publishers for Development conference: ‘Access to current and up-to-date information for research scientists used to be an issue in Ghana. However, since the mid-2000s, these issues have receded as a result of partnerships with international-development agencies such as INASP. With more electronic resources being available and accessible to research scientists and lecturers, they have improved their teaching, learning and research.’

Alongside the provision of access has come training in how to manage digital access within the library, how to support users to search and find what they need and how to communicate to their researchers what resources are available to them. There is also work to strengthen communication of research. INASP is involved in strengthening African publishing as well as supporting researchers to develop their research writing skills through our AuthorAID project (see box: Mentoring support aids mental health research).

Global pursuit, local challenges

Research is a global pursuit and researchers share many common challenges. However, there are also many differences: the economic situation, political stability and the existence or otherwise of a strong research culture. There is also pressure for research to contribute to local social and economic needs.

There are technical issues too. Bandwidth into developing countries has increased significantly but poorly configured networks means this doesn’t always reach the desktop. Another issue is intermittent electricity supply and network outage, which can be a frequent occurrence.

Such things are well known and can perhaps be anticipated. More hidden – but more dangerous – are inherent biases in the system.

These include established metrics. A look at the journals included in something like the Journal Citation Report (JCR) might conclude that there are relatively few journals in Africa. A look at the numbers of titles on the AJOL platform – over 500 today – would refute that. The problem can be self-perpetuating; inclusion in things like the JCR and the recognition of quality that it brings comes from citations in journals that are already highly regarded, and people are more likely to read and cite papers in highly regarded journals.

There are other issues that can have bias towards the developed world – things like attendance at international conferences, invitations to participate in peer review, media coverage of research, language; and stereotypes.

In many places, women face particular challenges in establishing and maintaining research careers. This is something that INASP is looking to help address. Earlier this year, a group of female researchers from Tanzania and Ghana joined INASP staff at the Gender Summit Africa in South Africa. Some of these researchers tell their research stories here (see box: Female researchers). In August we are supporting the University of Dodoma, Tanzania to run a three-day workshop to help female researchers with the particular challenges they face.

Africa is a continent of 54 states, each with variations in history, culture, GDP and approach to research. The challenges and priorities for different countries vary too, which is why local research, whether it is in agriculture, energy or health, is so important.

INASP www.inasp.info

AuthorAID www.authoraid.info

Africa Journals Online www.ajol.info

Publishers for Development www.pubs-for-dev.info

INASP has been supporting researchers in countries across Africa since 1992. INASP negotiates – and trains library consortia to negotiate – for free or low-cost access to scholarly journals and other resources. INASP also supports local publishing in a range of ways. The African Journals Online platform was founded by INASP in 1998 but has been independently run from South Africa since 2005 and now hosts over 500 African journals. The AuthorAID community includes 4,300 researchers from across Africa. INASP’s evidence-informed policy making team leads the VakaYiko consortium, which is training and supporting policymakers in their use of research materials, with a particular focus on Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Siân Harris is communications coordinator of INASP 

Mentoring support aids mental health research in Somalia

Jibril Handuleh is a physician, researcher and lecturer in Somalia. He joined INASP’s AuthorAID community in 2012 and the mentor programme and resources helped him to publish 15 papers in international journals.

‘Somalians with psychiatric disorders are often stigmatised, abused and literally imprisoned in their homes. Mentally ill people can become a huge burden, as families don’t know how to deal with severely disturbed or violent relatives. Many are chained up or put into prison in order to control them.

‘Even when they receive medical help, patients are often misdiagnosed with exclusively physical rather than psychiatric conditions. Bipolar and schizophrenic Somalians are commonly presumed to have typhoid fever, and therefore mistakenly prescribed antibiotics that are both expensive and ineffective.

‘During my training, the university in my hometown of Borama had no local teaching staff or exams in psychiatry, despite the fact that two of every five Somalians are estimated to suffer from mental health problems.

‘AuthorAID is a key resource in my attempts to communicate the challenges and successes of African healthcare provision. While beginning to publish my first paper, AuthorAID helped me secure access to online literature and research funding – crucial in a country like Somalia where academic infrastructure and the internet itself are weak.

‘It also helped me draft and edit a paper, submit it to a journal, and get it published. Within two years, I had papers accepted at three conferences and was able to publish over 15 articles in academic journals, two of which were accepted by leading international mental health journals.

‘I recently won admission to an MSc in International Health at Germany’s Heidelberg University. My studies will focus on public health training in low- and middle-income countries that receive aid from the German government. Somalia has the world’s highest maternal mortality in the world, and among the highest infant mortality. I hope to use the MSc as a platform for making lasting changes to these inequalities.’

Many early-career researchers in Africa and elsewhere have been supported by mentors through AuthorAID. To register for such support or to find out about volunteering as a mentor please visit www.authoraid.info.