The last decade has seen unprecedented investment in biomedical research training and capacity development in many countries across Africa. Driven largely by international funding to tackle tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, there has been a noticeable increase in the visibility and output of biomedical research on the continent.
Large funding schemes including the UK government’s Global Challenge Research Fund, Wellcome’s DELTAS as well as funding programmes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also invested hundreds of millions of pounds in training and equipping a new generation of African scientists to find solutions to the continent’s many challenges.
While these activities have improved scientific capacity on the continent to some extent, Africa, which accounts for 17% of the world’s population and more than 21% of global disease burden, is still only responsible for 1% of global scientific output.
But there is a growing realisation that training is only part of the solution; sustainable growth in scientific capacity and output will only be achieved through the establishment of research ecosystems that allow young African scientists to establish themselves and flourish as independent researchers.
The link with open science
Over the same period the global academy has begun to question and challenge traditional approaches to disseminating research. From the rejection of paywalls in favour of open access publishing, to the promotion of preprints and open datasets, there has been a significant push to make research outputs freely available and accessible to everyone.
I will admit that, until relatively recently, I have been rather uninformed and mostly agnostic towards the open science movement. Eliminating paywalls was something I definitely agreed with, but then the paid open access model of shifting the costs of publishing from consumer (reader) to producer (author) didn’t seem like it was much of a solution. I was aware of preprints but had never seriously considered submitting one.
Over the past several months however, I have come to appreciate that ‘open’ refers to more than just open access publishing and preprints, but instead is an attempt to redefine how research is conducted, advocating for collaboration and the sharing of resources and knowledge to overcome the significant inequalities that exist throughout academic research.
But for all the good intentions that underlie the open movement, I think it is important to recognise that efforts should go beyond ‘openness’ as an end goal. Instead, equity should be the focus and open practices may be viewed as the means to that end.
As an African scientist I am particularly sensitive to the lack of diversity among the academic elite. Even in global health, a field of research focused on issues affecting people living in the developing world, there is a shocking lack of diversity among the positions of influence, with scientists based in North America and Western Europe occupying the most prominent positions on international advisory and editorial boards, as discussed in this paper published in BMJ Global Health from researchers at the George Institute for Global Health.
Without addressing this lack of diversity, we cannot hope to achieve equity, no matter how open our science is – and one could even argue that open practices could actually exacerbate disparities if not tailored to the specific needs and challenges faced by scientists in different contexts.
Time to take up the challenge
Open science does, however, present an opportunity for African scientists to interact with both the establishment and with one another to help redefine how science should be conducted.
The inequities in knowledge production (or recognition for knowledge production) and in who receives the benefits of knowledge are entrenched in the colonial and neo-colonial approaches to global scientific research which place power in the hands of an overrepresented minority. Moving towards open science provides the underrepresented majority with an opportunity to finally have a say in how science is conducted.
This means African scientists need to creatively explore new approaches to science, investigating how an open approach can be used to collaborate more effectively with one another to overcome resource limitations and help to improve the visibility of scientific work performed by African scientists.
At the same time, there may be a need to challenge the assumption that open is always best. There may be instances when restricting access to data is necessary for ethical or other context-specific reasons. But regardless of what arguments are made, it is important that African scientists insist on being part of that discussion.
We – my fellow African scientists and I – can only make a difference if we step up and make our voices heard, take responsibility for our own science and lead the efforts to promote a more equitable scientific community.