The right support and timing can help research systems progress

Sue Corbett reflects on the steps required for progress in improving research systems and on some lessons from a recent visit to Rwanda

I have been reflecting on the ways in which all the actors in the “research system” need to function and to collaborate actively with each other for research to be produced and used to inform national social and economic development.

On a recent visit to Rwanda, we took an action-oriented systems approach  to analyse what is working, what is not and, with our partners’ help, which of the interventions we can offer will make a real difference.

In a very practical way, this is, we think, exactly what Brian Levy refers to in Working with the Grain: “the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground – not some normative vision of how they should be”.

There is no shortage of people who explicitly endorse the creation of a knowledge-based society or a digital economy in their countries – although it is less common to find that translated into a demand from government for research to be produced to address development or social-policy needs.

Within the higher-education system, we often find a ‘drag’ created by a combination of an overall shortage of funds, the pressure of growing student numbers, a complex and contested institutional environment, and, very simply, a huge ‘To Do’ list for those individuals tasked with leading change.

Of course, conditions are very different in each country. It is not necessarily the more advanced or more prosperous countries that are most ready to create change, as we saw in our pilot project in Sierra Leone.

For progress to be made in a country’s research system, we look for:

  • The will to create a culture of doing and using research
  • The preparedness to create incentives and conditions to make this happen
  • Energetic change makers
  • Support from the top
  • The right timing

In some countries, even having a reading culture may be a recent innovation so there is a need to create the right culture for research to progress. Similarly, unless the preparedness to create incentives and conditions to make this happen are hardwired into the system, change doesn’t usually persist beyond an initial intervention. We look out particularly for regulations, rewards, incentives and penalties; these are the levers that govern behaviour.

Local ‘change makers’ in the research system need to be prepared to get involved and tackle the day-to-day challenges that often get in the way. These ‘change makers’ and problem solvers in turn need support from high-level university management and/or the government.

Finally, it is important to consider the timing in any initiative to help development of a research system – is there a moment when change is more likely?

Lessons from Rwanda

In Rwanda in November, INASP Associate Helena Asamoah Hassan and I met with senior management of the University of Rwanda (UR), which was formed in 2013 from the merger of the nation’s seven public Higher Learning Institutions. We also met with four UR college principals, the UR ICT director, the Ministry of Education, and Sida, which has a long-term support programme in higher education and also co-funds INASP’s work. In addition, we met with the leadership of a private university, researchers engaged in food science, and even a district mayor.

Our discussions during the visit revealed a strong drive, mandated by the government, to establish the new University of Rwanda as a research-productive institution.  We found a senior university management team that appears to be united in realising this aim and wants to make rapid progress. The new UR is halfway through its official merger period so now is a good time to be discussing new support projects.

We found newly revised contracts for faculty that specify the percentage of time to be spent on teaching, research and community engagement.  This is important because time pressures, particularly from teaching, often reduce the motivation to do research.

In Rwanda baseline figures are now being gathered for current research publications and targets set for each level of faculty going forward. This embraces the principle of “if it matters, measure it” but also means that at least the simplest level of monitoring and evaluation of a support project should be easy to do and will be driven locally.

There is also evidence of demand from government to UR for research to inform national policy making. One example is the desire to find better ways of getting qualified teachers into schools around the country.

Another factor that we found was recognition that a national library consortium for purchasing online journals and books would optimize the value to be gained for all of Rwandan higher education from limited funds. Current use of journals and books is low but we could reasonably expect the focus on publication to motivate researchers to read more and to push for a closer match between what is purchased and their own research interests. UR has a good computer system and is expected to lead ICT development for HE institutions across the country.

We found enthusiasm for a new joint project to establish trainers and learning materials for research-writing skills across the whole of UR – in a way that will enable research leaders to train generations of new researchers without relying on outside support.  The timing seems to be right – the basics of the UR merger are in place and the DVCs, college principals and others are starting to think hard about how to improve research productivity.

There is still work to do to improve the acquisition, management and usage of research literature and this is crucial if the research done by faculty is to meet global scientific standards.  University of Rwanda management recognizes this and is currently recruiting a University Librarian to provide leadership across the university’s library system. The almost complete new university library (pictured) is an impressive building with lots of light and space.  Even in a digital age, the physical space carries a strong message about the importance of knowledge.

new UR library almost complete Nov 2014

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Journals Online platforms highlight cancer research in developing world

Today is World Cancer Day and research into cancer is going on all over the world. Andy Nobes shares some of the recent research into aspects of cancer published in journals discoverable through some of our Journals Online platforms.

