Databases: The Needs and Contributions of African Researchers

Databases: The Needs and Contributions of African Researchers

[note: The ASCII text version of the report contains no tables]

The relevance of science and technology (S&T) to economic development has been amply demonstrated throughout the world and is a matter of little dispute. Information lies at the very heart of both science and technology, as well as economics, and thus the infrastructure that enables information access can be said to be a critical component of a thriving S&T system and of society itself. For many researchers in Africa, databases and/or the means by which they are accessed unfortunately often represent a barrier, rather than a path, to progress. The questions of how to get needed information, how to share information, how to keep up with changes, and how to cope with the costs of doing so were among the issues raised at the "Workshop on Databases: The Needs and Contributions of African Researchers," co-organized by the Sub-Saharan Africa Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

The workshop, held October 10-12, 1994, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, brought together African researchers (as information consumers as well as information producers) and information providers to address the challenges of the prevailing information climate and the opportunities and requirements for its improvement. Rarely, if ever, do these diverse groups of people come together in the normal course of events, yet the symbiotic nature of their relationship makes closer collaboration potentially greatly rewarding.

The workshop looked broadly at databases on sciences for development, spanning the agricultural sciences, health sciences, and social sciences, as well as other science and engineering fields, and a range of means of access. Databases for our purposes were mostly textual (bibliographic, reference, and full text), with some focus on numerical/statistical databases, generated in Africa or elsewhere. There were two overall foci of the workshop: how to increase access in Africa to databases, and how to increase the representation of African research in databases. Within this context, the roles of local as well as international databases were considered.

What Is Available?
For each major field of science, there exist several standard international databases as well as a variety of local ones. The challenges faced by African researchers include underrepresentation in international databases, limited local publishing avenues (making indexing in databases difficult, whether local or international), and inaccessibility of databases.

It has been noted that the vast majority of information on Africa resides in databases in the North. Yet it would appear that very little of this information refers to actual African publications, i.e., research published within Africa. This distinction is important because of the implications for the cost and accessibility of the information for African researchers. Table 1 compares selected database coverage of Africa as a geographic entity versus as a place of publication.

"Nigeria has a rich publishing history. In 1991 we could point to 120 local periodical titles, but very few of them were up to date. Some were dormant altogether; others were three to five years behind their publishing schedules. In my 1990 study I was only able to identify a small number of Nigerian journals in the health sciences covered by the National Library of Medicine and other standard indexing services. Index Medicus, which indexes more than 3000 journals worldwide, included four Nigerian serials...In contrast, a search of Medline, using "Nigeria" in any of the fields, yielded 4613 citations. Thus, information on Nigeria is often published elsewhere."

Funmi Akhigbe
University of Ibadan, Nigeria
Most standard international databases, while important in their fields, have extremely low coverage of African research, with some exceptions, and can be difficult or expensive to access. As Michael Hailu of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) put it in his paper prepared for the workshop: "International databases are excellent sources of information for literature published in the scientifically refereed journals, but they are rather poor sources for location-specific national information, which is important for the African researcher."

Of the major international agricultural databases, for example, citations of African research comprise 3.2 percent of the total number of records in AGRIS and 2.7 percent of those in CAB Abstracts; the 2.2 percent of African research citations in AGRICOLA, conversely, may be considered unusually high, since that database is expressly focused on US research. Two databases, specifically related to tropical agriculture, have a high percentage of African citations by any measure: SESAME and TROPAG & RURAL, with African compositions of 39.7 and 17.5 percent, respectively (see Table 2). The proportion of records on Africa is also higher in databases maintained by the international agricultural research centers (IARCs) based in Africa, not only because of their location but also because their focus is on developing countries in the tropics (see Table 3). But in the field of medicine, again, African research is hard to find in the international databases. The African Index Medicus, a database of African medical research, was developed in response to the paucity of African information in the original Index Medicus.

