For African research to thrive, Africans need to be in charge

Research Publishing
By: Ed Gerstner, Mon Jul 3 2023
Ed Gerstner

Author: Ed Gerstner

Director Research Environment Alliance, Springer Nature

25th June celebrates Africa Day, the day on which the Organisation of African Unity, the body that became the African Union, was founded.  Every two years, the University of Pretoria, in partnership with the South African Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation, marks the occasion with Africa Week, bringing together prominent African and global scientific networks and international, transdisciplinary initiatives.   This year, Springer Nature also launched the Springer Nature African Research Advisory Council (ARAC) — which like the similar groups of research leaders SN has convened from the US, Japan, and Europe — seeks to provide a platform to discuss the most pressing priorities of researchers in Africa and explore ways in which we might work together to achieve those priorities.  Unsurprisingly, the overriding theme that emerged from both discussions was the need for greater African autonomy and empowerment. With a loud call that the development of effective solutions to the challenges that African communities face, needs to be driven by those who live and work in those communities.

Investment is key

Part of the problem is the lack of local investment in research.  It limits the scope of research to whatever international actors decide, disenfranchising Africans from determining their own destiny, and limiting research capacity. 

Dhesigen Naidoo, Climate Adaptation Lead to the South African Presidential Climate Commission and Senior Research Associate at the ISS Africa noted that there is a standing resolution in the African Union that every African country will, at some point, invest 1% of GDP in research and development and that South Africa has an official position of 1.5%.  With few exceptions, R&D investment is less than half a percent of GDP, and falling.  Naidoo said that a big part of the reason for this is national debt and that the requirements imposed by institutions like the IMF and the World Bank to manage that debt risk repeating mistakes of the past that undermined the development of high-quality universities throughout Africa.

This is where he feels those who advocate for science need to get more involved because even though structural adjustment isn’t research, research cannot happen unless a country is able to fund it. The journal Nature  agrees1.

All of this contributes to and is made worse by the fact that most collaborations by researchers at African institutions are with researchers at non-African institutions.  Publications from collaborations between institutions in Africa are dwarfed by those from international collaborations. This leads to a fragmentation of effort in areas like research into mitigating the effects of climate change research that should be common to institutions across the continent.  And it leads to the situation that 8 of the top 10 locations for institutes receiving the most funding for African climate research are the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, France, Netherlands, Norway and Italy, with places 9 and 10 being Kenya and South Africa.

Even so, when African researchers make a substantial contribution to international research efforts, as they did to the Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it makes a difference.  Naidoo remarked that this greater representation was well received across the continent, particularly by policymakers, including the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change. 

Better networking, better training

Another factor that restricts African contributions to research is a widespread belief that the publishing system is rigged against them. 

Ernest Aryeetey, Secretary General of the African Research Universities Alliance, recalled the time when he was an editor and found that when African scholars were asked to revise their manuscripts before resubmission, the overwhelming majority never came back.  It seemed that most regarded the requirement for revision as a tacit rejection, and so instead would submit their manuscript to a different, lower impact, journal.

Aly Mbaye, Vice-Chancellor of University Cheikh Anta Diop, Senegal, echoed this and suggests that one way to address this would be to help young African researchers build more effective networks with more experienced researchers within Africa and beyond: a need that resonated with the rest of the ARAC group. 

Training is another area that needs attention.  Atridah Mulonga, Programme Officer at the National Science and Technology Council of Zambia said that they had a lot of success in training young researchers in grant writing.  But she said that less attention had been given to what happens at the end of the process ― at the point of producing a research paper.  On this point, I think there’s an opportunity here for publishers to do more, such as Springer Nature’s Masterclass Online platform which has measures in place to support Low and Lower Middle-Income Countries.

Mulonga also raised the concern that if we focus only on creating opportunities and support for early career researchers, where do those researchers go later in their careers?  This particularly affects those who’ve spent time overseas and want to come back. 

Language of inclusion

The issue of inclusion and the need to do more to recognize and support indigenous knowledge was another topic raised by the Council and at Africa Week.  Priscilla Kolibea Mante, Co-chair of the Global Young Academy, pointed out that the diversity of languages across the continent doesn’t help.

One thing that might help is the Masakhane initiative, a grassroots network of Africans that is using Natural Language Processing and AI to preserve African languages. This initiative has fired up the young burgeoning grassroots tech community across Africa.  In contrast to the difficulties mentioned above in forging intra-African collaborations, this initiative has seemingly cut right through all of this.

From challenges to solutions

Although the challenges that African researchers face were where most conversations began, the week was all about seeking solutions, with those who are at the heart of it.  There are a number of local initiatives that are already emerging that deserve wider engagement globally. One is the Science Granting Councils Initiative, which is a collaboration among science funders in Africa (and beyond) to support collaboration among African nations that issues explicit calls for proposals for inter-African research collaborations to do joint research.  Another is the Africa–Europe Clusters of Research Excellence programme, a partnership between the African Research Universities Alliance and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities which has led to the establishment of 17 joint clusters co-led by universities from each continent and with equity as a precondition for producing outstanding research with maximum societal impact. And in Windhoek, Namibia on the 5th of July, the Perivoli African Research Centre of the University of Bristol is launching its Charter Initiative for transformative research collaborations with Africa, which seeks to establish an agreed set of principles to redress unequal power dynamics that can arise in collaborations between African institutions and those in the Global North. Publishers can make a substantive difference in this area through policies, backed up by actions, that make it clear that practices like “helicopter research” and “ethics dumping” are unacceptable.

Whilst there is a long way to go and global collaboration, exploration and support are needed, there is a driving sense of optimism that the right people to be in charge and drive this change, are increasingly being able to take up the reins.

This piece was originally published as an opinion piece with Research Information on 30th June 2023. 

1.Nature 617, 652 (2023);

Ed Gerstner

Author: Ed Gerstner

Director Research Environment Alliance, Springer Nature

Ed Gerstner is Director Research Environment Alliance where he is  responsible for building alliances with research institutions and community organizations who are working to improve the way research is done through initiatives that contribute to better research ethics, rigour and integrity, more effective and fairer research assessment, greater academic diversity, equity and inclusion, support for those working in interdisciplinary research, international collaborations, and those seeking solutions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Prior to this he led a team responsible for the development and implementation of editorial policy and publishing strategy across the entire Springer Nature journal portfolio, and for overseeing Springer Nature’s involvement in publishing initiatives such as the use of blockchain for peer review, ORCID, Publons and similar. 

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