The Journals Online project, managed by INASP, provides country-wide or region-wide portals for showcasing research published in those countries or regions and bringing that research to an international audience.

In Sri Lanka Journals Online (SLJOL), recent publications on the topic include studies on cancer genetics and the links between substance abuse and cancer.

Recent research published in Nepal (Nepal Journals Online, or NepJOL) includes comparisons of different treatment approaches for rectal cancer and studies into adverse drug reactions to chemotherapy.

Recent papers in Bangladesh Journals Online (BanglaJOL) cover topics such as parent stress in childhood cancer, potential treatment of prostate cancer and studies of lung cancer in mice.

You can use the Asia Journals Online (AsiaJOL) portal to search all the Asian JOL platforms. Some of the hundreds of recent papers on cancer include research on cervical cancer screening in Nepal, racial differences in breast cancer, and tobacco-related cancers in Western India.

For more information about the Journals Online platforms visit the INASP website here.

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How to target a journal that’s right for your research

(The article below was originally published on SciDev.Net on 15 December 2014.)

Hitting a target is not easy, and neither is selecting a journal for your research paper. An appropriate target journal is one that publishes work on the subject your paper addresses and which, because of its various qualities, serves your needs and aspirations.

Some researchers are under pressure to publish anywhere, while others are lured by prestigious but often unattainable journals. Either case can lead researchers away from journals that might give them the audience and impact they need. Here I outline how to target a truly appropriate journal for your research.

Stay away from predators

Academics involved in research are often evaluated based on their research output or publications. Whether they get a degree, get hired, get promoted or get tenure is often tied to the quantity and quality of the publications they have recently authored. And in some countries quantity takes precedence over quality and becomes a defining factor in career progression.

Researchers working in such environments may be tempted to publish more and faster. Thus the demand for publication outlets increases, and so does the supply — in the form of more academic publishers and journals.

In scholarly publishing, no overall body sets standards and processes. Anyone can buy a domain name and set up a journal with a name of their choice. The sole motive may be making money by charging authors for publishing articles. These publishers may have an editorial board, but its members may be complicit. Such publishers tend to name their journals in a grand way, with meaningless words such as ‘global’, ‘international’ or ‘advanced’. They may also have an overly broad title or scope that includes many areas of research (to attract more papers).

Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, United States, maintains a list of such ‘predatory’ journals and publishers. [1]

These journals may publish papers after cursory or no peer review, despite claiming otherwise. Researchers may send their papers to predatory journals either knowingly or naively buying into the false claims made. [2]

And although poor peer review actually suits authors who have not done work of a sufficiently high quality to get published in established journals, many more are victims. [3] Researchers in developing countries often do not receive adequate research guidance early in their careers. They work in resource-poor environments and they lack research writing skills. Yet they face the same pressure to ‘publish or perish’ as their counterparts in developed countries.

“When you choose a journal, don’t stop there. Keep asking yourself, ‘How can I best communicate my work today?’”

Ravi Murugesan

However, publications in such journals eventually lose value and may even bring harm. Some researchers may be able to temporarily advance their careers on the strength of their publication count, but they may be shamed later on in front of their colleagues and students as awareness of predatory publishers increases.

Others may face disciplinary action by promotion or tenure committees that are already aware of predatory publishers. And, of course, serious researchers are likely to ignore papers published in suspicious journals, so these papers may not be read or cited.

Look for verifiable claims

Don’t be swayed by grand claims made on a journal’s website or in calls for papers unless those claims can be verified. Being ‘under the indexing process’ with ISI, Scopus and so on. is an example of an unverifiable claim that often appears in calls for papers from suspicious journals. In fact, receiving a call for papers out of the blue is a warning sign. Unless you receive the call in a discussion list you are a member of, or from a journal you have submitted papers to or published in, or from another trustworthy source, you should be wary. I regularly receive calls for papers from random journals because they have harvested my email address online and have added me to their bulk mailing list without my permission.

