Many academics have experienced the difficulty of getting their first grant or getting their first papers published. Imagine the added complexity if you are based in the ‘Global South’. Siân Harris talks to three African biochemists who are part of the AuthorAID network about their research experiences and how AuthorAID can help address some of the inequities within the global research system.
Sara Ahmed is passionate about science. Her particular research interests are in the chemistry of plants that are used in traditional remedies in Africa. But her research dreams encountered barriers because of a lack of research resources in her native Sudan. (See Box 1) for more of Sara’s research story as she moved to continue her research in Japan.)
Sara Ahmed is ‘very interested in the chemistry of natural products as well as understanding the reactions leading to many chemical compounds that are important in our life’.
In her native Sudan, Sara studied food science and biochemistry at university and got a job as a part-time teaching assistant at the same laboratory. But she has encountered challenges in pursuing her research interests further.
“I aspired to be a researcher, love the chemistry of nature and wanted to conduct many experiments but because of the lack of capabilities and facilities in Sudan, it was impossible. My dream never stopped. I failed many times until I found theopportunity to study abroad and conduct my research”.
She was awarded a Japanese fellowship to study master and doctor courses at a Japanese university, but she said this brought different challenges. “Study in Japan is a very great challenge for many students because of the language difficulties. It was very difficult to live in a country like Japan as I came from very different culture and habits”.
She also noted that there were challenges from her own community in Sudan. “There was great opposition from people around us to my studies abroad because I did not have a job and concerns that my husband would lose a part of his career. But my husband believed in giving me the chance to improve myself”. She also notes the challenges of balancing time between her family and study, although she says she has also gained experience and knowledge that have helped her inraising children who are becoming very aware of the science around them.
Sara estimates that it took her about a year to settle into her laboratory and adapt to a new life in Japan. She noted that she often had to struggle with experiments alone until her language skills improved sufficiently for her to ask colleagues for help.
“I am still a student, but my knowledge, attitudes and experience are very different from the beginning. I became more confident and now I can help new Japanese students who come to my laboratory and give them advice for better results”, she said, adding that her children are also enjoying her experiments and sometimes they give her very nice scientific ideas.
Sara Ahmed at a workshop in Japan learning differenttechniques of treating leaves to release volatile compoundsand then the ways of collecting and analysing thosecompounds.
Ijuptil Banga studied biochemistry to Masters level at Modibo Adama University of Technology in Nigeria. He also shared the challenges of pursuing research in a resource-constrained environment: “It was quite challenging [doing research in Nigeria], in that the research environment is very unfriendly. The lab is poorly equipped and most of the equipment I do have has had to be improvised. Most of my reagents had to be bought from Europe and Asia”.
He also noted the lack of grants or loans or scholarships. “It’s strictly paid out of my pocket. This has greatly affected the duration of my studies and quality of my research”, he explained.
Like Sara, Ijuptil is interested in the properties of compounds from plants for treating illnesses, in his case terminal diseases such as cancer. “I am enthusiastic about this type of research. I am looking forward to finding an improved environment to drive forward my passion for research”, he said.
Sara, Ijuptil and Alfoalem Araba Abiye from Ethiopia (see Box 2) work in different countries and look at different compounds, but there is a common thread running through their work: the desire to unlock biomedical potential from local plants. Much of the knowledge of African plants and their healing potential requires the knowledge and experience of African researchers. But, as they shared, there are many challenges.
Alfoalem Araba Abiye from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia is also interested in the medicinal properties of indigenous plants. He is pictured here with a friend taking a field trip out of Addis Ababa to look for a particular plant that literature suggests has medicinal properties.
“Solanum incanum, which is the scientific name of the plant, is a shrub growing near dusty roads and its availability makes it look like a normal plant. But, after searching and reviewing literature, we were able to notice that it has a medicinal claim for pain, especially for stomach ache”, he said, going on to explain how they identified the plant and then took it back to their lab for testing.
Supporting researchers to share their research
These three researchers also have something else in common: they have all participated in recent AuthorAID activities.
AuthorAID (www.authoraid.info/en/about/) is a project set up 13 years ago by an international development organization INASP (International Network for Advancing Science and Policy), with the aim of addressing one of the major inequities faced by researchers in the Global South: an imbalance in opportunity for their research to contribute to global and even local research conversations.
Researchers from the Global South are underrepresented in the most well-known journals and journal indexes. This can become self-perpetuating, when measures to judge journals favour Northern publications and when those journals turn most often to Northern researchers as editors and reviewers as well as for authors.
