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Research without Borders: sharing expertise in Africa

The African Journal Partnership Program has enlisted Elsevier Foundation volunteers to provide targeted training for African journals

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Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is equivalent to 12 percent of our global population, and the region is evolving rapidly. Between 2003 and 2012, annual research output doubled while the African share of global research grew by 63 percent, according to the 2014 World Bank-Elsevier report, A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African STEM Research, which examines research output, citations and collaborations.

As promising as this trend is, however, it accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s research output. One of the obstacles faced by African research is that it’s hard to find. African research often focuses on local or regional topics and is published in unindexed journals or remains unpublished as dissertations and theses on library shelves. But what would happen if we could dramatically boost the discoverability of African research? What kind of innovations and pioneering inquiries would emerge if African scientists also had better access to high quality, home grown, indexed journals? Or if ties with the international research community were strengthened?

The World Bank-Elsevier report indicates that in 2012, over 70 percent of all research publications from Southern and East Africa were co-authored with an international collaborator. Collaboration with international scientists and visiting faculty has been one effective way to boost research capacity.

But one program has gone a step further; the African Journal Partnership Program (AJPP) has been working directly with African health and medical journals to strengthen their impact. The mentorship program pairs African with leading biomedical journals from the US and UK, including JAMA, The Annals of Internal Medicine, BMJ, The New England Journal of Medicine, Environmental Health Perspectives and The Lancet. Launched in 2004, the partnership has grown from four to nine African journals.

Working in targeted mentoring teams, AJPP has sought to improve the quality and discoverability of journals in Ghana, Malawi, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Mali, Kenya and Rwanda. AJPP has been sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health with support from the US National Library of Medicine and the Fogarty International Center, and the program is administered by the Council of Science Editors. This year The Elsevier Foundation has joined the partnership by providing a $204,000 grant for a volunteer training complement. Dubbed, “Research without Borders” (RwB), Elsevier volunteers will spend up to a month each working closely with each journal’s editorial teams.

From left to right: Prof. Hassan Saidi, Editor-in-Chief of <em>The Annals of African Surgery</em>; Sheillah Nekesa, Office Administrator of the Surgical Society of Kenya; Stanley Aruyaru, Assistant Editor of The Annals of African Surgery; and EJ van Lanen, Publisher for Elsevier.

EJ van Lanen, an Elsevier Publisher based in Berlin, spent November volunteering with Editor-in-Chief Dr. Hassan Saidi and his editorial team at The Annals of African Surgery, based in Nairobi. He noted:

The Annals of African Surgery team is dedicated to their journal and passionate about expanding its reach, influence, and impact. And they are certainly ready to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by Research without Borders and the African Journals Partnership programs. From our first meeting, it was clear that the journal is ready to grow and that the team in place, given the proper resources, is more than capable of making their journal the premier publishing outlet for surgeons in the East African region.

As a newcomer to AJPP, the journal’s key challenges include the implementation of an online peer review system and developing a more robust community of authors and reviewers around the journal.  As Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Saidi said:

The Annals of African Surgery has found a true friend in EJ. His warm personality and amazing work spirit enabled us to accomplish so much within a short time. He was always ready to help, no matter the time or place. The editorial team appreciate this awesome friendship and thank him for sharing his expertise in website design and implementation, training on the Thomson Reuters peer-reviewed manuscript submission system, and the facilitation of writing workshop in Mombasa, Kenya.

Van Lanen said he welcomed the chance to work with the journal team in person while going in depth:

We’ve been … reconsidering everything about the journal and how it works. I’m not used to having so much time with my editors, sitting with them over the course of days and weeks to just work on a journal. It’s what I imagine publishing used to be before we could do so much work remotely. I’ve really enjoyed that. Maybe also because Prof. Saidi and his crew are so fun, so thoughtful and open. They’ve been incredibly welcoming.

Research without Borders has grown out of Publishers without Borders, a pilot volunteer program in 2014-15 that supported Tanzanian scientists, librarians and publishers with training on peer review, copyright, marketing, sales and digitization. The program formed part of the “TZAP: Strengthening Tanzanian Publishing” collaboration between the Elsevier Foundation, Voluntary-Services Overseas (VSO), INASP and the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) to support the development of indigenous academic and a digital publishing culture in Tanzania. Elsevier Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm, remarked:

Partnering with AJPP is a natural progression for us as we evolve our skills based volunteering outreach. Working closely with the African, US and European editors, we have been able to carefully match the right people and skills with each journal. Needless to say, AJPP is impressive — the partners’ commitment and achievements really speak for themselves, and we’re excited to be part of initiative.

Read more about the project development and the volunteers’ experiences in Tanzania:

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