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Bridging the research knowledge divide

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Sue Corbett is executive director of INASP, an international development charity that supports developing world researchers through information access and availability, training in research writing; support of indigenous publishing activities and training policy makers in the use of research in policy

What challenges face researchers in the developing world?

Researchers are as exposed as any other section of society to the inequalities of economic and technological power between the north and the south – or more so, given decades of underinvestment in higher education in many countries.

That is changing – new universities, both public and private, are being founded at a great rate (in Ethiopia there are 11 new ones planned for the next year) but, with the primary focus on expanding the student intake, that does not translate into increased support for researchers.

Shortages of funding for research projects and for equipment are well known. Funding constraints will be faced by public-funded institutions everywhere but they are particularly acute in many developing countries where volatility in the economy and donor behaviour is an extra factor.

However, there has been real progress in the provision of affordable access to online journals and books – without which, of course, no significant research can be envisaged. The schemes run by Research for Life, INASP and EIFL over the last 20 years have vastly increased the range of publications available online.

But some of the cultural issues are just as important as material ones.

First, let’s be clear that there is no shortage of bright, ambitious young research students who want to develop their work, their skills and contribute to the development of their country. They may even have had the opportunity to study abroad. But on their return, they may find themselves with little personal support. Senior staff may not be research active and may have limited capacity to train and mentor them. There can also be big gaps in faculty’s understanding of and skills in the most up-to-date approaches and methodologies.

The rules of the global scientific community are set in the north, the result of an evolution  over several hundred years but where digital communication has produced a rapid pace of change. The formal protocols are reinforced by a web of relationships – with supervisors, peers in other institutions doing similar work, learned societies, journal editors and peer reviewers.

Southern researchers face challenges to understand, for example, the precise definition of impact factor or open access, where the boundary lies between fair-use quotation and plagiarism, and what DOIs and ORCID are. They may lack knowledge of which journals they should follow to keep up with relevant research or which ones they should aim to publish in.

Protocols for writing funding proposals, data handling, and research project conception are other areas where there may be little local guidance. There is also the issue of how the relationship between student and supervisor should be conducted in a culture where deference to age and authority is important. There are also some undesirable developments such as the emergence of ‘predatory’ publishers. Predatory journals are less of an issue in the north than they are in the south because, in research groups in the north, research supervisors tell their graduate students what they themselves have grown up with and therefore which journals their students should be publishing in.

In the south, a shortage of people who have had very active research careers and a shortage of PhDs to do supervision means that this guidance is not always there, apart from within very well-funded, donor-supported groups.

How does INASP help?

The mentoring, training and discussion with peers that INASP provides through AuthorAID can feel like a lifesaver to researchers in the south, especially in relieving their relative isolation. The 1000+ new members of the community over the last 12 months leave no doubt about the demand.

Even more significant is the work INASP is now doing to help universities and professional associations in the south develop their own ongoing training for faculty and students in research and proposal writing skills. Science in the south needs to be ‘fast forwarded’ but that process will itself take several generations of students, researchers and supervisors to complete. The most significant support we and others can offer is the transfer, not of money, but of the learning materials, training skills and knowhow that will enable universities and research institutes to accelerate their own development within their local context.

Why are these issues important?

This is a time of great change and promise. Many economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing faster than ever before. Knowledge and research are generally acknowledged as important to development, as is the use of research in decision making, an area that INASP supports through our evidence-informed policy making activities. In today’s interconnected world, we are all in this together. It is in the interests of everyone that the global scientific community stretches itself to become more inclusive and encouraging of research and researchers from the south. 

Interview by Siân Harris, former editor of Research Information, now communications coordinator at INASP