In her years as researcher and senior lecturer in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Zimbabwe, Dr. Alice Matimba heard of several cases of diabetes-related blindness, also called retinopathy – a complication that can be effectively prevented if diagnosed and treated in time. But in Zimbabwe, like much of Africa, limited awareness, late diagnosis and poor management aggravate the disease.
“It frustrated me that the current and projected prevalence of diabetes and associated complications were based largely on anecdotal evidence,” she said. “Most cases report dates several years back, and yet technology is moving fast.”
Diabetic retinopathy represents 5 percent of avoidable blindness globally among working-age adults. In much of Africa, with its rapid urbanization, lifestyle changes, aging, poor diet, smoking and pollution, diabetes and related blindness is on the rise. This emerging epidemic takes a heavy toll on African communities, but it can be tackled with evidence-based policymaking and support for screening and treatment.
This is the kind of support provided by Research4Life, a public-private partnership that provides digital access to research in 118 developing nations.
Dr. Matimba began researching an intervention for diabetic retinopathy that was both low-cost and widely accessible. Since 2015, she and her team at the University of Zimbabwe have piloted tele-ophthalmology clinics in the capital city of Harare and advocated for technology-driven health policies. Her efforts have effectively transformed the way diabetic blindness is diagnosed and treated in her country. Over 1,000 patients have now been equipped with up-to-date information that can help reduce the risk of complications – progress that would not have been feasible without the reliable data Dr. Matimba accessed through Research4Life.
“(With) Research4Life providing digital access to evidence-based scientific information, we were finally capable of doing a review of the literature, which confirmed our hypothesis,” she said.
“It enabled flexibility of research ideas, which would lead to solutions,” she explained. “We were able to find the best literature suited for our needs.”
In 2016, she was recognized for her work as one of the winners of the Research4Life-INASP Advocacy Competition, which celebrated the critical role of advocacy in research. Her story, along with those of six other Research4Life advocacy champions, is now collected in the Information in Action publication. Selected among more than 150 case studies submitted for the competition, the stories are a powerful reminder of the critical role advocacy and access to research play in advancing health and research.
Renewed commitment to Research4Life
Launched in 2001 with 1,500 journals, Research4Life now provides access to 85,000 leading journals and books to researchers at more than 8,500 institutions in 118 countries. This unique public-private partnership is comprised of five UN agencies (WHO, FAO, UNEP, WIPO and ILO), 175 international publishers, and Cornell and Yale Universities, which recently voted to extend their partnership to 2025. The decision recognizes the importance of Research4Life’s efforts and success and underscores the deep commitment to reduce the knowledge gap and serve research in low- and middle-income countries.
“The partnership’s overwhelming support to extend the Research4Life mandate to 2025 recognizes the programme’s success in reducing the knowledge gap between high-, middle- and low-income countries through capacity building and affordable access to scholarly, professional and research information,” said Daniel M. Dollar, immediate past-Chair of the Research4Life Executive Committee and Associate University Librarian for Collections, Preservation, and Digital Scholarship at Yale University Library. “Research4Life is a shining example of public and private organizations coming together with a shared vision of the power of information to improve people’s lives.”
The announcement comes a few months after Research4Life launched its newest program: Global Online Access to Legal Information (GOALI). An initiative by the International Labour Organization, GOALI makes available law-related training and content with the double goal of improving the quality of legal research and education while strengthening legal frameworks and institutions.
Elsevier and Research4Life
As a founding partner, Elsevier contributes over a quarter of the peer reviewed resources in Research4Life, encompassing content on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, Scopus, ClinicalKey and Mendeley, including over 3,000 Elsevier journals and 20,000 eBooks. In 2017, there were 2.4 million Research4Life article downloads from ScienceDirect.
“For nearly 20 years now, Elsevier has been immensely proud to support the growth of research in developing countries through Research4Life”, said Ylann Schemm, Director of the Elsevier Foundation and Elsevier’s External Partnerships and a member of Research4Life’s Executive Council. “The Partnership has made good strides in promoting the use of evidence in developing countries, but there is still a long way to go to reach more researchers, doctors, policymakers and NGOs. Our commitment through 2025 underscores that journey.”
Together with the FAO, Elsevier also leads a communications taskforce of publishers and partners to boost the visibility of Research4Life. Projects have included a formal rebranding, films, bylined articles, panel discussions at science conferences, press releases, a website relaunch and research output press briefings. In addition to communications, staff throughout Elsevier are involved in Research4Life taskforces on access, authentication, metrics and training.