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23 August 2017
Making Scholarly Research Visible Print
Thursday, 18 September 2014 17:38

This blog discusses the final report of the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme  (SCAP).

The Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme ran between March 2010 and August 2013, and its final report, published in June 2014, provides some interesting insights for research communication in African Universities. The report begins by examining the historical background of four universities (University of Namibia, University of Botswana, University of Mauritius and University of Cape Town), the research policy context within which each university operates, and how each university’s scholarly communication strategy has evolved in this context. The report investigates the current research and communication practices at the four universities  and makes suggestions about how the use of ICTs and open access can contribute to improved uptake of scholarly outputs and what institutional structures are needed to support this.

 

The changing nature of scholarly communication

The authors note that the scholarly communication institutional policy environment in Southern Africa is strongly influenced by global academic standards which have been developed by northern countries, even though their values and missions may be different and “even if those divergent missions might be better served by different communication strategies” (p63).  According to the report scholarly communication has in the past been characterized by dissemination through journal articles, books and book chapter, and, in doing so, has focused on communication within the scholarly community. 

These scholarly papers are usually published by commercial publishers who charge subscription fees for access. The journal articles are evaluated according to their “impact factor” based on the average citation rate the publishing journal’s articles collectively achieved during a two-year period. There is an increasing understanding of the limitations of the impact factor system, particularly that it defines impact as citation rather than use, it only covers a small number of academic publications, and it measures impact at the level of the journal rather than an article.

In the past 5 to 10 years there has been a push by major funders of research to ensure that scholarly publications are “open access” - meaning that they are freely available online. This is in line with their reasoning that the research itself is funded by public funds and therefore the results should be publicly available. This has been made possible by the increasing number of open access journals and the technologies making open institutional repositories possible. Vitally, given most African Universities objectives to promote development in their regions and beyond, dissemination and accessibility beyond the academic audiences is necessary. Governments have national policies, for example national development plans, which define the role that universities are expected to play. Universities are therefore starting to align their research accessibility and research utilisation policies with these national plans. 

 

"there are number of institutional challenges to communicating research to broader audiences, including  conservative institutional and research cultures; availability of funding for extending communication beyond the academic domains ; time constraints; unreliable e-infrastructure;  and researcher skills and capacity."

 

Institutional Challenges to Communicating Scholarly Research

Research uptake and utilisation depends in considerable part on institutions making their scholarly research publications available to policy makers and the general public. Demonstrating the robustness, validity and relevance of scholarly research is strengthened by making the final, peer reviewed, substantive results accessible.  Making scholarly articles available by publication in open access journals and lodging pre- and post- print articles university institutional repositories is therefore a pre-requisite for effective institutional Research Uptake and Communication management.

In examining these four universities’ implementation strategies, the research by SCAP found that there are number of institutional challenges to communicating research to broader audiences, including  conservative institutional and research cultures; availability of funding for extending communication beyond the academic domains ; time constraints; unreliable e-infrastructure;  and researcher skills and capacity.  These challenges stand, not only for scholarly communication which is the focus of the SCAP report, but for Research Uptake initiatives that target both discrete groups of users/audiences and the general public.

 

"The SCAP Project makes a number of recommendations for universities in order to promote research uptake including providing resources so that scholarly research can be translated for other audiences, like government and community based organisations"

 

Researcher Skills and Capacity

Although universities as institutions play an important role in communicating scholarly research, the researchers themselves also play a critical role, and the report found that, generally, scholars are motivated to produce and disseminate research for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons.   These include the institutional mandate, peer expectation, career progression, personal satisfaction, and in order to generate new knowledge and enhance their teaching. However, as far as reaching wider audiences are concerned,  most scholars do not use the broad range of media technologies available to them to draw attention to their scholarly work, or to disseminate their findings, as they do not have enough knowledge or training in how to use them and, so far, do not see the benefits of doing so. Another key finding was that researchers rarely communicate their findings to government. This gap in communication is of course a major problem as, although not all research is policy relevant, much of it is and if policy makers are not made aware of university research then African universities are not able to fulfil their role in ensuring the success of their country’s national systems of innovation and national development plans.

The SCAP Project makes a number of recommendations for universities in order to promote research uptake including providing resources so that scholarly research can be translated for other audiences, like government and community based organisations. It also recommends that it is important to develop a network of communication officers/content managers so that multi-user/audience dissemination strategies can be pursued in a more cohesive and strategic manner. And of course it champions the use of open access and even goes as far as to suggest the development of a regional “mega journal”.


Alison Bullen is a content manager for the DRUSSA website

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