Access to local or regional information in Africa presents its own set of challenges, with most African journals publishing only irregularly, and much research remaining unpublished as "fugitive" or "gray" literature or otherwise unorganized in databases. Efforts to collect information on African research, published and unpublished, in order to build up and maintain local databases, are ongoing, but much work remains to be done. Because of the high cost and/or technical difficulties associated with acquiring information from the North, the accessibility within Africa of African research results is a key issue for the scientific enterprise on the continent.

"The process of `gray' literature collection is a very demanding and time-consuming task requiring innovative methods of acquisition, which include personal contacts, knowledge of the activities of institutions and individuals who are sources of information, knowledge of what research work is going on in the country and who is carrying it out and how to get the documentation; monitoring documentation emanating from research and activities of government departments at national, district, and village levels; and liaising with both local and international nongovernmental organizations who are operating in the country for both acquisition of documents and dissemination of...database resources...

"Over the past decades the overwhelming cry from researchers and academicians in developing countries has been the paucity of information for planning and decisionmaking...There were, however, others who believed that the problem was not paucity of information, but...[lack of] the capability to collect and preserve that information and to make it known and accessible. In many situations information generated in developing countries systematically finds its way to the more sophisticated information centers abroad, only to find its way back when required almost trebled in value."

Helen Murapa
University of Botswana
There is a need to widen awareness of what information, both published and unpublished, is available in Africa. Inasmuch as the collection of gray literature necessarily involves searching, institution by institution, a huge backlog of archived papers and raw data--an enormous and costly undertaking--the question must arise as to whether and to what extent the endeavor is worth the effort. On the one hand, ignorance of previous research efforts may result in needless duplication and a wasting of precious resources. Yet the cost of finding and cataloguing archived material is in itself an expensive undertaking that draws on the same scarce resources. Some evaluation of the importance of found materials is clearly necessary to make the process as cost effective as possible.

Some keepers of international databases do make an attempt to include unpublished African literature. CAB International, an organization that maintains scientific databases mainly in the areas of agriculture, forestry, health, and natural resources, with an emphasis on the needs of developing countries, regularly scans some 600 African serials and has made a significant effort to include gray literature in its collection. In Ghana, over a three-year period, CABI selected, microfilmed, and indexed research documents from several agricultural research centers, covering a period extending back several decades. Archival databases such as this one are being created at the national level elsewhere in Africa as well, with the hope of eventually making them accessible regionally and internationally.

The International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) is another example of an organization that has made an effort to catalogue gray literature. ILCA maintains a database that includes its own documents as well as records from CABI and AGRIS, and also contributes its own literature, including gray literature, to the AGRIS (FAO) and SESAME (CIRAD--Centre Coop‚ration Internationale Recherche Agronomique D‚veloppement) databases.

POPLINE, a bibliographic database of information on population, family planning, and related health issues maintained by the Center for Communication Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, also includes a significant percentage of unpublished literature in its scope. In fact, approximately 30 percent of the POPLINE database consists of references to unpublished literature. But the POPLINE experience also underscores the difficulty of finding and cataloguing this type of information; in inverse proportion to the database contents, approximately 70 percent of POPLINE staff time is spent in locating these hard-to-find documents. This impressive effort includes a variety of collection techniques. POPLINE's Anne Compton notes that the organization "is planning an aggressive acquisitions effort for this fiscal year, which will include additional acquisitions staff, following up on visitors to remind them to send publications, establishing exchange agreements with organizations that show a high level of records in POPLINE, and supporting national or regional acquisitions efforts in developing countries," adding also that "we have always encouraged organizations to reuse and repackage POPLINE information--in either print or electronic form."

Scientists as Information Producers

The collection of as much "fugitive" literature as can be economically justified is a necessary and worthwhile task, but is at once difficult, costly, and insufficient. Representation of African research in international bibliographic databases and the maintenance of viable local and regional bibliographic databases are also functions of publishing research results in dependable, peer-reviewed African journals. Such journal publication is a condition for inclusion in many databases. There are and have been many scientific journals published in Africa, yet the vast majority of them have struggled with limited and uncertain funding, publishing only irregularly and infrequently; many have faded out of existence altogether.

