EAST AFRICA: Publications available but not accessed

East African universities have more journals and scholarly research available to them than ever before, yet staff and students do not appear to be accessing these resources enough, according to a recent study.

The report, released by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), called Growing Knowledge: Access to research in east and southern African universities, looked at various issues hindering access to academic material, and outlined a series of measures to address the problem.

"The study showed that there is a fantastic volume of high-quality information available - with the availability of top titles approaching that of major European universities," said Jonathan Harle, author of the report and programme officer at the ACU, in a statement. "But awareness of what's available amongst staff and students is low."

The study, funded by Arcadia, a UK grant-making trust, aimed to investigate the challenges African scholars face in accessing journals and other academic research. There are many schemes in place that provide access to thousands of journals, yet academics and students still say they cannot get the material they need.

The report is based on a series of case studies carried out in 2009 and 2010 at four universities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Data analysis and interviews with 240 academics and postgraduate students and 23 librarians and information and communication technologies staff make up the bulk of the findings. The paper builds on the first phase of the study, whose earlier report, published in June 2009, helped to define the context of the report.

For years, African universities had paltry journal collections, trailing far behind overseas institutions. Insufficient budgets and the high cost of book and journal subscriptions were to blame. But the emergence of online materials in the 1990s and price cuts of journals changed that.

The universities used in the study - Chancellor College at the University of Malawi (UNIMA), the University of Nairobi (UON), the National University of Rwanda (NUR) and the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) - are now nearly on par with many European and American universities in terms of access to top journal titles.

The universities had an average of 79% of the top 20 titles across 15 subject areas in 2009, compared to around 96% for two European universities.

Yet academics and staff are not accessing the journals. "Actually getting journals to the people who need them is a lot more complicated than just lowering prices," Harle told University World News.

Technology, although improving, is partly to blame. Lack of computers is still a major hindrance. Most academics have their own computers, but many students, particularly postgraduates, do not, and struggle to find internet-connected machines.

The average computer-to-student ratio at the four African universities was one for every 20 to 30 students. In addition, students are charged for internet or computer time on campus, leaving them little time to explore and familiarise themselves with online journals.

"Universities' investment in e-resources has secured significant content, but this will clearly need to be matched by associated investment in ICT facilities and training," wrote Harle. "Without this, the money spent on journals risks being wasted."

Another problem is internet connectivity, notoriously slow or non-existent in many parts of Africa. The installation in the past couple of years of new high-speed undersea cables is set to improve matters, but at the time of the study, the four universities showed varying degrees of connectivity.

UON reported a generally good connection with few problems, yet the other three institutions were not as fortunate, with Chancellor College, which relies on a satellite link, faring the worst. While an article at UON takes minutes to download, at Chancellor College the same document takes 45 minutes, and even then the download is incomplete.

"Downloading electronic resources is not easy because our internet is too slow. It requires a lot of patience. To download important resources it can take one the whole day," said one respondent in the study.

Even when technology is good, journals are not being found and used to the extent they could be, according to the study. Harle said the universities' policies and processes and a lack of awareness were to blame.

"A lot of academics simply didn't know how much was available to them, and how to get to it," said Harle.

Almost a third (29%) of participants in the study felt their knowledge about online journals was either unsatisfactory or non-existent, with only 16% claiming to have a high level of awareness. Many students, and even some academics, also seemed ignorant of what constituted an academic source.

When asked to list the most important journals for their work, many cited Google or other search engines. A student from NUR responded: "Not aware how I would access [journals]. I just use Google search machine to get access to the topic which I want to read about."

The report outlines possible solutions. Harle said change starts with the library. "Librarians are critical," said Harle. They can contribute greatly to teaching, research and learning, but to do so, universities need to invest more in their libraries and librarians, he said. Stronger relationships are also needed between librarians and ICT staff, as well as with researchers, so that librarians better understand research needs.

"If availability has been widely and successfully addressed, then access, and perhaps more importantly use, are the areas where a lot more attention is needed," said Harle.