Why research evidence? Insights from Zimbabwe

ZEIPNET and INASP recently piloted the first module of VakaYiko’s evidence-informed policy making (EIPM) course with parliamentary researchers in Zimbabwe. The training benefitted enormously from provocative addresses by Mr Willie Ganda, Director of Research Development & Innovation at the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development.  Speaking in a personal capacity, Mr Ganda shared a number of insights from his own work and study experience in Zimbabwe and the UK.

The Importance of Processes

Mr Ganda emphasized the need for institutional mechanisms to fight personal interests which can have an enormous influence on policy. For example, he pointed out that in Zimbabwe, where many policymakers own cattle, the penalties for stealing cows are disproportionately high, even in comparison with violent crime. A cattle thief will automatically be jailed for nine years, while the crime of rape does not carry any mandatory jail term and rapists can get away with much less jail time, or no jail time at all. Mr Ganda argued that research evidence can bring rationality and objectivity into the policymaking process to counter these interests.

Research evidence can also act as a counter to ideologically driven policymaking. In this case, Mr Ganda discussed a recent example, familiar to many of the participants, in which a politician visited Cuba, admired the policies, and aimed to implement the same frameworks in Zimbabwe. In a similar vein, he noted, policies can sometimes be based on contexts which are out of date or no longer relevant—“an old policy for a new context”. In these cases, research evidence can provide valuable contextual nuance to guard against a ‘one size fits all’ approach and support the dynamic nature of policy environments.

Use of evidence, he emphasized, does not just entail quoting facts, but having a structured process around the gathering and review of information. Policymakers may not act on the evidence at all, but must consider it. This process can even remain in place in cases where there is no evidence at all at the beginning of the policymaking process. In these cases, he recommended building in what he called a “buffer” in the policy, a “space for the ‘what ifs’”, to allow policymakers to respond to learning and evidence as it is generated.

Challenges of Using Evidence

Mr Ganda also acknowledged and discussed a number of challenges in using evidence to inform policy. One major challenge mentioned was the unavailability of research evidence. Recalling his own study days at Cambridge University in the UK, he described his surprise when he realized that information on Zimbabwe can be easier to come by overseas than in-country, and noted how well informed some foreign analysts were about the situation in the country. This is a key issue the course is addressing, with later modules providing participants with a guide to a wealth of open access online sources of peer reviewed and grey literature on public policy issues.

A second major challenge is the lack of capacity among policymakers. A recent capacity review of the Zimbabwean parliament revealed that 30% of MPs do not have any post-secondary education. Lack of capacity to understand research evidence, Mr Ganda pointed out, can lead policymakers either to accept or reject evidence without properly considering it, both of which can be dangerous. In response to these challenges, participants emphasized the importance of their role as translators, both in a literal sense (translating complex or abstract concepts such as the ‘basket of goods’, or hyperinflation, into Shona) and a figurative sense, interpreting complex technical research for MPs with varying levels of education.

With the aid of a photograph of Colin Powell, Mr Ganda emphasized that it’s not only developing countries which have challenges using evidence. Recalling the invasion of Iraq due to the supposed presence of WMDs, he reminded participants that it’s possible for an entire war to be waged on false evidence. EIPM is a work in progress for colleagues all over the world.

We were delighted to have the participation of Mr Ganda in the training. Having the course jointly delivered by facilitators from research, policy, and library backgrounds puts into practice the collaborative approach that underpins the work of VakaYiko. We look forward to welcoming other external speakers to pilots of future modules in Zimbabwe and Ghana.

The VakaYiko Consortium’s EIPM course is being piloted in four two-day modules in Zimbabwe and Ghana in 2015. In addition to building individuals’ skills and knowledge through the course, the VakaYiko approach also works to build processes for handling research evidence in government departments and to create a wider enabling environment of citizens, media and civil society.

