Advance science in Africa through open access journals

Researchers and scholars want publishers to increase the volume of available free-access journals to boost research and knowledge production during the COVID-19 pandemic. This, they say, will particularly benefit poor institutions and budding scientists from low-income countries.

They also want the restricted journals to urgently waive publishing fees to give early-career scientists and young scholars the opportunity to publish in prestigious and reputable publications.

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While noting that many publishers had turned their journals into open-access publications since the outbreak of COVID-19, panellists at the virtual Global Gathering of the Next Einstein Forum, from 8 to 10 December, want this temporary waiver extended beyond 2021.

Dr Zaheer Allam, a research associate at the school of architecture and building at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, said during a session on the role of science in informing recovery from global crises such as COVID-19:

“We have seen [free temporary access to] more peer-reviewed journals. However, to publish in them, one has to pay. This should be addressed urgently to allow more access to information and encourage young researchers to work harder.”


Allow exposure, opportunities to learn

Allam said there is a need to support young African scientists by allowing them exposure and opportunities to learn. These scientists should also get access to knowledge wherever it is published or stored. This would help them contribute in the search for solutions to a variety of local challenges, he said.

“Governments across the world are preparing post-COVID-19 economic stimulus packages. It is critical that African states factor in the needs of scientists in the budgets to build their capacity in facing future pandemics,” Allam said.

The COVID-19 pandemic cemented the place for science in guiding policy decisions all over the world and has given rise to new fields of medical research. According to Allam, it had also highlighted the need for an interdisciplinary approach to research.

Professor Agnes Binagwaho, the vice-chancellor at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, agreed with Allam and called on poor institutions to fight for open-access policies for critical health research publications. These journals should consider extending operating under a free access policy for at least 10 years to the benefit of poor research institutions, including universities, Binagwaho said.

Implementation science

She said the pandemic has taught universities that it is time to teach and produce ‘implementation science’, science that is easy to apply and deploy on a wide scale in fighting disasters such as pandemics. Such science has been well captured in simple public health protocols for fighting COVID-19 adopted all over the world.

“We saw this science of how-to first at work in China when the pandemic broke two to three months before it spread to most of the world,” Binagwaho said. “These have been adopted by all countries around the globe with minor alterations to suit specific contexts.”

The time has come for African scientists to work and produce research in health that promotes equity among the continent’s people, and between Africa and the rest of the world. Such research would promote simple, affordable and practical remedies to African health challenges to ensure that all people can access services, irrespective of their economic class.

It was also necessary for different fields of scientific research to study and analyse how the disease and efforts to tame it have evolved, identify weaknesses, and work on making improvements in readiness for future pandemics.

Meaningful collaboration

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for universities and other research bodies in Africa to build their capacity for research, Binagwaho said. It has also presented an opportunity for building ‘meaningful’ collaborations among African researchers and between them and those from outside the continent, she added.

It was the responsibility of every scientist in Africa, including those in the diaspora, to help build capacity for research on the continent, also through increased collaboration. Binagwaho said timely interventions tamed the spread of COVID-19, preventing a catastrophe and curbing casualties in Africa.

“Evidence-based interventions have helped Africa avoid serious numbers of deaths. My university, for example, did not close for even a day [due to the] disease; however, we are yet to fully understand the impact this disease will have on [the] future of education.”

According to Professor Jacques Belair of the department of mathematics and statistics at the Université de Montréal in Canada, modern scientific concepts such as big data and artificial intelligence are going to be important in managing the pandemic.

Deploying science in fighting the pandemic needs a two-tier strategy – addressing the current problem, and fighting off future pandemics. This calls for greater capacity in institutions to enable them to produce scientific evidence necessary to convince policymakers to support research, Belair said.

“In conducting research for global problems such as pandemics, it is now clear that we need to incorporate all aspects of the problem, including social aspects as we have learned from this pandemic.”

Context-specific research needed

Belair said the ‘bad and bleak’ forecasts for the disease in Africa turned out to be wrong and alarming, emphasising the importance of context-specific research about the disease. He agreed with Binagwaho that it was important to incorporate inequality research and planning in science to come up with solutions suited to all socio-economic contexts in society.

The pandemic has taught the world the importance of focusing on conducting research for “actionable science” that solves problems such as pandemics and is easy to apply, said Dr Tolullah Oni, co-director of the Global Diet and Activity Research Group in the MRC epidemiology unit at the University of Cambridge in England.

It was also critical to adopt ‘strategic science’ – the science of what happens when the right things are not done to prevent a catastrophe. “We have to think of what would happen when we do not do certain things, so that we are not fighting fires all the time,” Oni added.

Universities must henceforth focus on teaching “science of application as opposed to just education” to inform policy, she said.

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