At a social gathering of close acquaintances the other day, one among us got wondering how the online journal Scientific African, launched during the Next Einstein Forum in March this year in Kigali, was shaping up.
Someone observed that it was probably too early to expect it to have produced an inaugural issue, hardly three months since the launch.
This sparked a discussion, of which it was acknowledged that submitting and having papers peer-reviewed is a process that takes time – “at least six months, or even more than a year,” somebody suggested.
However, in the back-and-forth that ensued, it was conceded that given the fanfare of the launch and the high expectations placed on it, it was timely the person should wonder at the journal’s progress.
Milestones have to be set, the argument went, as it was about maintaining sustained support for it from the word go.
It was asserted that three months cannot be too soon to keep tabs on a home-grown forum, especially one aimed at affording African scientists their own multi-disciplinary medium to channel impactful research.
The journal’s website was quickly sought and opened. As should have been expected, it was live, appeared attractive and already calling for submissions.
The speed with which the journal’s progress was monitored at the mere summoning of asmartphone was quite telling. Many in the gathering were old enough to remember days we would travel long distances to the nearest library as the only available option to access a book, let alone an academic journal.
Academic journals, in any event, were something of a rare commodity. Most could only found in a well-stocked university library that, in much of Africa, even in today’s digital era often means a national institution higher learning with adequate government or well-wishers’ funding to afford a regular subscription.
Aside from open access journals that can be accessed free of charge as the Scientific African aspires to be, annual subscriptions to top-notch journals can run up to millions of dollars in an academic journal industry estimated to net US$8.3 billion per year as of 2016.
But the main reason the Scientific African should provoke such interest among the gathering was that it was also a reminder of how research by African scientists has not always been accepted globally. This has often been because it must be published in peer-reviewed journals from outside the continent by non-Africans who may not fully understand the context, or quite appreciate the impact.
The cost of being published has also been an issue, of which the journal will charge African scientists a much-reduced cost of $200 matching the global average for similar, though not Africa-oriented online initiatives.
For this reason, the journal is being touted by its publisher Elsevier, under the Next Einstein Forum initiative, as a scientific publishing platform dedicated to expanding access to African research, as well as increasing intra-African scientific collaboration and building scientific capacity in Africa.
According to Elsevier, which stands among the most recognised on the continent with a number of scientific journals in its stable, less than 2 per cent of global scientific research output came out of Africa between 2012 and 2016.
This statistic encapsulates the challenges besetting the sector, of which the miniscule output underlies the dearth in capacity as much as low collaboration between African scientists.
Available studies, including an oft-quoted one that looked at collaboration among the 15 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) offers an example.
The 2010 study, South-South research collaboration of countries in the SADC, found that only 3 per cent of papers during 2005–2008 were jointly authored by researchers from two or more of the countries (intra-regional SADC collaboration), and only 5 per cent of SADC papers were jointly authored with researchers from African countries outside the SADC (continental collaboration).
In contrast, 47 per cent of SADC papers were co-authored with scientists from high-income countries.
The gathering of acquaintances easily rolled off the statistics over a social drink from their smartphones. They unhurriedly also looked at other trends, such as the African Journals OnLine (AJOL) which is tagged as one of the world’s largest online library of peer-reviewed, African-published scholarly journals with over 500 titles.
A study on the site found medical journals being the most represented in its database. It also found that only twenty-six African countries have their journals in the AJOL database with many of them having not more than two journals. Nigeria and South Africa dominated the list of journals in the database.
The low continental contribution is consistent with the concerns expressed during theNext Einstein Forum in Kigali. As the Scientific African sets on its mandate, therefore, it is with the expectation it will be a boon for scientific research on the continent.
In the meantime, I can bet the gathering of my close acquaintances shall keep close tabs on it, knowing that the journal’s success will be its impact on global research, especially with citations by other journals.
The views expressed in this article
are of the author.