Challenges of journal access in Africa

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

Earlier this month, the Biochemical Society hosted the Publishers for Development (PfD) meeting entitled (deep breath!) Getting Research to Researchers in Developing Countries – Examples from East and Southern Africa, The Complex Picture of Availability, Access and Use as part of our support for capacity building. Representatives of several major publishing houses came together with a variety of experts and those working on the front line of access – from both the UK and Africa – at Charles Darwin House to discuss the unique challenges of journal access.

To very briefly summarise, we heard that the key issues in African tertiary education institutions are the lack of:

  • bandwidth
  • awareness of availability
  • information literacy
  • knowledge of what counts as scholarly
  • communication with and appreciation of libraries.

It may come as a surprise that these five main problems of access do not actually include not having the rights to see publications. Kondwani Wella, Librarian at the Kamuzu College of Nursing (University of Malawi), confirmed this, saying that access itself is actually “not too bad”. This is thanks in part to programmes from organisations like the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (one of the partners behind PfD), the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, Research4Life and EIFL, although awareness of programmes is not as universal as might be hoped. Kondwani told us about the roots of this problem; highlighting a lack of librarian awareness of the value of resources held, as well as a lack of respect for (or in some cases, a complete lack of) librarians in institutions. Such problems can be tackled at a local level through collaborations and training schemes, with particular success when principals (vice-chancellors) are engaged. Organisations like the Association of Commonwealth Universities (the other key partner behind PfD) are also involved with this effort. However, fundamentally, Kondwani noted that if journals are not available to researchers and students in an online format that works for Africa, long-term, sustainable access will not ever result.


The complex design of publishers’ websites is a significant problem, hindering usability for inexperienced African users and also dramatically increasing the time it takes for homepages to load. The key issue in this regard is with internet speed, or the lack of it. Alan Jackson from Aptivate told us that in order to provide a good web experience, pages should take no longer than 10 seconds to load. Given the limited bandwidth available for users at African universities, he estimates that the maximum size a page should be is 25kB (explanation here). Crucially, however, numerous publishers break this golden rule; Science, for example, weighs in at 72kB. Aptivate’s website has some useful tips for designing low bandwidth pages here. One successful solution we heard about is the adaptation of mobile website platforms to work as low-bandwidth versions. Cambridge University Press has implemented this system, creating this fast-loading homepage. The website detects whether the user is using a PC or mobile phone and adjusts the screen size accordingly. This dramatically increases usability.

Improving access makes an enormous difference to the professional lives of individuals; how they work and think, their research impacts and their reputation – and the reputation of their environment. For researchers in developing countries to succeed in research on the global stage, the challenges are many. But creating usable interfaces seems a simple place to start.

You can read more about the rest of the meeting in the PfD press release that followed the event, and on their website. They can also be contacted via Twitter.

Update 08/05/2012
PfD have just launched their Bandwidth Challenge, using a quote from this very blog…

145 thoughts on “Challenges of journal access in Africa

  1. Thank you so much to the Biochemical Society for supporting the third PfD conference – Charles Darwin House was perfect for our needs! We are already seeing lots of new examples of “Publishers for Development in Action”, so we’ll share an update with you very soon. All the presentations from the day are now available at:

    Thanks again, the Publishers for Development Team

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