A Somali businessman talks on his mobile phone outside a computer shop.
Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos
Science communication brings research to the people
Did you know that paper microscopes can be used to diagnose malaria? Or that water stations can become free from infections with the help of just a stick and a rope? “Research that no one uses is meaningless”, says Julie Brittain at INASP. Sweden supports several organizations that encourage the spread of research between scientists, as well as to the public and policy makers.
In Africa, universities are growing like mushrooms. Some economies have double digit growth numbers, and both the private and public sector is screaming for educated employees. But a lot of the research that is performed never reaches the global research community, or to local policy makers that can have use for the information.
According to Julie Brittain at the research network INASP, good research is not enough. We need to be better at ensuring that is it put to use.
– Research that no one uses is meaningless. When research actually reaches policy makers, it can play an important role.
INASP: Development must be guided by research
INASP is driven by the idea that social and economic development must be guided by research. But a lot of research is invisible or hard to get published. And some researchers in low income countries still lack knowledge of current academic debates because they lack access to the latest journals. Therefore, INASP has negotiated with large academic publishers so that universities in low income countries, often with scarce resources, can afford to offer access to high quality research to their students. At the beginning they got 95 percent off, but nowadays the number is around 80 percent.
But access to knowledge is not enough. There is also a need for educated librarians and working systems for e-resources. Furthermore, the researchers need to learn how journal articles should be structured, and other ways of improving the likelihood of publication.
INASP therefore arranges a range of courses in low income countries, with the ambition that they are eventually driven locally. And there is nothing wrong with the enthusiasm.
– Higher education in Africa is completely rocketing right now. The number of private universities is growing, and student demand is huge. There are not enough teachers and doctoral students, and the quality is not always great. But things are improving.
INASP has also developed their own publication tool, Open Journals System, with over 19.4 million article downloads. They have founded a range of regional organizations, with the aim that they be driven locally. One spin-out is African Journals Online (AJOL).
AJOL: Open access to research benefits low income countries
One of the explanations to the fact that African researchers sometimes fail to get an impact is the lack of effective spread of results. The African research that exists is thus not fully utilized. But AJOL aims at changing this.
Since its foundation in 1998, AJOL has become the world’s largest online collection of peer-reviewed scientific journals that are published in African countries. They currently cooperate with 469 journals, and the website has 1.8 million unique annual visitors. Around half of the visits come from African researchers.
According to Susan Murray, head of AJOL, it is important to support scientific journals with a local anchoring.
– Many African countries are encouraged by their universities to become published in prestigious European or American journals. This can have the result that they adapt their research topics to those journals rather than their local context. This has the potential to increase imbalances between regions.
For many universities in low income countries, the costs for access to published articles can be too high. AJOL has the ambition to publish their articles openly, and 160 of their journals are currently published with open access.
– We are a small, non-profit organization with a limited budget, but with the help of Sida, AJOL has created a reliable resource for hundreds of African journals, and hundreds of thousands of international scientists.
SCIDET.NET: High class science journalism on global issues
For research results to reach the public, someone needs to present complex issues in brief and simple texts. The news site Scidev.net is world leading in development research journalism. Every year, 1.5 million people take part in their news and opinion texts. The head Nick Perkins is not surprised by the interest. According to him, technology and research will keep playing an important role in our societies for a long time.
– We are living in a knowledge economy. Countries that do not participate in the exchange of ideas will remain poor. When you look at development, you’d be hard pressed to find inventions in effectiveness and efficiency that are unrelated to science in some way. But what nobody knows about cannot be put to use. Research communication is a fundamental moral imperative.
Knowledge does not necessarily need to be completely fresh. Innovation in low income countries does not primarily come from original research. It is more common with local, small-scale innovations consisting of imitation of already existing products – so called reverse engineering – or translations of available knowledge.
The articles are published in English, Spanish, French and Arabic, and the site also contains practical manuals for communicating research. In the time of Swedish support, the rate of articles published by local journalists has increased from 65 to 90 percent. An important role of the organization is thus to spread the writing skills.
Poor countries often have similar problems. According to Nick Perkins, this makes research communication important.
– Those that stand benefit the most from modern science are also the ones with the least access to it. Developing countries are often badly equipped to participate in discussions on the important science and technology questions that influence their lives.
Support to research communication
INASP works to increase the spread of knowledge in low income countries. The name stands for International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications. AJOL is the world’s largest digital collection of peer-reviewed scientific journals that are published in Africa. Swedish support to INASP and AJOL amounts to 42 million SEK for the period 2013-2017.
Scidev.net stands for Science and Development Network and was founded in 2001. The purpose is to promote the role of research in the development of low income countries. In total, Sida gives 26.6 million SEK for the period 2013-2018. During the time of Swedish support, the news organization has involved more journalists from low income countries, published texts in more languages, increased it reach significantly, and instituted several research journalism courses.
Global inequality in the world of research
Despite rapid growth in the South, global knowledge production is still not imbalance. In 2007, 62 percent of all scientists and 75 percent of all research articles came from high income countries.
This means an improved situation since 2002, much thanks to China and other Asian tigers. Even though Africa has doubled its total amount of published articles during the period, they only represent 2 percent globally.
Furthermore, articles from the continent more seldom get cited by other scientists. African research thus does not get the spread it deserves, and its priorities and perspectives are not heard as strongly.