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INASP small grants scheme aims to increase use of research evidence in policy making


The Evidence Informed Policy Making (EIPM) team at INASP has been working on a small grants scheme that supports individuals and organisations working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to increase the use of research evidence in policy making. In this post, EIPM Programme Assistant, Shahenda Suliman, discusses the first round of grants.

As part of the VakaYiko project, the small grants scheme supports individuals and organisations working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to increase the use of research evidence in policy making. Funded by DFID and managed by INASP, the scheme was developed with the aim of identifying and sharing new and effective approaches to strengthening research use.

We were particularly interested in identifying approaches derived from the practical experiences of individuals in and from the Global South. After reviewing over 200 applications, the EIPM team realised that any ingenuity was perhaps more likely to emerge from the ways in which common approaches such as training workshops, online courses, and policy dialogues were delivered in specific contexts – that is, the utilisation of standard approaches – than through a discovery or rediscovery of new or neglected approaches.

The projects are being funded as part of the larger VakaYiko project. Grants of up to £20,000 are being provided for projects that will last for a maximum of 12 months. The call for the first round of applicants was launched in April 2014 and the successful applicants are as follows:

  • The African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS): The Kenya Climate Science, Technology and Policy Roundtable: Application of climate science and technology research evidence into policy making and implementation in Kenya.
  • The Ateneo de Manila University: Capacity development for evidence-informed education policy making in sub-national government level in the Philippines.
  • The Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (CPPA): INFODATA-LIT-LG – Improving information literacy for urban service planning and delivery at local government level in Nigeria.
  • Jimma University: Building research utilization capacity of health planners and policy makers at the Federal Ministry of Health in Ethiopia.
  • Politics and Ideas (P&I): Leaders of Change: developing Latin American policymakers’ capacity to promote the use of knowledge in policy.

These recipients are working in different countries, targeting different sectors, and employing different approaches. In most cases, the VakaYiko project is either supporting existing activities, or funding new activities that clearly complement a wider movement or collective push towards increasing the use of research evidence in policy making. Here at INASP, the EIPM team has been impressed by the enthusiasm and creativity of the recipients, particularly their keenness to share their ongoing experiences and their ability to navigate shifting political landscapes.

We’ve seen an interest not only in the grantees’ approaches to capacity development, but also in developing stronger links between individuals and institutions across the three continents. After over six months of interacting with the small grantees and learning from their experiences, we hope that online courses developed in Argentina will continue to elicit expressions of interest from policy makers in South Africa, that training workshops for health ministers in Ethiopia continue to be of interest to trainers in Zimbabwe, and that data collection methods for service delivery in Nigeria continue to be of use for those working on service delivery in Malawi.

In the coming months we’ll have posts written by some of the small grant recipients, so watch this space for more information on the individual projects.


Making research connections with social media

Academics across all disciplines are increasingly using social media to share their work. These networks’ global reach and lack of subscription fees makes them especially useful for researchers in the South, but the platforms also demand a different tone and mode of engagement than peer-reviewed journals and books.

INASP’s Communications Coordinator Sian Harris recently shared social media insights and guidelines with Sri Lankan journal editors and medical researchers. Here is an edited selection of her tips.

Why use social media?

Many researchers around the world are using social media to share their published research, as well as to discuss work in progress and their research fields more generally. Social media provides an informal and rapid way of communicating research. It can take months, even years, for a published paper to come out, but a researcher can tweet a link to that paper within minutes.

Sharing research via social media enables people to comment on and share research easily. It reveals research that people might not otherwise find and enables the researchers to connect with people around the world interested in similar topics.

In addition, use of social media can provide another way to demonstrate the impact of research. Emerging impact metrics – so-called altmetrics – complement the traditional approach of evaluating research based on citations in other journal articles.

Another reason for people to consider using this approach is that many other researchers are already doing so, some very effectively. Social media is increasingly becoming a place where research is discussed.

