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Addressing Information Inequality in the Global South Requires Flexibility

9th March 2016
By Guest Author

Phill’s note: Siân Harris is a familiar name and face to many of us in scholarly communication. I’m delighted to introduce her as the first regular contributor to the Perspectives blog. Siân works at the interface between scholarly communication and international development. I’m looking forward to learning a lot from her about the challenges and rewards of addressing information inequality and academic development in the developing world.

Sian medium Siân Harris is Communications Coordinator at INASP. Previously she was editor of Research Information magazine for almost 11 years and a writer and editor on several publications at the Institute of Physics Publishing. She has also worked as a freelance science and technology journalist for many others publishers, including SPIE, Institute of Engineering and Technology, Royal Academy of Engineering and Nature Publishing Group; authored white papers on open access on behalf of SAGE; and written case studies for several major companies in the engineering and healthcare sectors. She has a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Bristol, where she also worked part-time for the university library.

I have worked in or close to scholarly publishing for nearly two decades, much of which I spent reporting on developments in the sector. You may have chatted with me at conferences or trade shows. I may have even interviewed you or persuaded you to write an article for Research Information during the time that I was its editor.

As a former chemist myself, I’ve always strongly believed that research should be a global pursuit where researchers from all over the world can play equal roles in the global discovery process. As such, I was always very excited by the activities of organizations looking to improve scholarly communication to, from and within developing countries.

I was therefore delighted 18 months ago to join one such organization. INASP is an international development charity with its roots in brokering free or low-cost journal access for researchers in the south but now with a much broader remit that includes supporting developing-country authors and journals, as well as working to help policymakers use research evidence.

INASP does an excellent job of this. Our two major programmes of work were both awarded A+ by our funders last year – and an A+ from development funders means pretty much the same as it would do for a great piece of schoolwork.

However, the move to a well-respected development organization with strong links to the sector I came from was more different and more of a culture shock than I had anticipated. What I realised soon after I started my new job is that INASP is not like a publishing company. We have strong links with our publisher partners and follow closely – and try to be leaders in – trends in scholarly communication. However, we work in international development and this makes a huge difference to the language, the ethos and how things work. Many of my colleagues have years of field experience in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which makes for very different lunchtime conversations from the work chats about data mining, supercomputing or the Large Hadron Collider, which I was used to in previous jobs.

The differences are more than just social and cultural though. Many publishers will have a vision that includes something about research making a difference in the world. In our work we can see a much more direct link. Research has direct impact on the many challenges facing the countries we work with, perhaps in agriculture, environmental science or medicine. There is a wider story too; helping build a country’s research capacity is part of helping a country to participate in global conversations, an important theme of the new Sustainable Development Goals that came into effect at the start of this year.

This is not a simple process. In my experience, the output of the publishing industry tends to be quite tidy, organized and straightforward: a new journal published; a new medical treatment identified; the acquisition of another company; a new set of standards or industry initiatives … Despite the ideals of scholarly openness and debate, there is little talk of uncertainty, little talk of failure.

By contrast, in international development things do go wrong. As someone who is still a scientist at heart, it’s been a challenge to be reminded of how work with real people and situations is not easily confined to neat datasets, graphs or tick boxes.

One of the first things I worked on at INASP was reporting on a pilot project in Sierra Leone. The project worked closely with local champions from different parts of the research system, supporting research access, librarian skills and academic writing skills. Things were going well and we were beginning to make further plans in Sierra Leone and neighbouring countries. Then Ebola hit the region, people’s movement was restricted and universities closed, preventing any face-to-face work. Strengthening the research system became a much lower concern for the country.

Agricultural research laboratory in Sierra Leone; the solar panels provide power for a cryogenic freezer
Agricultural research laboratory in Sierra Leone; the solar panels provide power for a cryogenic freezer
Agricultural research centre in Sierra Leone
Agricultural research centre in Sierra Leone

Of course in this case, many publishers generously provided free access to Ebola-related research to healthcare workers and others, as they do during many disasters. However, some have argued that the time to provide free access is when there is time to do the research into a disease, not just at the stage when all your time and energy is focused on treating and containing it. The need for emergency provision of the results of medical research demonstrates the huge inequalities in access to, and use of, information globally and why these are such vital things to address for the future.

Our project in the country, I’m pleased to say, was not forgotten. We stayed in touch and partners continued to think and plan for what they would do when they could get together again. Ebola served to strengthen people’s resolve to improve access to research for the future. Our Sierra Leone liaison team recently arranged for eight journal editors to attend a workshop in Ghana, with plans to revive these journals. The project will be rolled out to several new institutions in the next few months, and the liaison team will be founder members of a Sierra Leonean national research and education network (NREN).

Another example came last April. Our partners on the Nepal Journals Online platform, Tribhuvan University Central Library in Kathmandu, had been making great progress in taking on the management of the platform on behalf of the Nepali research community. Then, as most people will know, Nepal was hit by a series of massive earthquakes, the library was badly damaged and many of the journal editors – particularly those who are also practising doctors – were needed elsewhere. The library and the local journal editors remained committed to the project but we all needed to rethink timing and expectations.

Earthquake-damaged library in Nepal
Tribhuvan University Central Library in Kathmandu – Seriously damaged by earthquake

Development, I’m learning, is a lot about making plans and then being able to adapt them as situations change. It is also about understanding what partners are trying to achieve and supporting – rather than leading – them to achieve those goals.

As well as full immersion in a new world of international development, since moving to INASP I’ve come to understand much more about the complex set of challenges that researchers in the developing world face day-to-day, even without the big, well-publicized disasters and diseases.

I hope that in these blog posts I can unpack some of these challenges and inspire readers about ways that the global research and publishing sectors really can make – and are making – a difference.

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