Understanding researcher needs is key to success of African research

For African research to prosper, access to information is vital, and libraries play a key role. But to really advance research, we need to go beyond providing access and work more closely with researchers to understand what they need to read, argues Jon Harle

When the problems facing research in African universities are considered – as many reports and conferences have done over the years – access to the latest journals often features high up the list of constraints.

Contrary to popular belief, the data suggests that many universities now have very good journal collections, thanks to a range of access initiatives (including INASP’s own). But actual use of these collections is often disappointingly low. Why is this?

The obvious problems are well known: IT networks that are not well configured to deliver good internet access to the desktop (we have a pilot project that is looking at this issue); poor awareness of what is available; researchers and students lacking the skills to effectively search or navigate scholarly collections (INASP offers training to help with this); and poor links between libraries and academic departments.

Collective action

Solving such problems requires the collective action of two groups: the librarians who are responsible for ensuring access to journals and books on the one hand, and the academics and university managers who are responsible for research and teaching on the other. But all too often, the two groups, and the two sets of issues, aren’t brought together in order to tackle these challenges collectively.

I have a chapter in a new book published by Brill that attempts to bring these two sets of issues together – ‘Dazzled by Digital? Research Environments in African Universities and their Implications for the Use of Digital Resources’. A pre-print copy of the chapter is available on the INASP website, but, for details of the full book, see ‘African Studies in the Digital Age: DisConnects?‘ My chapter builds on a presentation at the 2012 SCOLMA conference.

The environment for research

The issues of IT infrastructure, access and awareness of resources are undoubtedly important considerations. But, as my chapter discusses, there are some more fundamental underlying problems that relate to the way research does or doesn’t take place. These underlying issues have been confirmed by several recent visits to the countries in which INASP works.

Some problems require structural solutions that have to be driven at institutional, if not national, level. These include the shortage of research funding and the over-dependency on short-term consultancies, which can erode the dynamism and perceived value of scholarly research generated by academic departments.

Pressures also include the huge growth in student numbers, which means that many academics spend a great deal of their time lecturing to ever larger classes, and attending to the extra administration that this entails. There is less time for academics to explore the literature, to do research, and to stay up to date with what is happening in their subject.

Learning what to read

Even where there is research going on, there is often a real shortage of staff with PhDs, trained in research, equipped to teach and supervise postgraduates and, in this case, to guide their students to the research they need to be reading. This is hardly surprising given the decades of underinvestment in higher education in many countries. Unless this gap is addressed, however, there is a danger that emerging researchers will continue to start their careers with a fundamental disadvantage compared with their peers in the north.

In short, if critical elements of the research environment are missing, and a culture of research is lacking, journals are likely to see little use. All the access to all the journals in the world isn’t going to transform research and teaching unless we can start working more closely with researchers and their supervisors, within particular subjects or fields of inquiry, so they can more clearly tell their librarians what they need to read.

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Research matters for developing countries

We would like to thank everyone who took part in our 6th Publishers for Development conference last week and hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. This year we wanted the perspectives of our presenters would help our audience to explore how participation in initiatives, such as access schemes, can help to make an important contribution to development. A vital part of this is in seeing and making the links between research, higher education and development. We aimed to provide insights into some of the challenges that remain, what is being done to help address them and also areas where we might collectively get involved.

So that you might easily share information from #pfd2014 with colleagues unable to join us – here are some useful information links:

  • Presentations from the day are now available in PDF format – video is on its way!
  • Twitter engagement via #pfd2014 was absolutely fantastic – we have produced a storify of some of the highlights, but please check out the # and follow @pubsfordev.
  • 2014 Press release is now available on the summary page.
  • We’ve also posted some photos of the day.
  • Finally, we will be following-up on the 5 questions we posed for you to consider during the day – and would like to thank those who have already been filmed for our vox pops!

If you have any other questions or suggestions you would like to make please contact us via: pfd@inasp.info or you can email Lucy Browse.

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Research matters for developing countries – 2014 PfD conference

The countdown has begun to the 6th Publishers for Development conference on 14 August, 2014! For more details of the day, see the agendaspeakers and venue pages.

Registration for the event has now closed. However, if have not registered and would still like to get involved, you can follow the discussion twitter (#pfd2014) or respond to our request for feedback to our questions below.

On the day

We have an exciting line-up of presenters who will help publishers explore how participation in access schemes – as well as other developing country initiatives – can make an important contribution to development, and show why research and higher education matter for developing countries.

Our speakers include Rachel McIntosh from DFID, Ylann Schemm from Elsevier, Julie Brittain and Jon Harle from INASP, David Osei from the ACU, Matt Hodgkinson from PLOS, Francina Makondo from the University of Zambia, Patrick Mapulanga from the University of Malawi and Agnes Chikonzo from the University of Zimbabwe.

This one day conference is collegial in style and is open to those involved in information provision, access and uptake. It will enable attendees to share experiences, learn about what’s happening in other parts of the world and establish new relationships with colleagues. Ultimately it will also help encourage a greater understanding about the role of research in development and how we can collectively contribute to this.


This year we are asking attendees to consider the following questions:

  • What role do you feel research, with the use of academic journals at its heart, has in international development?
  • What barriers remain to research access (and publication) in developing countries?
  • What are the opportunities you see for research access and publication in developing countries over the next 5 years?
  • What kind of partnerships do you think universities and publishers could make to improve access for researchers?
  • How do you believe this conference and the work of PfD helps address these issues?

We’d also welcome comments and feedback on our key principles for responsible engagement with developing countries. You can read more about why we think these principles are important in our recent post Reconciling business interests and development needs: How can publishers ensure developing countries have access to the research they need?

If you have any questions about the day or would like to contribute your answers to the questions above, please email us at pfd@inasp.info or find us on Twitter (@pubsfordev). Presentations will be filmed on the day and available online after the event.

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