Some claims can be verified: for example, a journal’s membership in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association (OASPA), and INASP Journals Online (JOLs). These are notable collections of open access journals, and the DOAJ is putting in place more rigorous criteria for membership.

A journal’s membership in publishing societies such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is also a good sign.

However, newly established journals may not be quickly indexed in academic databases or may only slowly become part of publishing societies. New journals are set up all the time to address new, neglected, regional and other kinds of research that are not well served by existing journals. You should definitely consider new journals that are relevant for your work but first evaluate the editors who run them.

Look at the editor’s profile on a university website, links to their online profiles (for example, on ResearchGate, Google Scholar or LinkedIn) or evidence of their dedication to the profession of journal editing, for example, membership of organisations such as the Council of Science Editors (CSE), European Association of Science Editors (EASE) and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME).

Understand the open-access model

Academic publishers typically operate their journals using either the traditional subscription model or an open-access model. In subscription journals, readers pay to access papers. In the open access model readers are not charged — but somebody has to pay to keep the journal running. So open-access journals either ask authors to pay article processing charges (APCs) or are supported by higher education institutions or funding bodies. Some journals use a ‘hybrid’ open-access model: authors can choose to make their work freely available by paying an article APC, or if they don’t pay this their article will be available only to subscribers.

The open-access movement aims to make research accessible to anyone who needs it. This is a noble mission but is misused by predatory publishers. They ask authors to pay article processing fees, knowing that they have very few readers who would pay for their journals under a subscription model.

But remember that the open-access model is not necessarily predatory. Far from it. There are many excellent open-access journals that charge APCs, such as those in the PLOS family and from publishers such as BioMed Central. Authors who wish to publish in open-access journals should try to include APCs in their research budgets and should check to see if fees are waived for authors in developing countries.

Don’t be swayed by the impact factor

A journal’s impact factor is a measure of its quality or prestige. This metric, owned by Thomson Reuters, is commonly used by researchers to identify appropriate target journals, but this approach can be problematic.

Impact factors are rigorously calculated from citations, as described on the Thomson Reuters website. Journals with a high impact factor quickly convince readers that they are reputable or prestigious.

There are other metrics that measure journal quality, such as the eigenfactor score and SCImago journal rank.

The impact factor has become the hallmark of journal prestige — so much so that it has even spawned misleading ‘fake’ metrics in which high ranks can be bought by unethical publishers. [4] There’s even one called the ‘journal impact factor’, which can be easily confused with the Thomson Reuters impact factor.

And the impact factor itself has received criticism from Nobel laureate Randy Shekman and from articles published in a number of leading journals, including some with high impact factors. [5,6,7,8]

Be aware that impact factors are not comparable across fields. The journal Applied Physics Letters is the highest ranking journal in its field, but still has a much lower impact factor than the highest ranking journal in microbiology, Nature Reviews Microbiology.

You also need to be aware that much of the information you need to interpret a journal’s impact factor may be missing. Journals with high impact factors often promote them on their websites but this doesn’t convey the full picture. For example, you may need to know what other journals have similar impact factors. But if you want to know about all the impact factors of journals in your field, you’ll need access to the Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports, which are not free.

In some niche fields, reputable journals may not even have an impact factor. This can be because their topics interest only a small community. But they might still be the best place to publish if you are going to reach the right audience.

The impact factor is a complex metric that should be used for specific purposes and by people who are fully aware of its intricacies. If you use it to evaluate journals, there are many caveats to take into account. Certainly, a journal’s impact factor is inappropriate for evaluating individual articles or authors. And when authors treat it as the most important criterion for selecting a journal, they have not fully understood the point of research communication.

Care about your audience

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is to know your audience.

When considering a journal, be prepared to ask yourself some questions. Who are its readers? Are they part of your research community? Would they be interested in your paper? Would they be able to build on your findings or implement any recommendations?

If you don’t have answers to these questions, speak with your senior colleagues, look for advice on online networks such as AuthorAID and ResearchGate and join scientific societies to learn from researchers in your field.

“Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is to know your audience.”

Ravi Murugesan

Remember that with so many papers published every day, keeping track of the relevant literature has become a big challenge. It would be naive to think that a paper, even one in a ‘big-name’ high impact factor journal, will attract interest from everywhere. (And be aware that predatory journals may have few or no serious readers.)

Develop a research communication strategy

These days you should think beyond conventional publications, for example by promoting papers on social media and archiving them and their data.

