Bridging the scientific content divide in African universities

Since the mid-1980s, a large number of university libraries in Africa, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have faced reduced budgets. In some cases, they have no funds whatsoever for subscriptions to scientific journals due to competing demands like national infrastructure development, to which governments are giving priority.

The situation has been made worse by the increase in scholarly journal prices, which, according to data collected by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), jumped by 215% during the fifteen-year period between 1986 and 2001.

The result is that students, researchers and lecturers in most universities on the Continent do not have access to global scientific knowledge distributed through international journals, says Justin Chisenga from the Regional Office for Africa of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). This means that a huge scientific content divide currently exists between their colleagues in developed countries and them. This has also led to several questions being raised regarding the quality of education and research provided and coming out of universities in Africa.

“One major component of any university education is access to the latest research outputs, much of which is published in scientific journals”, says Chisenga. “Lecturers, researchers and students in African Universities need access to up-to-date information published in scientific journals for their academic and research work.”

Most African university libraries cannot afford to provide access to scientific journals. However, there are several initiatives underway that address this issue. Amongst them are AGORA (Access to Online Global Research in Agriculture), an FAO-led project, HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative) led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and OARE (Online Access Research in the Environment), which is led by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The three initiatives, whose objectives, among others, include the improvement of the quality and effectiveness of education and training, as well as facilitating high quality and timely research, have put well over 4000 key scientific journals and bibliographic databases at the disposal of students, researchers and lecturers. All can be accessed via the Internet for free or at low cost. The subjects covered include agriculture, biomedicine and environmental and related social sciences.

The AGORA, HINARI and OARE initiatives are providing universities in Africa with a way to bridge the access-to-information gap, according to Chisenga. AGORA provides access to a collection of more than 1,200 journals, HINARI to over 3,750, and OARE to over 1,300 titles.

“These programmes provide access to current journal literature that libraries have not been able to subscribe to for a long time. Furthermore, I don’t see African libraries managing to subscribe to journals via traditional means for sometime in the future because the trends in funding indicate will continue to be low”, explains Christine Wamunyima Kanyengo, former Head of the Medical Library at the University of Zambia. She now works as Africa User Community Coordinator at the Information, Training and Outreach Center for Africa (ITOCA) in Zambia, where she promotes the HINAGOA (AGORA, HINARI, and OARE) Programmes among African libraries, scientific and higher education institutions.

“The benefits of the programmes lie at several levels. Information on patient care, teaching, research, programme development and management, etc. can be obtained very easily”, Kanyenyo explains, “You can get the journals from your desktop, plus they are very versatile – it allows users to search multiple databases and make a lot of linkages to similar articles.”

According to the FAO’s Chisenga, eligible countries were categorised, and their universities pay a subscription fee to the online resources according to the national per capita GNP. For example, those with a GNP below $1000 were eligible for free access. Universities in countries with a higher GNP pay a fee of $1000 per year and per institution. Considering that a subscription to a single scientific journal can cost more that $1,000, paying the same sum for more than 1,200 titles is almost free, remarks Chisenga.

But what about those who still lack the appropriate ICT infrastructure, such as access to the Internet? Christine Kanyengo observed, “I think the major impediment really lies in the fact that there is little capacity in terms of the number of computers available to users and the low bandwidth. The other impediment would be the training capacity needs of the users. Training in how to make effective use of the online resources is required.”

To address these issues, ITOCA has trained over 5,000 information professionals, scientists and students in electronic information programmes in over thirty Sub-Sahara countries in the last nine years. With an extensive network of over 35 representatives and liaisons (professors, librarians and scientists) across the Continent, ITOCA provides on the ground coverage of the needs in ICT for development in Africa.

By Brenda Zulu


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