How to use social media for promoting research

The good news is that using social media is easy and free. Setting up an account takes only a few minutes. Three major websites to consider include Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. There are plenty of other social media channels but it would be very time-consuming to engage with all of them, so I suggest people pick one or two to focus on. Many social media accounts can be linked together. For example, Twitter can be set up to populate Facebook and LinkedIn automatically, which helps to spread a researcher’s reach with little additional effort.

Different social media and related services have different strengths and weaknesses. Facebook, for example, is good for sharing photographs and videos; they rank higher on Facebook’s algorithm so are more likely to appear on people’s news feed than text-only updates. Things like Instagram and Flickr are primarily based around images. Twitter is also sometimes used to share photographs and videos but is particularly good for very short pieces of text with a web link.

I’m going to share advice here particularly about using Twitter, although many of the points are also very appropriate for other social media channels.

Tweets can be up to 140 characters in length (including links). Some journals ask authors to write tweetable abstracts or titles (very short summaries of their work that can be tweeted). It is good practice to think about a short summary of the research being promoted that can fit into this character count.

Tweets (or other social media posts) should include a linkable DOI to your paper. They should also include the Twitter names (prefixed with the @ symbol) of relevant people, perhaps the authors and co-authors or other researchers that you would like to alert to your research. Keep your institution, potential collaborators and other researchers in your field informed about what you are doing by including their Twitter names in your tweet. Keep @INASPinfo informed about what you are doing too so that we can retweet research news linked with our projects.

Using hashtags (by typing the # symbol before a word or phrase) is a good way to highlight research for people who don’t know you but may be following a particular topic. It is also good to tie hashtags in with other things going on around the world, for example World Wildlife Day. This can enable engagement with bigger and more diverse audiences.

Be consistent about what you tweet about. If you primarily intend to use Twitter to discuss agricultural research, for example, then avoid tweeting too much about music or sport as these may not be of interest to your primary audience.

Social media is a two-way thing. Follow relevant people and hashtags to also keep track of trends in your research area, as well as news on policies and trends relating to research. Follow @INASPinfo @JOLsProject and @AuthorAID to keep track of INASP news.

Here are some tips for good tweeting:

1. Tweet titles and links to all the articles that you publish (published papers, blogs, reports etc.)

2. Tweet links to other relevant things (such as other interesting research in your area or articles about research trends in your country)

3. Tweet from conferences and meetings (using the conference hashtag)

4. Share photos relating to your research (be careful to check copyright issues and that any people in the photographs are happy for their image to be shared)

5. Use hashtags

6. Retweet interesting and relevant things

7. Reply to tweets

8. Mention other people in tweets (be aware that if you include their Twitter handle first, only they and your mutual followers will see the tweet)

9. Make lists to organize and keep track of who you are following

10. If you have more than one Twitter account be sure that you are tweeting from the right one

11. Feel free to share appropriate jokes … in moderation

12. Remember that tweets can be viewed by everybody, potentially forever

13. Never ever tweet when angry or likely to tweet something that you might afterwards regret

14. If in doubt, don’t share on social media

Monitoring social media

Once you start sharing research on social media, it is a good idea to follow the response. Check the notifications from your social media home page to ensure that you reply to any messages and see who retweets news about your research.

More formally, it is a good idea to track social media activity. Some journals platforms track social media engagement for the papers that appear in those journals. There are several tools that can help with this. Some universities also use such tools to track mentions of research at an institutional level.

The owners of social media accounts can also track ‘engagement’ using third-party, commercial tools or the social media site’s own (free) analytics tools. Twitter, for example, provides free statistics at analytics.twitter.com, while on a Facebook page you can track the traffic and engagement using the ‘Insight’ tab.

Tell us about your experiences

Do you have some advice to add to this list? Have you had good, or bad, experiences of sharing your research using social media? Leave a reply below, or join the conversation at #researchtweets.