Adipala Ekwamu, editor of the African Crop Science Journal--one of the bright spots in the recent history of African journals--addressed this issue in his workshop paper. Ekwamu notes several reasons (some specific to crop science) for the deficiencies in operation and impact of African journals to date but, while urging African journals to publish quality papers quickly, regularly, and on a sustainable basis, Ekwamu also argues that "there is absolutely nothing wrong with African scientists publishing their findings in foreign journals. Science has no barrier. Likewise we must encourage publication from foreign scientists" (original emphasis). Thus he emphasizes the need for African journals to be competitive and sustainable to make them more attractive to the African scientist.

"The first area of concern [regarding publication of research] is that there are few publishing avenues (journals and publishing houses). Moreover, the few publishing houses present in Africa are either poorly equipped or inefficient...[T]here is a lack of sustainability of journals...[Most] have fallen by the wayside or are published very irregularly. There are a number of reasons for the poor performance by the African journals: many journals have tended to rely heavily on foreign donors for funding their operations, including recurrent costs; locally, African governments or institutions have not given significant support and contributions to publishing institutions in Africa; there was some...inferiority complex that respected publications are those published in Europe or America, so that African scientists tended to send their best manuscripts to journals outside Africa; most of the journals tend to be local rather than regional, and consequently there is very limited circulation of scientific information published in Africa; and probably there has not been a very high requirement for publications as a basis of promotion in many African countries. The consequences of these drawbacks have been duplication of research, and, in some cases, scientists have become unpublishing scientists, but conducting research each season. Unfortunately, circulation of gray very limited in Africa.

Adipala Ekwamu
Editor, African Crop Science Journal
The development of a greater number of viable African journals will enhance access to African research results both within the region and internationally. Yet a concerted strategy will still be necessary to raise awareness of African publications and ensure their inclusion in the standard international databases. Greater awareness of African research throughout the globe and proportional representation in the major databases are important goals of most researchers in the region, who, like most scientists generally, wish to contribute as effectively as possible to the overall scientific enterprise of humanity. These issues will be explored in more depth at a follow-up workshop, cosponsored by the AAAS Sub-Saharan Africa Program and the African Publishers Network, in Harare, Zimbabwe, in July 1995.

Getting publications indexed in databases increases demand for the information, since database searching is the primary method by which references are located. Stimulating greater demand for African research is perhaps the single most important strategy for raising the profile of science in Africa and increasing its competitiveness and the flow of information both from and into the continent. With greater awareness can come opportunities for increased funding and vitality for the scientific enterprise and for its publishing arm.

Scientists as Information Consumers

Researchers are, of course, consumers as well as producers of information. On the one hand, research creates the information that fills the databases; on the other, it is the existing pool of information that fuels present research. Research can be conducted without regard to what has gone before, but current knowledge of the field ensures that one's work is not duplicative and enables the researcher to expand the boundaries of science. It was noted during the workshop that, in their role as consumers or end-users, researchers have been known to be overly passive, and must be more active in seeking information and utilizing databases and their products in order to drive the system through increasing demand. Greater activity may require additional training in the use of available information tools. It is the researchers themselves who have the main stake in all this. Information is critical to the optimal performance of their tasks, and at the same time they have the professional imperative to publish and the personal goal of contributing to the pool of knowledge to be accessed by others; thus inclusion in databases means not only recognition but also realization of the fruits of one's labor.

For all these reasons, a mutually beneficial partnership must be created between information specialists and end-users, an aspect of the "information chain" that may often be considered its "weak link." Needs assessment--what do the information end-users need and want--is the critical first step in this process. The Institute of Southern African Studies (ISAS) in Lesotho has involved researchers in closely in the development of database design and content in an attempt to address this concern.

