SSP keynote: ‘research is not complete until it is communicated’

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Mariamawit Yeshak

Mariamawit Yeshak kicked off the SSP annual meeting with an impassioned account of the differences between scholarly and societal impact in African scholarly communications, writes Tim Gillett.

Yeshak, who was brought up and schooled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, specialises in indigenous scholarship systems, and thereby reflected the entire theme of the meeting in in San Diego, California: Shaping the New Status Quo: Global Perspectives in Scholarly Publishing. More specifically, her keynote speech was entitled Impact Factor versus Societal Impact.

She explained that her home country – with a population of some 100 million people, is in many ways a ‘land of origins’. It is the country where ‘Lucy’, a female skeleton dating back some 3.2 million years, was discovered; it boasts some of the oldest coins ever found, it has its own alphabet, a plethora of UNESCO sites – and also happens to be the country of origin of coffee!

In 2005 Yeshak completed her PhD in Uppsala, Sweden, where she said her ‘dreams were ignited’. She described meeting a scientist who, as part of a research project, had written a plain English summary of her thesis. When she asked why, Yeshak was told that ‘if you are unable or unwilling to explain your work to your grandma, the work is probably not worth doing’.

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, Yeshak said, scholarly communications only started in earnest in the late 20th century – and even now still represents less than two per cent of the global output. ‘But it has made great strides and met with many opportunities,’ she said. In the 1960s there were just 35 universities, whereas now there are around 2,000. At the turn of the millennium there were only 50 journals published through Africa Journals Online (AJOL); now there are more than 500: ‘Progress has been very fast, and we are publishing in many different disciplines.’

In terms of impact, bibliometrics plays an important part of measuring impact in terms of impact on science itself; African scholarly communications is relatively modern in the way it measures progress and impact, and its faculties often publish in highly-rated journals. However, science in Africa still has a low score in the way it impacts society.

‘Universities and scholars are benefitting from the work of scientists, but society is not,’ Yeshak told delegates. ‘Why? And what can we do about it?’

Most research in Africa is published in journals abroad, with the result that there is little or no visibility for other researchers, policy makers and the general public: ‘Our work is not visible or accessible.’

‘What can we do? Reputable publishers globally should engage in publishing local journals. Existing journals should work hard to increase visibility and quality, so that scholars use them. Popular science summaries should be encouraged, in print and online, and papers should be compiled in plain English. We should also inform stakeholders ourselves, and send our work to policy makers, publish it on social media, and generally spread the good word.’

She continued: ‘Research is not compete until it is communicated. We should be capacity-building, and science journalism should be encouraged. Public lectures should be more frequent, and research questions should be designed to meet the interests of international funders as most funding comes from outside Africa.’

Language is the biggest barrier African scholars face, she said: ‘Research is published in English or French, but in many countries people don’t speak these languages and so are excluded. When crucial work is published it must be translated into local languages, or it should be published in the local language in the first place. If social media can do it, then why can’t the scholarly communications industry do the same?

Yeshak also described a ‘disconnect from indigenous knowledge’ on the part of researchers, which she decried as ‘greatly unfair to the whole of humankind’.

‘There is a huge amount of knowledge embedded in indigenous societies. We must embrace indigenous knowledge, otherwise we are pushing Africa further and further into darkness. There should always be a two-way knowledge flow. It is not hard to achieve if we have the right mindset and correct our attitudes.’

She concluded: ’It’s high time that African scientists make themselves relevant and visible. It’s a question of relevance and justice to society; the fact that they are working in developing countries is not an excuse.’