We believe that there is a better way to evaluate the research of African academics: here is how
Over the past two decades, much has been done in academic circles on the global rankings of educational institutions. Organizations such as Times Higher Education and Webometrics regularly rank universities based on a set of criteria. These include the internationalization of faculty and students, cited research publications, and awards won by academics.
This ranking phenomenon has increased the pressure on academics and researchers in Africa to present their research results in publishing bodies that are perceived to be highly rated.
Career progression – for example, access to scholarships, appointments and promotions – is now linked to individual ranking. Student enrollment and government and other agency funding for institutions are also influenced by the ranking of institutions.
Since the Western world is usually the first to define the criteria, academic prestige comes from conforming to Western standards in the execution and reporting of research projects. But some African researchers are now asking questions about the fairness, transparency and reliability of these scholarly evaluation and ranking processes. They are also concerned about the effect of Western expectations on African societies and their needs.
What matters most in scholarly evaluation is itself a matter of inquiry. Hence the need to recognize and adapt to the inherent limitations of funding, access, collaboration, standardization and other constraints faced by developing countries.
The desire of academics and institutions in Africa to adapt to the model imposed by the West despite the lack of local infrastructure to support research can be counterproductive in the quest for sustainable development in Africa.
I belong to a group of African researchers in Nigeria who are concerned about this situation. We looked at the status quo and conducted a survey to get the views of researchers and education administrators in developing countries.
The survey results indicate that the majority of African academics are concerned about the status quo. They would support an evolution of editorial practices and the evaluation of researchers. Such a change should be supported by institutional administrators and policy makers.
Western indexing houses track how often research is cited and publish metrics from most publishers. For this reason, many African researchers believe that they should do research that would be acceptable for publication in such media.
This can have negative consequences. For example, there is the issue of access and copyright. A study in Africa could be of national significance. But its publication may not be readily available to contemporaries of the researcher or to the government since the copyright may belong to a Western commercial publishing house.
This hinders the development of rigorous science and limits the exploration and expansion of indigenous knowledge for regional advancement.
There are other consequences of focusing on meeting Western demands for academic research. This undermines Africa’s potential to use the continent’s resources to meet its own challenges. And encourages the “brain drain” – when experts leave Africa for the developed world.
Those who make the rules control the market. This is also true in publishing and academia. The organizations that oversee acceptable publication points, universal patents, Internet domain name registration, and hosting servers are all located in the West. It would not be surprising if this had an influence on the access and classification of all for the benefit of Western systems and institutions.
Moreover, westernization has been widely confused with internationalization or misinterpreted for civilization. The negative impact of this situation on Africa is well documented.
What should be done
Our survey offers suggestions to governments and universities.
African governments should monitor and limit programs that promote collaboration and intercontinental publications to the detriment of intra-African and national publications.
Second, foreign governments and granting agencies should not dictate what and how to research. Each nation must set its development priorities and align scientific research with them.
Third, universities, granting agencies, and educational grading agencies need to revisit their research assessment methods. We have proposed new, relatively simple, but largely useful measures for evaluating research. For example:
Total impact of citations: a measure of the number of times a research paper has been cited per year of existence. Rather than being limited to the number of citations as it is currently used, our model shows the citation rate over time. Saying that an article is cited three times a year on average is more informative than seeing that it has been cited six times since its publication.
Weighted author impact: a way of rating researchers, practically independent of their respective disciplines. He evaluates the impact of the article rather than comparing the impact of the journal with other journals in his discipline.
We also called for the creation of an African indexing house. This would allow tracking of publications and citation rates of scholarly work produced in Africa. Confidence, fair play and the resulting opportunities for African researchers and others could stimulate greater productivity and national development.