"Because the effectiveness of a system in an organization may be best realized if the actual users are involved at the design stage, ISAS Documentation Centre...found it wise to involve its researchers. A trial Southern African Studies Development Database (SASDEV), for instance, was designed and researchers were invited to come and understand the features of the database so as to make comments on the format, terminology, content, and structure. Whereas researchers generally felt the actual database design was the professional area of database managers, they indicated that simplified users' manuals should be provided, terminology as derived from international thesauri should incorporate local terms, and bibliographic styles should be standardized. Of utmost importance...[according to] researchers [was] their need to be trained in the use of computers. User education has therefore begun to enable researchers to be self- reliant while making database searches."

M.M. Moshoeshoe-Chadzingwa
National University of Lesotho

Technical Issues: Compatibility and Access

Some barriers to the sharing of information from and among databases are "merely" technical. The issue of compatibility among formats is an organizational or managerial challenge. Questions of access also involve important cost considerations.

Workshop participants stressed the importance of compatibility among databases to encourage the exchange of information. Standards need to be promulgated and recognized, and submissions to databases need to adhere strictly to those standards. It was noted during workshop discussions that it is not enough for the information to simply be in electronic form; "electronic" is not synonymous with "compatible." Differences in electronic formats result in a very labor-intensive process of transferring information from one "style" to another. The amount of time required for this task needlessly limits the amount of information that can be included in the recipient database. These issues are regularly dealt with by the Standing Committee on the Standardization and Harmonization of Information Systems in Africa, which is convened by PADIS and includes in its membership subregional and regional institutions in Africa with an interest in information systems issues. The sixth meeting of this Committee was held in Addis Ababa from 14-18 November 1994.

Agreement upon format compatibility was one of the first key steps that allowed the production of the African Index Medicus (see box, above), which was able to merge input from multiple national databases into a regional resource that may serve as a model for other, similar efforts.

"A consultative meeting on the African Index Medicus (AIM), initiated by the Association for Health Information and Libraries in Africa (AHILA) took place in Accra, Ghana, in January 1993. Its purpose was for a group of African health sciences librarians, including members of the AHILA Executive Committee and technical support staff from the World Health Organization (both WHO headquarters and the Regional Office for Africa) to decide on the procedures necessary to compile a regional database. These decisions included the choice of software for managing the databases, the design of a standard format for data entry, methods of exchange of database records, types of materials to be indexed, and the responsibilities of the participants in the project. CDS/ISIS was the software chosen because of its wide use in Africa and its free distribution by UNESCO. The AIM data entry format was an adaptation of WHO's WHOBIS format...The idea of merging records imported from various sites works quite well in practice."

Lucilda Hunter
WHO Regional Office for Africa

Means of access
The technical form of databases dictates the technique of accessing them, and therefore sets certain limitations. Electronic access via the Internet has some significant advantages, in that the number of databases reachable becomes virtually unlimited. However, the current reality is that the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa is not yet fully connected to the Internet. Many areas do have e-mail access, at least, and there is much information that can be obtained through that technique alone. Yet e-mail, as valuable as it assuredly is in enhancing information access, remains a relatively awkward and limited method of database searching and retrieval in comparison to full online capability.

For the time being, then, other methods show more promise. CD-ROM technology, with its vast storage capacity and ease of searching, is particularly attractive in this regard and indeed is increasingly popular in Africa and elsewhere. Regardless of whether Internet access is available, CD- ROMs offer the convenience of searching at one's leisure without regard to such online considerations as connect time, line capacities, transmission speeds, peak demand times, and so forth. CD-ROM players are not yet as widely disseminated as personal computers, but they are becoming increasingly common. Not all databases are necessarily suitable for production on CD-ROM, however. A single CD-ROM can hold some 600 megabytes of information; for many smaller databases CD-ROM production would probably not be worth the effort. Ordinary computer diskettes can hold smaller databases, are easier for most people to produce, and can be used by those many without access to CD-ROM technology. For those without any computer capability whatsoever, database reports can also be produced in print.

