Research access and getting published: challenges in developing countries
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What does a day in the life of researcher or librarian in the global South look like? Here, university staff from Uganda, Zimbabwe and Ghana share their experiences of their daily work, accessing information and publishing research findings.

Interviews by Katie Lewis

Translating research into practical solutions is vital for overcoming big global challenges like hunger, disease, inequality and climate change. But for these practical solutions to be effective, it is important to understand the local context. In-depth and locally generated knowledge is key to solving local development issues.

The African Rural University (ARU) in Uganda, for example, focuses on investigating and solving local issues, such as the quality of residential housing and the gender implications of land access, ownership and control. “Communities serve as social laboratories and it is through daily interactions with these communities that researchers are able to identify and understand local challenges,” says Paul Byayesu, a librarian at the ARU.

Meanwhile, Dr Alice Matimba of the University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences (UZCHS) has made important insights into the burden of diabetes and the associated blindness it can cause in Zimbabwe, through meticulous on-the-ground research in and around Harare. “We have worked hard to engage communities and build awareness about prevention and self-care among patients,” Dr Matimba says. “We are currently trying to develop more comprehensive educational tools for patients and health workers, to help improve management of diabetes.”

As for Margaret Sraku-Lartey, a researcher and librarian at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, she links robust local research to economic development. “Our Research Institute has a mandate to conduct research into forestry and forest products, in order to preserve and manage forest resources sustainably, and to ensure Ghana benefits from its forest resources,” she explains. For example, one project at CSIR-Forestry Research, is identifying, documenting and digitizing local indigenous knowledge of forest foods and medicinal plants in Ghana. Managing this vital knowledge will lead to the preservation and wider application of useful information, feeding into socioeconomic development.

Research access in developing countries

Mary Acanit, a librarian at Kyambogo University in Uganda, cites poor infrastructure as the main daily challenge to research access at her institution. “Although e-resources have been accessible at all points on campus since 2014, the low internet bandwidth means that it is very frustrating when it comes to accessing and using online resources,” she explains. “Also, there are only 25 working computers in our library computer lab, which doesn’t measure up to the daily traffic of over 200 users seeking to use those computers!”

Moreover, despite the vast body of open-access resources that are freely available online, not all researchers have the skills or tools needed to access this literature. According to Dr Matimba, there is an urgent need for researchers to develop their library skills. “By improving their skills, they will be better equipped to search for information that will help them to more fully understand and interpret their own findings,” she says.

Publishing research done in developing countries

Many researchers in the global South face major obstacles when it comes to publishing their own research and ensuring their findings are read widely.

“In the first place, it is not always easy for researchers to decide where to publish their work,” Kathy Matsika says. “It is also very difficult for them to get their work published in well-known journals, and knowledge about open-access publishers tends to be limited. Unfortunately, some researchers have had bad experiences and fallen prey to predatory journals.”

Margaret Sraku-Lartey is also concerned about predatory journals, and she admits that she spends a considerable amount of time trying to identify journals in which she can publish her research. Meanwhile, Paul Byayesu believes that there is limited knowledge among academics about technologies that can help analyse research data, which in turn slows up the research process and makes it more difficult to publish robust findings in reputable journals. Dr Matimba agrees with this, adding that “more researchers need training on translating research and communicating research results”.

One encouraging development is the growth of university-run institutional repositories (IRs). The IR at Zimbabwe’s NUST is a case in point, as it provides a means for researchers at the institution to publish and share their research findings more widely. “It has taken a long time for academics to appreciate the value of submitting publications to the IR, but the situation is changing slowly – and there’s a growing awareness of how it can benefit local researchers,” Matsika says.

Ultimately, there is a long way to go towards ensuring affordable and sustainable access to research and information in developing countries. By collaborating with publishers and universities, INASP is continuing to work hard to improve access to the information researchers need and to increase the visibility and reach of Southern research.■

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Kathy Matsika and Margaret Sraku-Lartey will be attending the Publishers for Development conference on 11 July 2017.

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