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.
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.