Costs and Sustainability

Creating, maintaining, and accessing databases all involve costs. Donor support is still needed in the short term, but cannot be relied upon indefinitely. Experience has shown that when donor support is withdrawn, the maintenance of internal databases tends to decline and access to external ones may be crippled. What is needed, in general terms, is a greater awareness of the value of information, both to create a stronger demand for database services and products among researchers and to put information technologies and services higher on the agendas of governments and other key bodies.

"The news media in Africa and throughout the world might be one market that would purchase regularly published updates of environmental information. But this [information] would need to be very topical, recent data, i.e., `news,' summarized and interpreted. The role of databases crucial for the final and sustained success of such an endeavor. It is now imperative for the serious publisher of scholarly literature to initiate routine information searches to cut down on time spent on person to person inquiries with prospective authors of a suitable area of research."

Agnes Katama
ICIPE Science Press
Demand for database services must be built, first, and then maintained. This process can be initiated at the very beginning of the database production effort, at the conceptual stage, by bringing users into the design process at the very beginning, as in the Lesotho example, above. Another, more "downstream" method of building demand for database services is to aggressively find and cater to markets that need and are able to pay for information. Agnes Katama, manager of the Nairobi-based ICIPE Science Press, stresses the importance of understanding markets and potential markets for information and publications.

Another way to improve sustainability is to develop commercial markets for the products of research. This task may be easier for some fields of science than for others. One field identified at the workshop as having potential for increased commercial development is that of natural products chemistry. Makers of natural products have a financial interest in obtaining--and paying for--the latest information in this field of chemistry. Thus linkages to industry can be created to the mutual benefit of scientists and entrepreneurs in a two-way flow of information between laboratory and marketplace.

Sustainability of databases is ultimately dependent upon more than just finding the money to cover the costs of production, maintenance, and access. It is a function of establishing an entrenched system in which information has value and adds value and contributes to development and economic growth.

"Funding is important, but in any view of sustainability the true cost of an information service must be recognized, and an essential objective must be to enhance information centers so that their users will begin to demand that such services are funded as a matter of national priority. As more information becomes available locally, centers need encouragement to generate information services and products of their own to generate demand and maximize their income."

David Heydon, Margot Bellamy, and Peter Gooch
CAB International


One of the primary conclusions reached by workshop participants was a recognition of the potential synergistic value of closer-knit teamwork involving researchers, reviewers, and publishers, as well as the policy community. It was felt that these groups ought to act as cooperating partners and be sympathetic to the unique problems each group faces, since each to some extent is dependent upon the others. A concerted effort by all these interested parties promises to aid in attracting financing, performing "headhunting" for peer reviewers, disseminating research results in journals and databases, and ultimately strengthening science and contributing to development efforts.

It was also noted that strengthening research itself is a prerequisite for improving journals, databases, and dissemination. While improving access to database may enhance research, without good science, representation in databases is something of a moot point.

A key strategy suggested repeatedly at the workshop is the pooling of resources. Cooperative regional efforts can be useful at each link of the information chain, from regional research institutions or sharing of information among similar national institutions, to the establishment and maintenance of regional journals, to the merging of small databases within a field, to joint production of CD-ROMs.

Accessibility is one of the primary database issues. Information, no matter how well organized and indexed, does not realize its value until it is made known and put to use. Technologies are constantly changing, making it important to keep abreast of developments. Certain electronic search and retrieval tools, for instance, that once required full online Internet access can now be used through e-mail-only systems. The point was made at the workshop that it is neither necessary nor desirable to become wedded to a particular technology; rather, one can selectively make use of CD-ROM and electronic networks as appropriate, in terms of availability and cost, while remaining flexible and ready to adapt along with newer, better, or cheaper technologies.

Layashi Yaker, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, in his closing address to the workshop noted that it is still not widely known in much of the world that "Africans are engaged in scientific research and writing and that they are trying to make their findings available to their fellow Africans and to the wider world as well...That is one part of the equation: the other is bringing to Africa this information as well as information produced from around the that African scholars, decisionmakers, and policymakers can make informed plans and recommendations for the future of this region. This is the vital foundation on which we can build our development efforts."

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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