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Higher education is critical to realizing Africa’s potential, but we need to move onto the how

“Governing without data is like driving without a dashboard”. That was how Kofi Annan summed up the importance of higher education for Africa, at the first African Higher Education Summit in Dakar a couple of weeks ago. Governments need knowledge and information to govern effectively, he argued, and the places that produce that, in the form of research and skilled graduates, are universities. When the Africa Progress Panel wanted to investigate agriculture, and when the Ebola outbreak struck in West Africa, it was universities and research institutes outside the continent that people turned to for analysis and advice.

The Summit was billed as the first continental summit on higher education in Africa. Under the banner of ‘revitalising higher education for Africa’s future’ it aimed to develop a shared vision, mobilize new investment, highlight what has worked well, and spur innovation. The guest list was impressive: the chair of the African Union Commission, the President of Senegal, an array of vice chancellors, a smattering of ministers, officials and ambassadors, and a number from donors and capacity building organisations – like INASP – which support the sector. Some 500 delegates in total.

For anyone aware of the debates surrounding higher education on the continent there were some familiar discussions during the conference – the need for better financing, and the relative split between public and private sources, the need to balance wider access with improvements in quality, and the need to create a diverse system spanning research-intensive universities to specialized technical training institutes (or differentiation as it is known in the language of HE policy), and the need to ensure graduates are employable. This in the context of rapid growth – some familiar but still striking examples were quoted. Ethiopia’s Minister of Education noted that in 23 years the country had gone from just two to 97 universities and colleges. A conversation with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, revealed real enthusiasm and energy – but also the daunting scale of the task ahead of them.

Relevance matters

There was also a resounding call for relevance –that for Africa to realize its potential, underpinning the sector had to be a commitment to ensure that what it researched, and the graduates it produced, were relevant to the needs of African societies and their development needs. In the words of Codesria’s Director, Ebrima Sall, this definition needs to move away from a narrow focus on serving a job market to a broader focus on development.

For INASP, Annan’s pithy comment about dashboards and governance is particularly interesting – our work supports access to research and the people that enable this, enables researchers to get their work published and more visible locally and internationally, and through our evidence-informed policy programme, makes the connections between research and those that need information for decision making in government and elsewhere. Higher education provides a critical pipeline – skilled researchers and skilled policymakers all depend on a functioning higher education system in some way.

What about the ‘how’?

But there was something missing from the summit for me, and that was sufficient opportunity for discussions about the ‘how’. As Kofi Annan rightly noted out, what works in Accra won’t necessarily work in Nairobi or Dakar – there can be no prescriptions. But while the challenges are no doubt huge, there are many examples of initiatives which have worked and could work to strengthen HE on the continent.

To take research and postgraduate education as an example, there is no shortage of initiatives. The University of Ghana has established a doctoral academy to reinvigorate its own PhD training, and to serve as something of a West African hub (something that Stellenbosch has already begun to do in South Africa). The African Union established the Pan African University as a continental network of training and research centres. The World Bank is funding a series of specialist centres across West Africa to develop academic capacity in critical fields and is preparing to develop a second phase in Eastern and Southern Africa. These build on regional initiatives such as the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Africa, the African Population Health Research Centre and many others. What are we learning from these approaches? What is working well, and how can we build on these?

Incentives are critical of course. As one speaker commented, if you don’t pay academics on time, that’s a major obstacle to driving up quality. But as Nico Cloete noted, incentives aren’t just about money – the bigger issue is how the available money is used.

There was a good discussion about the importance of a differentiated system. But the big question was how to make this happen – how many vice chancellors would decide not to try to become a highly ranked research university and instead opt for a mission oriented more towards high quality undergraduate teaching? These are policy questions – and may depend on governments who regulate HE systems to encourage or discourage institutions from following particular routes. As Prof Cliff Tagoe argued, a country first needs to define what it needs its HE system to do, and set this out so that institutions can respond.

Undoubtedly there will be a political dimension to this. The Summit had some high profile figures – ministers and government figures – and the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, pledged himself as a continental champion for advancing this agenda and the African Union Commission’s chair, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, pledged her organisation’s support. But whether the bold calls made in Dakar translate into change will depend on individual governments to take up the challenge – and provide the right combination of funding and policy to enable their skilled university leaders to take this agenda forward.