You may be able to upload full texts of your papers on a digital repository at your institution or on portals like ResearchGate, as long as you follow self-archiving rules set by your publishers. SHERPA RoMEO offers an online tool for finding these. Once archived, your full texts may become discoverable on academic databases such as Google Scholar, potentially becoming more accessible to scholars who don’t have access to subscription journals.

Portals such as figshare and the Dryad Digital Repository make it easy to share data as well as polished publications, and this is being increasingly encouraged and even mandated by journals and funders. Sharing your detailed research data makes your work more usable and may even attract more citations. [9]

If your research paper addresses a development issue, you might need to think about reaching policymakers. The main messages may also need to be put in different words for non-academic audiences. Some advice on this can be found in an AuthorAID presentation on making research relevant for policymakers and SciDev.Net has a practical guide on How to tell policymakers about scientific uncertainty.

This might seem like a lot of work, and it is — if you are concerned only about publication and not communication. But research should be communicated, and publishing is only a means to that end. So when you choose a journal, don’t stop there. Keep asking yourself: “How can I best communicate my work today?”


[1] Jeffrey Beall Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals and Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers (Scholarly Open Access, accessed 12 December 2014)

[2] Jeffrey Beall Sudanese researcher falls victim to questionable publisher (Scholarly Open Access, 23 September 2014)

[3] Ravi Murugesan For open access. Against deception (23 September 2014)

[4] Jeffrey Beall Misleading metrics (Scholarly Open Access, updated regularly)

[5] The impact factor game. (PLOS Medicine, 2006)

[6] Kai Simons The misused impact factor (Science, 2008)

[7] Beware the impact factor (Nature Materials, 2013)

[8] Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang Causes for the persistence of impact factor mania (mBio, 2014)

[9] Heather Piwowar and others Sharing detailed research data is associated with increased citation rate (PLOS One, 2007)

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

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How AuthorAID offers you the chance to be a mentor

In an article published on the Wiley Exchanges blog last week, INASP’s AuthorAID director Julie Walker explains the AuthorAID mentoring process and how learned societies can encourage their members to get involved

AuthorAID workshop Source: INASP

At this time of year, many of us turn our thoughts to how we can make positive changes in our lives and the lives of others. Some of us long to provide practical help and support, but feel we lack the necessary skills or time commitment. For experienced researchers, editors and librarians there is a great way that you can give practical, hands-on support to others and one that doesn’t need to take up a lot of your time or require you to travel. You can support a researcher in a developing country through INASP’s AuthorAID project. The support and advice of people who are more experienced in research communication can make a huge difference in helping these researchers to publish their first papers or develop the confidence to present their research findings at a conference.

AuthorAID aims to support developing-country researchers to publish and communicate their research. Mentoring is one of the key components of the project and volunteer mentors play an essential role. Mentors come from diverse backgrounds and include journal editors, science communicators, librarians, senior researchers, retired academics and postdoctoral students. They can decide on the level and nature of support they want to give, whether it’s short-term, task-based support or longer-term, mentoring support. They can also choose the tasks they want to accept and decline any they don’t have time for, or don’t feel comfortable with. Support could be as simple as answering a query or proofreading a manuscript, or as complex as guiding a researcher through the whole publication process. Some mentors also provide support through the AuthorAID discussion list where they can share knowledge and expertise in an ad hoc and informal way.

Through mentoring support, AuthorAID researchers develop the skills and confidence needed to publish in reputable journals, to win awards and scholarships and, vitally, to disseminate and increase the impact of their research findings both in their own countries and globally. Much of the research being undertaken by AuthorAID mentees is development focused and has real implications for economic growth and health in developing countries.

A great example of the potential benefits of the process is the story of AuthorAID mentee, Rhoune Ochako from Kenya. She is carrying out research on maternal and child health issues and first joined AuthorAID in 2010. She wrote “My experience with AuthorAID has been great! … My advice to young researchers is that there is help out there, go look for it; it will not come knocking on your door…” Since joining AuthorAID she has published six papers in high-quality journals, has been promoted to Senior Research Manager within her organization, and is now a mentor herself.