These imbalances can even persist within researchers’ own countries, an issue that was highlighted by a journal editor in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago:
“Researchers don’t access local publications from Sri Lanka... They only quote things that are in international journals. I read one recent publication from South Asia and the only citation from Asia was from the 1970s. Even though it’s available online, local researchers don’t want to quote local research or publish in local journals for some reason. And when international researchers publish, they talk about Sri Lanka, but they don’t quote Sri Lankan publications. I don’t know if it’s a lack of awareness or if they are deciding not to use it”.
Early-career researchers in the Global South often face particular challenges with getting their research published in academic journals. Rapid expansion of the higher education sector in many countries over recent decades has led to a shortage of experienced senior researchers to provide guidance to more junior colleagues. Lack of awareness of the publishing process, unfamiliarity with scientific writing styles and structures, and sometimes the challenges of writing in English if they have a different mother tongue can all post challenges to researchers. In addition, journal editors and peer reviewers can be less supportive of research that is less familiar to them and so may be seen as outside a journal’s scope.
Such imbalances risk vital knowledge being lost and talented and dedicated researchers being unable to fully participate in solving crucial problems in their countries and worldwide.
How can AuthorAID help?
AuthorAID provides an online database connecting more than 20,000 early-career researchers in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) with experienced mentors who can help them present their research findings and navigate the journal publishing process.
This database also provides a platform for researchers to identify potential collaborators worldwide. This is a tremendous opportunity to bring a greater breadth of experience to a project. It can also help Northern projects to address some funder requirements for capacity development.
Every year AuthorAID runs online training courses in research writing and, to date, has trained over 11,000 researchers. Sara and Alfoalem were participants in the most recent Research Writing in the Sciences course.
There are also other opportunities to discuss and share ideas. Ijuptil is a member of a very active AuthorAID online journal club, in the area of environmental biology and toxicology.
How can you get involved?
The work of AuthorAID would not be possible without ongoing support from the Swedish international development funder Sida and from a fantastic global network of volunteers who help with mentoring, course facilitation and moderating discussions. And this is all helping to ensure that the next generation of biochemists, and other researchers, are able to fulfil their potential and make a difference, wherever they are in the world.
If this project interests you, here are some ways to get involved:
Become a mentor
We are looking for experienced researchers with a strong track record of publications to act as mentors. We are also seeking editors who have helped researchers write journal articles and proposals. Potential mentors should be diplomatic, enthusiastic and committed. Some AuthorAID mentors also act as facilitators on AuthorAID online courses. https://www.authoraid.info/en/mentoring/
Use the AuthorAID database to collaborate
With the global research environment becoming ever more complex and demanding, establishing external and international collaborations is rapidly turning into a key skill for researchers. https://www.authoraid.info/en/mentoring/research-collaboration/
Sponsor an AuthorAID online course
By sponsoring an AuthorAID massive open online course (MOOC) in research writing, you will not only support the research impact of your team, but will also ensure that our high-quality courses remain available and free at the point of access to researchers across the globe, enabling individuals outside of funded projects or networks to benefit too. https://www.inasp.info/MOOCsponsorship
If you are interested in discussing any of this – or generally learning more about AuthorAID – please contact the author at the address shown in her biography.
INASP – www.inasp.info
AuthorAID – www.authoraid.info
Geographies of knowledge: practical ways to boost the visibility of research undertaken and published in the South – LSE Impact blog, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/04/22/southern-research-visibility-solutions/ (talks about the biases in judging research with eg impact factors, which I mention in the article)
Increasing the flexibility of AuthorAID MOOCs with learning pathways – INASP blog http://blog.inasp.info/increasing-flexibility-authoraid-moocs-learning-pathways/
Online learning: five ingredients of success – INASP blog http://blog.inasp.info/online-learning-ingredients-success/
Online journal clubs spark active discussions and new ways of exploring literature – INASP blog http://blog.inasp.info/online-journal-clubs/
Sharing ideas across the research and knowledge system in Sri Lanka – INASP blog http://blog.inasp.info/sharing-ideas-research-knowledge-system-sri-lanka/
Siân Harris is responsible for communications within INASP and in programme work. She is also a mentor with INASP’s AuthorAID project and represents INASP on the Think. Check. Submit. committee, which is helping researchers identify trustworthy journals. Prior to joining INASP, she was a magazine editor and science and technology journalist for 16 years, writing about scholarly communication, climate change, healthcare, life sciences, photonics, telecoms, computing and education. She has a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Bristol. Email: SHarris@inasp.info