At the heart of Annan’s argument was that Africa’s potential won’t be realized unless we can develop the higher skills and knowledge that the continent needs. The big debates are important – that mark out the key issues we need to tackle, and can serve to mobilize energy and action around them. But we certainly won’t realize that potential if we don’t focus on the detail of ‘how’.

Jon Harle is Senior Programme Manager, Research, Access & Availability

He tweets @jonharle

Further coverage of the event

University World News Special Report – African Higher Education Summit

Nick Ishmael Perkins – Building universities cannot wait for good governance

John Kirkland – A pyramid without a roof?


Publishers: how are you working with developing countries?

Last year INASP published some principles for publishers concerned to do business responsibly in developing countries. To recap, these principles include:

    • Making the effort to understand the country context
      – understanding local needs and going beyond the capital city
    • Respecting a country’s wish to negotiate as a consortium or purchasing club – looking for alternative routes or withdrawing access during negotiations can damage relationships and reputations
    • Not making sudden changes – explaining plans early and giving consortia time to prepare
    • Thinking medium to long term on pricing – budgets won’t have increased just because countries are willing and able to deal directly
    • Being realistic about sales expectations – so where increases are needed, making these affordable, incremental and predictable

We discussed these with a number of you during a lively session at last year’s Publishers for Development conference (see this video of my presentation or view all the sessions here) and there was a general sense of agreement. We’ve heard of some good business approaches – publishers that are clear that consortia or their local equivalents make the most obvious partners for them, are willing to invest the time to develop those relationships and price appropriately, and recognize the importance of taking a five-year view. There are some good examples of attempts to understand the country context too. A number of publishers with which INASP works have visited consortia, while others have provided practical support, such as running short training events or sponsoring promotional activities.

But we’ve also heard of several instances where major publishers, seeking to sell directly to a country, have bypassed the consortium to establish business with government or directly with university heads. This creates considerable and unnecessary problems for consortia and bypasses the systems and structures that countries are trying to build – structures which are designed for long-term, sustainable access.

The pace of change

Access to research – at affordable rates, and at rates that will still be affordable into the future – is a major challenge.

INASP works with library consortia or other national bodies to ensure that researchers and students have the journals and books they need. This is as important now as ever as major efforts are underway to strengthen research and higher education systems across Africa, Asia and Latin America. We hear on a weekly basis how challenging this continues to be. The pace of change from philanthropic schemes to direct sales, and increases to subscription rates in the process, too often outpaces a country’s ability to respond.

Let’s be absolutely clear – INASP and our partners welcome the progressive shift to direct relationships between countries and publishers. In the long term, it is this which will better serve countries’ needs and enable them to develop the information collections that they most need. But we’re also clear that it needs to happen at the right pace. Countries need the time to develop their systems and processes, and to build the relationships they need with decision makers to ensure the right levels of future funding.

Building strong consortia, which can increase purchasing budgets and extend access to new institutions, takes time. Our partners are working hard to grow their consortia, to develop stronger relationships with university and research leaders, and to demonstrate the importance that access to information plays in building robust research systems. But too often the effort and energy that is needed to develop strong and sustainable structures is dissipated as consortia grapple with unaffordable pricing and the imperative not to let their users down.

Share your stories!

So, seven months on from the publication of our principles of responsible engagement, we’d like to hear from you. We’re keen to celebrate good practices and show what can be achieved when consortia and publishers build mutually productive and trusting relationships.

If you’ve got good examples to share – where you’ve followed these principles, and have developed good relationships – let us know. We’re keen to collect these stories – perhaps you’d be keen to write a post for the Publishers for Development blog. Or perhaps you’d like to share some of the challenges you’ve encountered too, when trying to put these principles into practice. Send us an email – we’re happy to share stories anonymously too.