Although the satisfaction of giving back to the academic community is a key reason mentors join the programme, a recent survey that INASP carried out of AuthorAID mentors revealed that they feel they get much more out of mentoring than they were anticipating. Mentors also get a chance to refresh or expand their existing publishing skills, add to their own research knowledge, and make new academic contacts across the globe.

Dan Korbel, an AuthorAID mentor, explained, “…being an AuthorAID mentor goes beyond a conventional teacher-student relationship – it is a really stimulating and worthwhile learning process for both mentee and mentor.”

We are also delighted to announce a new partnership with Wiley to work with the company and its society partners to recruit new mentors. To support this partnership, we have developed a society toolkit (see links below for any society wishing to promote the programme to its members).

To find out more about AuthorAID, or to sign up for the mentoring programme or discussion list, please visit: You can also find us on Twitter.

Wishing you all very happy holidays!

AuthorAID society toolkit
AuthorAID A4 mentoring ad
AuthorAID A5 society leaflet
AuthorAID Mentor banner ad 300×100.jpg
AuthorAID Mentor banner ad 728x90a.gif

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“Evidence-informed policy making is still a very new concept for a lot of policy makers in Zimbabwe”

In an interview with Research to Action, Ronald Munatsi, Director of the Zimbabwe Evidence-Informed Policy Network (ZeipNet) discusses the role of ZeipNet in facilitating the inclusion of evidence into policy-making processes in Zimbabwe.

ZeipNET is one of INASP’s partners, working on the VakaYiko consortium.

In this interview with Research to Action, Ronald discusses the structures that currently exist in Zimbabwe to support evidence-informed policy making (EIPM), highlighting that EIPM is still a very new concept for many policy makers in the country.

Part of the interview discusses the gap that still exists with regards to robust research evidence within Zimbabwe. Work is being carried out within think tanks and other institutions but there is a lack of coordination between the various think tanks or research institutions and the Ministries. Ronald describes how ZeipNET is looking at ways of trying to coordinate policy-making institutions, research institutions and think tanks.

He also provides information in the interview about the various elements of ZeipNET’s work, which include many capacity-building activities such as training workshops where ZeipNET collaboratively develop content modules with the Ministries.

Read the full interview here.

Managed by INASP, VakaYiko is a three-year project involving five organizations working primarily in three countries; Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Vaka is Shona (Southern Africa) for ‘build’ and Yiko is Dagbani (Ghana) for capacity. Together, these words depict the specific goal of the programme, which is to increase the capacity of policy makers to respond to research uptake needs.

The VakaYiko project is funded by DFID under the Building Capacity for Use of Research Evidence (BCURE) programme.

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Bringing African research out of the shadows – Part 3

In the third and final blog in this series, Miriam Conteh-Morgan, Head Librarian, Institute of Public Administration and Management, University of Sierra Leone, wraps up her discussion on the routes for researchers to improve visibility of their research and tips on how researchers can use 2.0 technologies to bring their findings and ideas into the global academic conversations

Visibility through greater representation in the global research community and recognition of one’s (or in this case, a continent’s) contribution to knowledge production are basic to measuring scholarly impact, and these are more easily achievable these days because of new media.

The subtitle of a book by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison — The power of pull: How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion – captures the essence of what researchers in Africa can do to join global academic conversations. “Pull,” the authors argue, is built on 3 A’s: access (that is, finding and getting to people and resources), the ability to attract potentially valuable people and resources, and how these can help one achieve new levels of performance and influence. If practiced well, especially by developing a “share research and flourish” agenda, some potential benefits of pull to African and developing-world researchers include:

  • Increased participation in and contribution to the global open knowledge commons;
  • Taking responsibility for shaping one’s own academic profile and expanding one’s global reach;
  • Increased ROA (return on awareness), manifest through enlarged networks and new collaborations; and
  • Receiving constructive (particularly pre-publication) feedback on one’s research in a timely manner.

There is a lengthier discussion of the topic by this author, and a handy guide to managing one’s academic online presence put out by the University of Cape Town.

What do you think?  Have you used any of these tools to share your research and meet fellow researchers? Are there any you would recommend?  Is this an effective approach?

A Spanish version of this post is also available on the AuthorAID website.


Gregg, Melissa. (2006). Feeling ordinary: Blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 20 (2), 147–60

Hagel III, John, Brown, John Seely, & Davison, Lang. (2010). The power of pull: How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion. New York, NY: Basic Books

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