Joint Australia and Africa research boosts citations

The Australia-Africa Universities Network, which has been running for going on three years with 10 institutions from each of the two regions, already has 16 collaborative research programmes underway in areas such as food security, mining and minerals, public sector reform, public health and education.

Interestingly, research at Murdoch University in Australia has shown that citations per paper with African co-authors is far higher than the university’s average citation per paper.

The network was founded by Professor John Hearn, who modelled it on the 14-year-old Worldwide Universities Network, of which he is the executive director and which consists of 19 universities in 11 countries on five continents driving international collaboration in research that tackles issues of global significance.

The Australia-Africa Universities Network comprises “peer global universities which have matching strengths in research areas”, Hearn told University World News.

There are two wings, one based in Australia and the other in South Africa, with the overall network co-chaired by Hearn and Professor Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria. “The two organisations are a mirror image, with 10 Australian universities and 10 African universities and a secretariat on both sides. We work across the divide.”

Hearn was attending an international conference held in Johannesburg from 10-14 May, co-hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and SARIMA – the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association – under the theme of “Research and Innovation for Global Challenges”.

The why

There were three main reasons for setting up the Australia-Africa Universities Network, said Hearn.

“Number one, I could see that we didn’t have room for a lot of African universities to join the Worldwide Universities Network. We do have two — the universities of Ghana and Cape Town — and I felt very strongly that our knowledge base is highly applicable to Africa.

“We’re forming equal partnerships with leading African researchers and universities and looking at the questions and the problems together to get an African-Australian approach. Everything we do has to have both Australian and African participation.”

The second reason, he said, was that the two regions share many challenges — in climate, in topography, in new ways of arid farming for example.

And the third reason was personal for Hearn, who is deputy vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Sydney and professor of reproductive physiology in the school of medical sciences, and has taught and researched across the world and published 210 research papers and six books.

He grew up in East Africa and also worked there for many years, running programmes with the World Health Organization. “It’s just a great pleasure to be back working with friends and colleagues and partners in Africa."


A good reason for universities to get involved lies in the benefits to research.

Presenting at the conference David Doepel, chair of the Africa Research Group at Murdoch University, pointed out that Sub-Saharan Africa’s regions had more than doubled their annual research output from 2003-12, and the region’s share of global research grew from 0.44% to 0.72% — though “still a far cry from its share of global population at 12%”.

“All regions improved the relative citation impact of their research, with East Africa and Southern Africa raising their impact above the world average between 2003 and 2012,” Doepel said.

A study of research output quality showed that at Murdoch University, citations per paper co-authored with Africa were significantly higher than the university’s cumulative average — and had been rising in the past five years.

In 1990, papers authored by Murdoch academics, and those co-authored with Africa, were both just below one citation per paper. By 2000, Africa co-authored publications were up to nearly two citations per paper against the Murdoch average of less than one per paper.

And by 2010, citations per paper co-authored with Africa had shot up to four, against just over one for the Murdoch average.

Dr George Odhiambo, formerly a Kenyan and now a senior lecturer in educational leadership and management at the University of Sydney and a theme leader for the Australia-Africa Universities Network, said higher citation impacts from international research was a major collaboration benefit.

Also, citation impact tended to grow as the geographic extent of collaboration increased.

Other benefits were co-authored research outputs and “less work for everyone without compromising on results”. Also, the increasing complexity of research technology and exploration of variables meant that much research work could no longer be done by just one researcher.

The state of play

It is still early days, said Hearn, in the Australia-Africa Universities Network, which is funded by the Australian government.

“We’ve been going just over two years. In our first year we got six research programmes underway on the ground, with between three and 10-plus universities participating in each. Those were largely in food security.”

In the second year, funding for more research areas came in. “So we’ve now got 16 programmes underway on both continents and we’re looking to not expand too much in the coming year — we want to make them work. We’re aiming to pick the strongest to go for major international funding.

“So the short- and medium-term target is to make our programmes sustainable, but they really have to be on pressing issues for Africa and Australia, which means they are pressing global issues.”

On the research front, there are “very interesting early results coming out in, for example, the health of under-fives in several countries in Africa, and diet — the ability to avoid obesity, heart disease and diabetes through preventative medicine and dietary development.

“We’ve got interesting work coming up on new foods, these are local foods in some cases — the mopane worm, for example — and how that could be developed into an industry. We’re looking at the development of enterprise zones in Africa, and how to not make the mistakes that quite a number of countries have made.”

There was an early start in food security. But now education is coming up quickly and the network is particularly looking at how to improve the leadership and success of African researchers and research leaders, and how to get early career researchers into sustainable careers.

Challenges and achievements

The challenges are kind of predictable, said Hearn. “They’ve been finding the right people with the commitment and the expertise, then getting those people together and building trust, because trust is absolutely essential in any team.

“Obvious obstacles have been distance communications, the slowest common denomination factor — when you rely on someone who just doesn’t deliver, in which case you have to find a way around it. But these are all things that we’re coping with and they’re diminishing."

Drawing on experience from many projects, George Odhiambo said the network’s challenges were common to most international partnerships. Managing collaborative research demands extensive resources and proper infrastructure, and the way they are managed is key to success or failure.

There are organisational differences in research systems that complicate the work of researchers, different laws and legal systems — “it can be easier to do research in developing countries” — and working in multidisciplinary groups is a “huge challenge”.

Also key, said Hearn, is the “ground-up support of people who want to engage in international cooperation — otherwise it’s not going to happen. There are obstacles to people in doing that. Everyone we have is a volunteer and everyone is very, very busy.”

It helped the network, said Hearn, that there was “very clear, simple and I hope effective governance, where the president of each university is on the board and the vice-president is appointed to be the champion on campus for that university delivering.

“Then we have a theme leader who pulls together the research and creates a dialogue between the researchers and the governance that is savvy, because you can go off and do any research but if it is not really compelling as an international solution and it’s not going to be funded, then forget it.

“Without being cynical, what matters is that we get the preliminary data to attract significant major funds from governments or international agencies, like the European Union or the Norwegian government or World Bank, and we’re in touch with all of those.”

The network, said Hearn, has a vision of itself as a global laboratory for the future. “We’re experimental. Some things will work, some won’t. And that’s exciting because it kind of puts you in as a pioneer and not as a follower.”