You can see the principles here and can read more about why we think these are important here. My colleagues Anne Powell and Mai Skovgaard will be at UKSG next week so please do seek them out. They’d be glad to discuss these further with you.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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Power cuts and empowerment in Tanzania

maaike1Maaike Duine is a VSO Professional Volunteer working on a pilot project to raise the quality of academic publishing in Tanzania. Here she discusses a number of workshops conducted as part of the project, which is supported by INASP, VSO, COSTECH and the Elsevier Foundation.

After the launch of the Consortium of Academic Publishers of Tanzania in June, the project’s partners have continued their efforts to strengthen academic and online publishing in Tanzania by organizing workshops for Tanzanian university presses and publishers. To facilitate these workshops, INASP, VSO and COSTECH have partnered with the Elsevier Foundation. In total, eight Elsevier volunteers have been recruited to co-facilitate workshops on many aspects of academic publishing, including online formats, open access, peer review, acquisition, commissioning, copyright, marketing and sales.maaike2

We organized our first workshop on journal publishing at the University of Dodoma, one of the fastest-growing universities in Tanzania on an enormous campus overlooking the city of Dodoma. The workshop was targeted at editors of the academic journals published by the different universities in Morogoro, Iringa and Dodoma. There were even representatives from a prospective journal at the University of Tanzania. The three-day workshop focused on various aspects of academic journal publishing: how to establish an editorial board, where to find reviewers, and what exactly an editor does. Practical sessions on how to load content on African Journals Online were included too and the hands-on workshop sessions proved popular with participants.

Although the workshops were hampered by poor internet connectivity and power cuts, INASP’s Sioux Cumming managed to demonstrate the uploading of articles on a single laptop. These network issues were even more pronounced during our second journal publishing workshop at Mount Meru University in Arusha. At one point, after an extended power failure, all the other computers in the room had run out of battery power and so around 14 people stood behind Sioux angling for a glimpse of her screen. In a way it was good to experience this, as these are exactly the type of challenges Tanzanian researchers and publishers are dealing with in their day-to-day business.maaike3

The workshop also had at least one direct result, with one of the editors present cancelling the printing order for his journal’s next issue. After having received guidelines on how to improve the quality of the journal, he thought it best to implement changes before sending the issue to the printer. Several participants mentioned the importance of keeping an eye on workshop gender participation, as only 7% of participants were female. It was good to hear that gender mainstreaming was of interest both to participants and organizers, as INASP and VSO also recognize the importance of this issue.

Although capacity building through external trainers such as INASP and staff from Elsevier is an important part of the project, academic publishing knowledge can also be increased by the consortium members and workshop participants sharing their own experiences and expertise with each other. This happened at the journal publishing workshop, where editors from different journals and universities exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. This was even more pronounced at the two book publishing workshops we organized in Dar es Salaam, which were attended by staff from university presses and commercial publishers. Views from people with different backgrounds – such as graphic design, libraries, scientific editing and children’s books – led to interesting discussions about publishing. For example, how do you measure success: through the number of publications sold, or the number of people that those publications reach?


Another session during the book publishing workshop included formulating strategy, which remains a challenge for many commercial publishers and university presses. Main obstacles are budget planning and a lack of knowledge about how to reach and research markets. Practical sessions with an Excel spreadsheet helped participants see how revenue was affected by pricing, production costs, print run and royalty share.

Formulating goals, dividing them into smaller steps and writing these on spreadsheets also helped participants to clearly formulate their strategies. Goals defined during the workshop included uploading all journal back issues by the end of 2015, bi-annual publishing, and reminding peer reviewers on a regular basis. Participants were also taught to rethink strategy from time to time, reflecting on whether core audiences are being reached, and what other products might best serve Tanzanian readers.maaike5

For more information about the project, please see the articles by Liesbeth Kanis, Mary Ann Zimmermann and Shirley Decker-Lucke. My next blog will focus on Tanzanian intellectual property and digital publishing training sessions.

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