Platform aims to boost Africa’s science footprint

When Marianne Mureithi submitted her paper on infectious diseases to an international scientific journal, it was rejected, much to her dismay.

She was a post-doctoral researcher in West Africa, and a back and forth between her and the journal between 2005 and 2008 yielded no fruit, even after she incorporated the minor changes asked of her.

Then she went to Harvard in 2009 and submitted the same paper to the same journal and it was accepted immediately, much to her surprise.

“I wondered whether they thought the work was better because of my association with Harvard,” the microbiologist who works as a clinical researcher at the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative, says.

In a field where one must “publish or perish” Dr Mureithi, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, describes her tribulations as an African researcher trying to get her work published as “disheartening and full of suffering.”

“It is also very expensive to publish in those journals and unless you have a really good source of funding, you are never going to grow as a scientist.

“Worse still after paying them to publish your own content, you also have to pay to view it,” Dr Mureithi adds.

African scientists are also locked out of exclusive prestigious journals because no place can be found for them in the pecking order of science.

Such are the impossible hoops African scientists had to jump, often unsuccessfully,  in a publishing process plagued by complaints about favouritism and unfairness by established journals.

It is no wonder that Africa’s contribution to the global scientific knowledge base is less than two per cent, according to the Unesco Science Report of 2016.

Yet, ironically, the continent bears more than 80 per cent of the world’s problems such as ill health, malnutrition and environmental degradation, that science is trying to solve.

Now a Kenya-based pan-African organisation has come to the rescue by launching an open access science publishing platform for African researchers, a move that is expected to raise the continent’s contribution to the global scientific knowledge base from the current one per cent.

The African Academy’s AAS Open Research platform was launched early last week, promising to relieve scientists of exorbitant publishing fees ranging from $500 (Sh50,000) to $2,500 (about Sh250,000) charged by traditional journals.

The portal is anchored on the technology of UK-based F100, modelled after the Wellcome Open Research and the Gates Open Research open access journals based in the UK as well.


The costs of publishing will be footed by the researcher’s funding partners. Scientists will also be able to see their reviewers unlike in traditional publishing where peer reviews were secret. Secret peer reviewing has often come under fire as it provided a loophole for scientists to settle scores with their rivals through comments that slowed down the research.

Dr Tom Kariuki, the director of one of the funders Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), whose grantees will publish on the platform, said that the current system was not only unfair to the scientists, but also to the public whose taxes fund research, whose findings they have to pay to access.

Data from National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (Nacosti), which licenses research in Kenya, showed that from 2013 to 2016, there were 10,003 applications for research in the country. More than 90 per cent of the researchers were from Kenya.

Until June this year, there have been 4,721 applications. Three out of four of were for social sciences and humanities research, while the rest (11 per cent) were for medical and health sciences and biological sciences (5 per cent).

In a science conference in Ghana in May, where researchers from Kenya and other African countries were gathered, a heated debate about the feasibility of open access publishing ensued. Some of the scientist’s in attendance expressed optimism that open access would stem wastage of resources especially in research funded by taxpayers.

One of the major gripes was that due to prohibitive subscription costs, scientists couldn’t access previously published research in traditional journals, therefore there was a lot of duplicated research because scientists doing “new” research had no idea it had already been done.

Opponents of the open access platform worried that because credibility  and career growth is pegged on the types of journals they publish in, African researchers would still be left behind.

Unfortunately, scientists’ careers depend on “impact factor”— how many times their papers have been cited – and open access journals are not marked for this kind of tracking.

Moreover, researchers are forced to gravitate towards popular subjects or to word their work in a manner that makes it attractive to editors of coveted journals. This means that new research that would answer a nation’s most pressing needs is neglected in favour of what is publishable.

Coincidentally, the new publishing platform was launched exactly a year after the government launched the Kenya National Research Fund which offers Sh500,000 to Sh100 million for research. Kenya ranks third on the continent for number of papers published after South Africa and Nigeria.