Why the quality of research matters

Tuesday September 29 2020

 

By Gilbert Nakweya

Academics in Africa need to interrogate what value their publications actually contribute to society and focus on the quality of research rather than hyper-prolific scholarship, according to Professor Tade Aina, executive director of the Nairobi-headquartered Partnership for African Social and Governance Research.

Aina said increased emphasis on publication in both the academies of science and arts has adversely affected the quality of research, especially with the rise of predatory journals that drive young scholars in their thirst for mobility.

“If a university lecturer produces 70 articles in a year, what else do they do?” asked Aina, formerly the programme director of the Higher Education and Libraries in Africa Programme for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

He said a scholar does not need 100 publications to make an impact in a given field. “You can open debate with a few critical publications that give direction, for instance, on policy,” he said.

Aina said Covid-19 has challenged Africa to re-imagine its university systems. “This calls for reflection on the balance between excellence in publication and the numbers of publications and their impact on teaching in universities,” Aina said.

He urged universities to narrow their research focus to local needs of the communities in which they operate while still addressing universal questions of health-care, climate change and the production of and access to energy.

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According to Dr Fibian Lukalo, director of research and advocacy at the National Land Commission of Kenya, the pressure to publish and its link to promotions is real in Kenyan universities.

“This pressure may contribute towards an environment in which the rules get softened, for instance, self-publishing taking place … or there is restriction of submissions to university-run journals which do not rank highly … or paying journals to publish one’s work,” said Lukalo, who added that such pressure should be at a system level rather than on individual academicians.

Lukalo said academic writing is not a solitary event as it depends on the “thoughts” of other scholars or practitioners, a supportive environment, funding, time for writing or developing thoughts, library facilities, internet connectivity and conferences, among others.

As such, some universities have incentives to publish, such as promotions, but where the work is published is very important, she said.

She said prestigious journals, such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics published by Oxford University Press, are very attractive to academics. “However, is it easy for an African scholar to publish there as an individual? What about the waiting time between submission and publication? Who are the reviewers?”

According to Lukalo, such top journals perpetuate “privilege” and “fraternity”, which is one of the reasons for the North-South divide in publishing.

While she supports hyper-prolific academic writing, Lukalo cautioned that much of the time, the incentive to publish in high numbers is financial rather than a desire to influence knowledge.Dr Benjamin Gyampoh, a research manager and lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, said it is good for every scientist to publish papers every year. However, it is not easy to be a hyper-prolific scholar.

“Conception of the research, going through the study, writing out the findings and submitting to a journal takes time and great effort. Then the journal takes over and could take time and a number of revisions before the paper gets accepted and published,” he said.

Gyampoh, who is the founding editor-in-chief of the Scientific African journal of the Next Einstein Forum published by Elsevier, said those who fall into the hyper-prolific scholarship bracket are “doing something special and admirable that many scientists aspire to”. However, he cautioned that it may also be possible that some may not be going by the strict guidelines for determining who gets to be named in a paper and actually receive an authorship credit for a work done.

He nonetheless urged African academics to publish their research as often as possible. “There is no other way to say it: there is no advantage in having knowledge and not sharing it with the wider research community,” Gyampoh said.

“Publish or perish is real. When one does not publish, the person perishes in many ways. The saddest way one perishes from not publishing is by becoming irrelevant … Without publishing, one does not get to share what one knows,” Gyampoh said.

“We perish in the lecture rooms before our students; we perish among our colleagues; we perish from the life of our countries and policy-makers if we cannot provide evidence-based solutions to address the many challenges we face as a continent.”

African researchers must focus on issues of critical importance and significance for their countries and continent. It must be relevant and able to offer tangible solutions to the problems affecting Africa.

“We should focus on not just being alive. We should live and thrive by publishing research that is of relevance for our countries and our continent. In our scenario, it is not enough not to perish. We must be alive and kicking and be relevant. If we simply do anything it takes just to publish and not offer solutions that would make the lives of our people better, then we would be ‘living deads’.

Source: University World News.

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