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How African scientists can boost the visibility of their research

Social media make it easy to track how research spreads through cyberspace. But the odds of African science going viral remain tied to foreign tastes. Christiaan van der Merwe asks why, and what can be done to change the status quo.

There is growing pressure on scientists around the world to demonstrate that their research reaches the public and policymakers. Tracking views on news sites and interactions on social media like Twitter makes it easier than ever before to track how, and to who, research is disseminated.

But when such activity is measured it becomes clear that most of what is shared and discussed online originates from the global north. This, despite the fact that the larger population of the global south is becoming increasingly connected, particularly via smartphones.

The lack of visibility of African science is a phenomenon that can be seen in lists of the Top 100 most-discussed journal papers published each year by Altmetric, an alternative to traditional journal metrics that measures the online presence of research based on media coverage, social media, blogs, and sites such as Wikipedia.

The Altmetric Top 100 has been published since 2013. Each year a handful of African authors make the list. Often they do so as part of global consortia, and Africa-based lead authors of principal investigators are rare: The 2017 list featured researchers from far more African countries than in other years, but this was largely due to authors from 15 African countries appearing on a single paper led by United Kingdom-based Sarah Durant about the global decline of cheetah populations.

The African papers that do well tend to be dominated by archaeological discoveries, astronomy, conservation and global health particularly related to infectious diseases such as Ebola. In the 2018 Top 100 list, the two papers involving African researchersconcerned an ancient cave drawing and die-offs among Africa’s largest baobab trees. The paper on the cave drawing was led by Christopher Henshilwood from the University of the Witwatersrand, the other by a Romanian. And in 2017 the most popular paper featuring Africa-based researchers concerned an Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea lead by the World Health Organization. These topics align with news values set by the global north; indeed, the geographic attention tracked by Altmetric is concentrated in North America, the UK and Europe.

But while Altmetric tracks the hard data, following scientific articles’ course through the internet and social media, it is difficult to gauge the presence of African science online in general and its interest for the public outside the scientific community.

Google Trends, a tool which tracks web and news searches of terms, shows that ‘Africa science’ is searched proportionally higher from within Africa, and South Africa in particular. It tracks the proportion a search term comprises of total searches from a particular region. While the number of absolute searches for ‘Africa science’ in a highly online country like the US may be higher, the proportion is minute suggesting relatively low interest in African science from the rest of the world.

Online visibility is key

Still, why should African scientists care if their science isn’t shared globally and only minimally locally?

“Online visibility is key to a researcher’s success, in our view,” say Justin Ahinon and Jo Havemann, founders of AfriArxiv, a preprint platform focused on Africa. They believe the main benefit is to get Africans involved in global discussions, which can lead to collaboration both on the continent and internationally.

At the same time, they say greater visibility for African researchers could also promote an African focus in research: “Scientists from other regions in the world will benefit by learning about the highly diverse regional African research context.”

But Yaw Bediako, a Ghanaian immunologist based at the Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom, says Africans who work on the continent have a harder time than those who conduct their research abroad. “I think Africa-based scientists do struggle to get their work recognised internationally because of perceived inferiority or racism,” he says.

He adds that limited resources and technology present further struggles for Africa-based research, affecting both its scope and exposure. And governments on the continent don’t always promote local science, he says, while African media tend to focus more on sensationalism than science, although he admits that the latter is a problem elsewhere too.

New hope?

Some African researchers are trying a novel approach: “In Ghana at least I am aware that there is a growing grassroots STEM movement that is trying to bring science to the masses [by] organising ‘bar camps’ at local pubs to educate people about scientific themes and issues,” Bediako says.

Stacy Konkiel, director of research relations at Altmetric, says that Africa is absent from the Altmetric Top 100 lists because the scientists in the global south are less likely to be published in journals indexed by services like Crossref and Scopus. This makes it harder for Altmetric to track, and is also less widely read. If it isn’t indexed in these databases it’s less likely to be ‘found’, and shared, beyond close colleagues and existing networks.

But for all the challenges Africans face in getting seen by Altmetrics, it and other alternative metrics could actually prove a boon for the continent. This, Bediako as well as Ahinon and Havemann say, is because these are scores that Africans themselves can influence.

Bediako considers it unlikely that Western social media will give African science the needed attention to go viral because African science simply does not match the priorities of the former. But with growing numbers of Africans possessing smartphones, the continent could push its own agenda. “Social media is growing rapidly in Africa, but science is yet to feature prominently. The challenge rests with scientists to make their work relevant and accessible to local people,” he says.

Ahinon and Havemann agree, and say that that alternative metrics could be of use if African researchers increase their voice on social media and blogs, and make their research outputs freely available before publication in local and global preprint repositories. They also encourage researchers to set up professional profiles on their institutions’ websites, to talk about research on their personal social media profiles on Twitter and Facebook, and to make profiles for themselves on platforms like Linkedin, Research Gate and Academia.edu.

Meanwhile, Altmetric has tips and tricks on its website to help researchers promote their work online. And Konkiel says that Altmetric is looking at ways to increase regional and disciplinary diversity for the 2019 top 100 edition, and welcomes any feedback or suggestions towards this end. She advises African researchers to work with journals with standardised metadata and which are indexed in the major databases, and to work with their institutions to get media attention. “Beyond that, researchers should not be shy to share their research with their colleagues,” she says.