Data project helps ARUA universities evaluate research efforts

Despite challenges encountered in their quest to transform into research and postgraduate training institutions, the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, has reported that, in terms of research citation impact, some members have achieved the global average, in some cases exceeding the world score.

At least four out of the 16 ARUA member universities achieved more than twice the average global citations value, suggesting an emerging trend of high impact of knowledge generated by the universities, according to findings of the Research profiles of ARUA universities: 2015-21 publication, the second performance report of the network as part of the data-gathering and benchmarking project. The report was launched in November 2022, but has been updated and was published in March 2023.

“While the citation impact of most ARUA universities is on a par with the global average, based on Category Normalised Citation Impact analysis, the highest normalised citation impact was achieved by publications produced by [the universities of] Lagos, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Ibadan,” the report notes.

The Category Normalised Citation Impact, or CNCI, has citations normalised for the subject, year and document type, and is calculated by dividing the actual count of cited items by an expected citation rate for documents within the same document type, year of publication and subject area.

When a document is assigned to more than one subject area, an average of the ratios of the actual to expected citations is used. A CNCI value of one represents performance on a par with the world average. A value above one is considered above the world average, while a value below one is considered below the world average, the document explains.

The report shows that the number of journal articles published by the universities increased from 15,348 in 2015 to 26,290 in 2021, recording an average annual growth rate of about 9%. Cumulatively, the institutions published more than 117,715 articles between 2015 and 2021, the document finds.

The analysis establishes that the universities mostly published in health sciences, with public, environmental and occupational health having 9,372 publications, infectious diseases 7,177 and immunology 3,871 publications. On the other hand, environmental sciences had 6,275 publications, plant science 3,422 and ecology 4,331.

The research fields, it adds, are aligned with the major challenges confronting the continent and the world at large, indicating that the universities were pursuing research that is relevant in addressing Africa’s and the world’s concerns.

Nevertheless, it notes that there is room to expand the scope of research areas in which they are top performers.


On average, publications co-authored with international peers accounted for over 60% of research output by the institutions, while co-authorships among themselves was low, at 21% of the total “research output of each university”.

“In terms of the extent to which ARUA universities are collaborating among themselves, the analysis revealed that such co-authorships ranged between 7% and 35%. The University of Cape Town had the highest proportion of co-authorships, with at least one co-author from an ARUA member university at 35%, the document observes. “These co-authorships were mostly with researchers from other South African universities,” it adds.

The University of Mauritius recorded the lowest proportion of co-authorships with the Alliance’s universities. The same was observed with regard to the universities of Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

“While the significant levels of research collaboration (co-authorships) with international peers are laudable, the low levels of co-authorship among ARUA universities call for appropriate interventions.

The establishment of ARUA centres of excellence is an important step in fostering research collaboration among ARUA universities,” the report notes.

The survey concluded that the universities had recorded progress across all the metrics, including in the proportion of postgraduate enrolments, the proportion of female students, female academics, academics with doctorates, in research productivity and in citation impact.

For example, it observed that the “internal efficiency” of postgraduate programmes has generally improved, with most of the universities improving the proportion of doctoral students who completed their studies within four years, with Uganda’s Makerere University recording the highest improvement of 47% in 2021, up from 21.2% in 2015.

“The profiles report is not intended to present a ranking of ARUA universities. It is simply designed to be an instrument for university leaders to benchmark their performance in selected areas against that of their peers.

“It also provides other stakeholders, such as governments and funders, some indication of how responsive various universities have been or can be over time, and how their performance against their peers has been over that period,” noted Professor Ernest Aryeetey, the ARUA secretary-general, in a preface to the document.

This left “significant room” for improvement, he added, further expressing concern that significant gender gaps were noted among non-South African member universities, and “although some improvements were beginning to take shape in some of the affected institutions”.

“It is not surprising that several universities are beginning to reconsider their gender policies with an eye to greater diversity and gender balance,” the secretary-general added.

Universities, Aryeetey advised, need to have “clear” strategies for growth of collaboration at various levels, adding that robust South-South collaborations cannot be overemphasised in view of ARUA’s strategic plan for universities “characterised by [the] sharing of resources and people”.

The importance of data collection

Some of the objectives of the study were to collect data against research indicators and metrics with the aim of identifying gaps in institutional capacity, and raise the capacity for developing appropriate institutional structures and expertise for gathering benchmarking data, Professor Gerald Ouma, the survey leader and also the senior director of institutional planning, monitoring and evaluation at the University of Pretoria, noted.

Universities in ARUA should use the data brought to the fore by the report to assess themselves, identify their strengths and weaknesses and work to improve areas that need intervention.

Data, Ouma said, is the “oxygen” that drives institutions, giving them a sense of where they are, thus the need for them to engender and build a data culture for use in planning.

The data will also help the universities know each other better and help them establish future research collaborations among themselves, since it expounds on areas where each of them is either strong or deficient, he added.

“Even more importantly, this report shows allows the universities to appreciate the need to strengthen their data systems so that they are collecting the same [data], understand how they are doing and plan for the future,” he told University World News.

“They should look at data as something that will help them thrive,” he added.