Q&A with Stephen Rudgard as AGORA celebrates its 10th anniversary
Equipping agricultural scientists in the developing world with the research they need
By Ylann Schemm Posted on 13 September 2013
[caption id="attachment_27258" align="alignright" width="196"] Stephen Rudgard[/caption]Stephen Rudgard is the Chief of Knowledge and Capacity for Development at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. He heads a global team that manages programs aimed at strengthening capacities of institutions and individuals in developing countries to manage and share information and knowledge. The team facilitates several global partnerships that provide access to agricultural information and develops global standards for agricultural information management.
Ylann Schemm, who manages Elsevier’s corporate responsibility program, interviewed Rudgard for Elsevier Connect for the 10th anniversary of AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture) on September 16. AGORA provides free and low-cost access to key peer reviewed research in food, nutrition and agriculture.
Can you talk more about your role in Research4Life?
My work with AGORA involves a wide range of inputs on collaboration and coordination with the partners in Research4Life, as well as supervising the AGORA team in my unit at FAO. The team includes five highly dedicated and creative individuals who spend part of their time on the various aspects of the program, from user support, to marketing, systems support and administration. My role is also to ensure that Research4Life and AGORA in particular are leveraged through my group’s other programs that focus on opening agricultural knowledge and information, with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries.
AGORA has reached its 10th Anniversary. Can you share some reflections about the program, which has grown under your stewardship?
AGORA will celebrate its birthday on September 16th, and it is important to reflect on how we got here. When FAO was setting up AGORA, we recognized the benefits gained from the pioneer work by WHO and the publisher partners in setting up HINARI. We were able to harness the strong commitment, experience and support from all the major parties to establish a similar program in agriculture, and we were lucky to be able to draw on the additional experience and insights from the Mann Library team at Cornell University. From the early days, we had to be flexible to adapt to changing circumstances as the programs evolved, including the later establishment of the Research4Life umbrella and the addition of the two further sister programs in OARE and ARDI.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="right" width=400 margin=10 align="alignright"]
Webcast: AGORA turns 10!
Watch the webcast
The webcast is on Monday, September 16, from 12:30 to 1 pm CET at fao.org/webcast [/note]
The mutual support amongst the partners has been absolutely critical in overcoming the growing pains through the last 10 years. We continue to create a more robust shared technology architecture and harmonized procedures that are helping over 2,500 institutions benefit from the program, as well as bringing economies of scale to the partners.I also want to highlight the continuing support from the publisher partners who provide the growing wealth of resources accessible through the program, which has now diversified beyond journals into books. In terms of a major ongoing challenge, we recognize the Research4Life programs’ heavy dependence on tailored technology platform, which requires continual upgrading.
With its focus on agriculture, does AGORA have a very diverse base of users? Can you ultimately reach farmers?
Almost three quarters of the institutions registered for AGORA are in the arenas of academia and research, in the form of universities/colleges and research institutes. The next most important group includes ministries and other government offices. This is not surprising given the highly technical nature of the information offered by the program. The institutions that are likely to have the most direct interface with farmers includes extension organizations and NGOs, but these represent less than a tenth of the user base. However, one must remember that the work done in the academic and research institutions does ultimately benefit the farmers.
What concrete gains have come from AGORA?[caption id="attachment_27269" align="alignleft" width="406"] Caption: AGORA is used by agricultural researchers from across developing countries. (Photo: ©FAO/Danfung Dennis/FAO)[/caption]
The principal purpose of AGORA is to enhance innovation and learning in agriculture in low- and middle-income countries. In practice this has been achieved through changes in behavior of scientists, academics and practitioners in terms of their information use. The Research4Life partners have studied the concrete gains derived from the Research4Life programs and developed case studies that reflect these.Researchers and academics using AGORA have been able to plan their research more effectively and ensure that their work is not duplicative. They have been able to find new technologies developed outside their own arenas, test them to ensure they are applicable locally, and then pass them on to farmers. In addition, they have been able to use literature to update their curricula. Finally, evidence exists that professionals in registered institutions have been able to increase their own publication rates over the last 10 years, although the importance of AGORA and Research4Life in contributing to that increase is not fully clear.
Where is AGORA used most?
A large proportion of the use of AGORA is by a small fraction of registered institutions. Twenty institutions account for 30 percent of the total use of AGORA over the last 12 months, and almost all of these “elite” users are universities. Universities have a stronger demand and requirements for faculty and students to access and use research literature, as well as large numbers of individual users. The challenge for the AGORA team is to reach out to the large numbers of registered institutions that have used AGORA infrequently or not all recently to increase and sustain uptake of the program.
A little over half of AGORA’s currently registered institutions are in Africa, which is related to the number of eligible countries in that continent. But African institutions make up a higher than expected proportion of the use of AGORA at close to 70 percent of user sessions recorded in the last 12 months.The next heaviest uptake of AGORA at the regional level is from Latin America and the Caribbean, which has around 20 percent of user sessions from 14 percent of registered institutions. Interestingly, Asia has about a fifth of registrations, but only 5 percent of use. These continental differences give an overview of how AGORA is used, but detailed analysis is required to understand a little more
What are the top three things you think will boost AGORA’s usage in developing countries over the next five years?
A recent review of users’ views on Research4Life revealed the main continuing challenges that have to be addressed if use of the programs is to increase. A major barrier is the generally poor awareness of the Research4Life programs in eligible institutions, which continues despite the continuing efforts of the partners on marketing.The second challenge that limits the use of the programs is internet access, in terms of reliability, speed and cost. Research4Life in general and the AGORA team can only address that area indirectly. Linked partly to this second point is the need to strengthen institutional capacity with improved IT infrastructure but also better policies on use of information and evidence that will provide incentives to their staff to use AGORA.
Where do you see Research4Life in 10 years’ time?
The future of Research4Life in the medium term is a little hazy. The commitment of the UN agencies that lead the programs will surely continue. We must look to the future of the publishing industry, which has defied most predictions in terms of the models of information access.
As Gold Open Access becomes more widespread and publishers of all types are embracing the model of “openness” at the point of use, the need for Research4Life to facilitate access to priced publications may disappear. These changes will be linked to popular demand from the global scientific community and to the new global policy agenda around opening access to knowledge. For instance in the agricultural sector, the G8 and G20 have recently taken up the case for open agricultural data, with reference to access to public information. But in any case, Research4Life will be sensitive to these global trends, and we will adapt to changing circumstances to continue supporting information access needs in low- and middle- income countries.[divider]