A global network of researchers

Bringing African research out of the shadows

By Sian Harris | Nov. 14, 2014

Ylann Schemm’s December 2013 article adds to other studies showing that the number of papers by African researchers published in scientific journals (almost always based in the North) has grown significantly; more than quadrupled between 1996 and 2012. Juxtapose this with this thought by Tim Davies of the World Wide Web Foundation, “it’s still really hard to find scholarship on Africa coming out of Africa…,” and one begins to sense that there is a paradox.

The issue is not necessarily that research from Africa is not produced in significant quantity but that it “has fared badly in terms of the conventional measures of competitive, global publication performance” (Eve Gray). Such measures include appearing in peer-reviewed, high-impact journals, or being listed in citation indexes such as Web of Science and Scopus. So, even as the growing global visibility of African scholarship is being celebrated, being left out of the party are the many researchers whose findings and ideas do not make it into global academic conversations via these time-honoured venues. How to bring their work out of the shadows?

Alternate Routes

In today’s world, visibility can be achieved in ways other than through publication in scientific journals and citation index listings. I am not implying that journals do not matter; what I am saying is that they are not the only way to gain recognition in the research community. With many internet-based connecting technologies and services now available, scholars can, for instance, use blogs and various social media tools to spread the word about their publications (which may be journal articles) and reach a wider audience beyond those who may have institutional or personal subscriptions to the source publication.

The reverse, from tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article, is also possible, as Jessie Daniels attests. New media allow scholars to also engage in meaningful group conversations, collaborate with colleagues across the globe and become part of the new invisible college. Or they can simply hang out in these spaces, listening in and gaining insights from ongoing conversations. 

On improving statistics for the visibility of African scholarship, Schemm believes that “the returns could be many times greater over the next decade if awareness, usage and research capacity are tackled in a collaborative and integrated manner by African institutions, access programs and publishers.” One can hardly quibble over that. Of the three suggested prongs for achieving this, awareness raising would be the easiest and fastest to achieve; and, of the sources of support she lists, she left out one important group -- scholars themselves who can take the initiative on this. With only a computer and internet access, the agency of scholars themselves as a driver of improved visibility to research from Africa should not be overlooked.

However, even with a raft of free technologies available for profile building and ramping up research output awareness, very few researchers make use of them. Brown (2011) reported that only 9.4% African development studies researchers use Web 2.0 tools for academic purposes.

Building on 2.0 Technologies

For 21st century researchers everywhere, lacking a digital presence or not actively using technologies to communicate their research, enhance their academic profile, or grow their professional networks is akin to the proverbial hiding their light under a bushel. There are now a number of tools and services that make it easier to have and keep academic flares burning. A few of these are listed below.

Academic Search Engines

Google may be the most widely-used search engine for general searching, but using Google Scholar limits a regular Google search to a universe of academic works – articles, monographs, theses, and abstracts. Also in the family is Google Books, a database of digitized versions of public-domain books and snippets of still copyrighted materials.

Another example is Microsoft Academic Search, which allows one to search for authors, publications, organizations, conferences, or journals by discipline. It has visualization tools to help create graphs of paper citations and co-authors, trace academic genealogies, and map researchers and their institutions.

Social Networking for Academic Purposes

Just as networking in the real world could lead to a deal or a job, imagine what the possibilities could be when this is done in a virtual milieu with many thousands, if not millions, of other scholars around the world. In these environments, one can consciously shape a research profile, interact with potential collaborators, join or create new networks, or build a following based on common interests.

One such platform where this happens is Academia.edu. It allows scholars themselves to upload their work (whether simply bibliographic references or the full text). They can then receive email alerts whenever someone searches for them by name or discovers their work through a search engine. From the alerts, they can also gauge their geographic reach because notification includes details of the origin of the search. For the science community, invaluable groups to join include ResearchGate and Nature Network.

In addition, academics can use mainstream networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

If researchers want to share websites that they like, or know which sites peers have favourited, social bookmarking sites are the way to go. Popular ones include Delicious, Connotea, CiteULike, Zotero, BibSonomy, and Diigo. Zotero also serves as a valuable reference management tool, as does Mendeley which is available through Research4Life.

Online Collaboration

So, let’s say one meets a peer on a professional online site and decides s/he would like to work with that person on a project, geography notwithstanding. There are a number of web-based software options, sometimes referred to as “collaboratories,” that support such collaborative work in online spaces. They may provide each scholar with individual workspaces within the project, or allow multiple scholars to work on the same document while keeping track of individual contributions and the change history. Good examples include Wikispaces, Zoho and Google Drive.

More Than Sharing Your Story

Blogs about research, as discussed by Melissa Gregg (2006) (a good aggregator is ResearchBlogging.org), and publishers’ blogs (for example, Sage and Cambridge) are also helpful sites to frequent. Microblogging using popular sites such as Twitter, Plurk or Tumblr, or contributing publications to institutional repositories are all useful activities that amplify visibility. Sharing conference presentation slides on Slideshare or Scribd offer other avenues for sharing research.

How Big Are Your Ripples?

Citation indexes are still the gold standard but they do not adequately capture the buzz around or the immediate impact of researchers or publications. Enter social media. A site such as CitedIn which is discipline-specific allows bioinformatics researchers to discover where their works have been cited. ScienceCard collects all scientific works published by an author and displays their aggregate work-level metrics. Impact Story scans a wider landscape by showing where a work has been cited, viewed, downloaded and tweeted. It tracks artifact-level metrics on a wide range of outlets, beyond traditional publishing into new media.

Although fee-based, Altmetric is a similar tool that also tracks newspapers and government policy papers (certainly useful for researchers in Africa who consult for their governments); it however offers a free web browser tool that gives instant metrics to a recent article. Many publishers have now added the Altmetric tool to their journals.

Visibility through greater representation in the global research community and recognition of one’s (or in this case, a continent’s) contribution to knowledge production are basic to measuring scholarly impact, and these are more easily achievable these days because of new media.

The subtitle of a book by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison -- The power of pull: How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion – captures the essence of what researchers in Africa can do to join global academic conversations. “Pull,” the authors argue, is built on 3 A’s: access (that is, finding and getting to people and resources), the ability to attract potentially valuable people and resources, and how these can help one achieve new levels of performance and influence. If practiced well, especially by developing a “share research and flourish” agenda, some potential benefits of pull to African and developing-world researchers include:

  • Increased participation in and contribution to the global open knowledge commons;
  • Taking responsibility for shaping one’s own academic profile and expanding one’s global reach;
  • Increased ROA (return on awareness), manifest through enlarged networks and new collaborations; and
  • Receiving constructive (particularly pre-publication) feedback on one’s research in a timely manner.

There is a lengthier discussion of the topic by this author, and a handy guide to managing one’s academic online presence put out by the University of Cape Town.

What do you think?  Have you used any of these tools to share your research and meet fellow researchers? Are there any you would recommend?  Is this an effective approach?


Brown, Cheryl. (2011). Are southern academics virtually connected? A review of the adoption of Web 2.0 tools for research collaboration by development researchers in the South . URL: http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/GDNet/GDNet_study_of_adoption_of_web_2_tools_v2.pdf Accessed 20/9/2014

Gregg, Melissa. (2006). Feeling ordinary: Blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 20 (2), 147–60

Hagel III, John, Brown, John Seely, & Davison, Lang. (2010). The power of pull: How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion. New York, NY: Basic Books

Nov. 14, 2014
The publishing process