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African Researchers Say They Face Bias In The World Of Science. Here's One Solution

The Cover of Scientific African's first issue.
The Cover of Scientific African's first issue.

Ambi Ahmad Adamu received five noes in a row.

Ambi, as he's known, is a 46-year-old biochemist who lives in Bauchi, Nigeria. He earned his Ph.D. at Ahmadu Bello University and now works there as a researcher, hoping to use his research to improve the lives of Nigerians.

One topic he's addressed is how to detoxify water that's polluted by chromium 6, a carcinogenic chemical commonly found in industrial waste. Detoxification methods in use are expensive or take their own toll on the environment.

To avoid these side effects, Ambi used a plant called Hibiscus sabdariffa, a species of Hibiscus native to parts of Africa and India and used to make a local drink in Nigeria called "sobo." When the plant is processed, waste matter is usually thrown out. Ambi and his team tried to extract antioxidants to use in water detoxification.

Despite the obstacles – he had to make a 5-hour drive from his home to Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria to conduct his research – he says he found success. In 15 minutes, the antioxidants from the Hibiscus waste reduced the concentration of chromium 6 in water by 72%. "Turning waste to wealth" is how Ambi describes the process.

But he didn't find success when he tried to publish his results. Starting in 2018, Ambi submitted a paper on his project to various scientific journals. And then came the noes.

Ambi Ahmad Adamu, a biochemist in Nigeria, is experimenting with ways to detoxify water polluted by chromium 6, a carcinogenic chemical commonly found in industrial waste. He got a series of rejections from scientific journals. Then he submitted to <em>Scientific African, </em>which published his paper.
/ Ambi Ahmad Adamu
Ambi Ahmad Adamu, a biochemist in Nigeria, is experimenting with ways to detoxify water polluted by chromium 6, a carcinogenic chemical commonly found in industrial waste. He got a series of rejections from scientific journals. Then he submitted to <em>Scientific African, </em>which published his paper.

It wasn't the rejections alone that frustrated Ambi. It was the lack of any explanation – or suggestions for improving his paper.

Researchers often find themselves getting rejections with no feedback. That's the way many journals work. But researchers in Africa believe they face an additional hurdle: prejudice within the scientific community about the caliber of research on the continent.

Abraham Haileamlak, a professor of pediatric cardiology at Jimma University in Ethiopia and editor-in-chief of the Ethiopian Journal of Health and Sciences, says he has experienced this prejudice firsthand. He says when he shares his studies on children's health and rheumatic heart disease with journals in wealthy countries, "they say they do not expect such quality research from a low-income country."

A couple of studies by Dr. Matthew Harris, a public health lecturer at Imperial College London, offer evidence of this prejudice. In one of the few studies on the topic, in Globalization and Health, 58% of respondents – mostly American health-care professionals and researchers – did not think that poor countries could likely produce research of the same caliber as rich countries. Another Harris study, published in Health Affairs, showed identical abstracts of research papers to English medical professionals, months apart, but would change the country of origin. Abstracts linked to high-income countries were regarded more highly.

And now there's a new journal whose mission is to tackle this prejudice. Scientific African launched in 2018 to provide a prejudice-free platform for research from Africa.

Two staffers at Elsevier, an academic publishing company in the Netherlands, came up with the idea a few years earlier: EJ Van Lanen, the food science senior publisher, and Marc Chahin, the executive publisher in the physics department.

They partnered with Youssef Travaly. He's vice president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences at the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), an organization that supports African innovations and scientific collaboration. A native of Rwanda, Travaly says "it is up to us" to close the gap in getting African research out to the rest of the world.

In late 2018 the team turned to Benjamin Gyampoh, a climate change and watershed management researcher from Ghana, to be founding editor-in-chief. Gyampoh, who had just taken on a heavy teaching load, says he knew that taking on this job would put his reputation on the line.

But, Gyampoh also knew what it was like to be a researcher in Africa – "what it feels like to go through the process of writing your manuscript and people not understanding the angles you're coming from."

With Gyampoh at the helm, Scientific African launched in March 2018.

To ensure that this new journal would best serve his fellow researchers in Africa, its editors and peer reviewers must have previous experience in research in Africa so that they "understand the context in which [African research is] being done," says Gyampoh.

He also wants the journal to be open to everyone, so there's no fee for online access. But because the publication doesn't charge its readers, it does charge researchers to publish articles it accepts. In recognition of the smaller budgets for research in many African countries, the fee is relatively low – about $200 per article compared to fees that can run to $3,000 or more charged by many other journals.

The global scientific community has welcomed the publication.

In 2020, Scientific African won the Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) award from the Association of American Publishers for Best New Journal in Science, Technology, and Medicine in 2020.

One judge, Chris Reid, the director of publishing and product development at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says Scientific African "is a journal that has taken a risk for a mission based on purpose" and produces "high quality" publications.

Matthew Harris, the lead author of the studies on biases against research from low-income countries, said in an email to NPR: "Scientific African should do an enormous amount to raise the brand and profile of research from Africa." While one journal "on its own may not be the answer, this initiative is another tool in the arsenal of combatting hierarchies of knowledge," he adds.

But there are some cautionary notes. Dr. Seye Abimbola, a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Sydney and editor and chief of and editor in chief of BMJ Global Health, notes that the journal has "yet to assert itself in the scientific and publishing landscape" and adds "it is not clear if it is a mega-journal that publishes all kinds of papers based on methodological rigor and not necessarily on perceived importance."

Nonetheless, he sees promise in an African journal that "caters to Africa's needs and its academic communities" and believes Scientific African could do a lot to advance research capability on the continent – and even be part of a rethinking of academic journals that could "help to push scientific communication into a future that maximizes the potential of open science and online networks."

Moving forward Gyampoh and the rest of the Scientific African staff are planning special issues on key concerns on the continent. The next topic: "COVID-19 and Africa."

As for the Nigerian researcher Ambi, he's definitely a fan. After submitting his work to Scientific African, he finally received the meaningful feedback he'd been waiting for. And after some back-and-forth edits, the journal published his paper in its November 2020 issue.

Kia Mackey is an undergraduate student and biology researcher at Occidental College studying biology and public health. Twitter: @kiamackey

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.