Accessing Research Information in Africa

Published by Joy Owango on

Within the Digital Science blog series on SDG-related research, our advisory board member Joy Owango wrote about SDG 4, Quality Education.

Read the original article at digital-science.com/blog/perspectives/sdg-series-accessing-research_info-in-africa/

Joy Owango, director at TCC Africa

Accessing Research Information in Africa

A few years ago, when I was working on my post-graduate degree in Mass Communication, I vividly remember struggling to access research papers relevant to my assignments. I felt so frustrated that the only place I could access these papers was through the library of an international research institute in Nairobi. I would sit outside the library after it had closed, just to access the e-resources using their WiFi. At the time, I thought that was the norm – part of the struggle of doing a postgraduate degree. It wasn’t until a decade later that I found out about the Open Access movement. What an eye-opener! One of those “how did I not know about this?” moments.

One of the most frustrating (and, let’s face it, borderline annoying!) parts of research is in attempting to access relevant academic literature, only to find that it is unavailable. This is not a new problem. Paywalls have been prevalent in academic publishing. Looking at Africa, the average university cannot afford access to e-resources to conduct research and are limited to data that has been donated by publishers and research industry partners. Unfortunately, some of this data is not even up to date, so there is a further limitation in accessing knowledge of the latest trends in research.

Overcoming Challenges through Collaboration

Despite these challenges, most of the Sub-Saharan countries have come together to create a library consortium that supports their respective academic and research communities. They negotiate with publishers and research industry partners for access to resources for research discovery. However, despite the existence of these library consortia, and with the exception of the South Africa National Library and Information Consortia, most still struggle to get access to useful, but expensive, data for research discovery. South Africa as an exception is not surprising as, according to the 2018 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, it has spent 6.16% of its GDP on education – quite a significant expense compared to most other African countries.

In comparison, library consortia in Europe are able to come up with transformative Open Access agreements, such as Projekt DEAL in Germany, which created a partnership with Springer Nature that resulted in access to paywalled articles and Open Access publishing for German researchers via one payment. According to the agreement, researchers at Projekt DEAL institutions will be able to publish in around 1,900 Springer Nature journals for €2,750 (or about $3,000) per paper. This fee is prohibitively high and definitely not affordable for African library consortia.

Quality Education and SDG 4

How can the UN’s fourth sustainable development goal around Quality Education help catalyse positive changes in this area? SDG4 has the following targets:

  • By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy
  • By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

According to the African Economic Outlook Report of 2020 by the African Development Bank, less than 10% of the population aged 25 years and older have a university education across most African countries.

This is somewhat expected. Postgraduate programmes are not cheap, costing between $4,000 and $18,000, depending on the course and the university. Most postgraduate students are self-sponsored and tend to work alongside their studies. Paying for access to paywalled publications is simply not feasible, and may be a cause for concern for many students, as limited access to research forces students settle for the information that is available rather than that which is most relevant.

Sponsored postgraduate students tend to be more fortunate, as most of their funders are able to pay for access to required resources to conduct research, and for the author processing charges required to publish their research. The result is a dichotomy of researchers between those that are sponsored postgraduates and those that are not. Open Access could minimise this inequality, ensuring that students get the best possible education, and that and are not artificially limited by the selection of scholarly journals their campuses are able to provide access to, regardless of whether they are financially supported or not.

Reducing Inequalities in Accessing Research Information

Open Access research information is able to democratise higher education through the provision of equitable resources to students and researchers. Normative academic and research ecosystems include infrastructural and human capacity support. The glue that holds this together is data. In particular, Open Access data offers a boost in increasing the quality of research output being produced by providing additional insights into existing research. Researchers are able to avoid duplication of work. They are able to increase their visibility and impact for scholarship through citation. Their research is easily shared. Most importantly, if the data is available as Open Access, text mining is easier.

Incentives for Progress

In 2007 the African Union mandated that African countries must spend at least 1% of their GDP on Research and Development (R&D). This was part of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) launch which addresses the future of Africa to promote and respond to opportunities for increased financing of science, technology and innovation (STI) across the continent. At the end of the day, resources (financial, in-kind and human) will determine the success of STISA-2024, and of STI and industrial development on the continent. While recognizing the value of international support and foreign direct investment, the level of African funds and finance underpinning the financial resources will determine the degree of African ownership of STI developments and, consequently, the directions for future socio-economic and environmental developments on the continent (STISA Report 2019).

This mandate has led to 15 African countries committing to spend at least 1% of their GDP on R&D. These countries are part of the Science Granting Councils Initiative whose equal objective is to promote open science and data in their respective countries. The Association of African Universities, the umbrella body for all African academic institutes, has equally committed to promoting open science and data as a way to increase African research output and improve its visibility.

In September 2019, Ethiopia adopted a national Open Access policy for higher education institutions. In addition to mandating Open Access to publications and data, the new policy encouraged open science practices by including ‘openness’ as one of the criteria for assessment and evaluation of research proposals. This makes it the first African country to have an open access policy, which mandates Open Access to all published articles, theses, dissertations and data resulting from publicly-funded research conducted by staff and students at universities that are run by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education – over 47 universities located across Ethiopia.

Looking Ahead

Africa is promoting Open Access academic publishing through the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), which has an Open Research Platform in partnership with Faculty of 1000 (F1000). Organisations such as Research4Life (which Digital Science supports through access to Dimensions) also provide access to research information, while TCC Africa continues to support researchers by building their confidence and knowledge around accessing research information. It provides a platform for rapid publication and open peer review for researchers supported by the AAS and programmes supported through its funding platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa. Africa also has an Open Access preprint repository called AfricaArxiv, which accepts academic submissions from African researchers and anyone who conducts research in Africa.

These developments in open science are helping to improve the quality of education and in Africa, and most importantly are giving African researchers an increased level of autonomy in their research. By focusing on meeting these SDG goals, it is hoped that African researchers, and in turn the global research community, will benefit from more equal access to research information, and therefore better research.


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