On African knowledge repositories and evidence-informed policy-making

By  Prof Willem Fourie

policy

Image credit: Shutterstock

Access to high-quality research is key to evidence-informed policymaking. The number of African knowledge repositories is increasing and has the potential to enable better access to more evidence, and thus impacting on the type of policies that are developed and implemented in Africa. But challenges remain.

A growing number of African repositories

To get a sense of the number of knowledge repositories in Africa, it is helpful to refer to the Registry of Research Data Repositories (re3data.org) and the Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR).

Re3data.org is a ‘global registry of research data repositories’. Its focus is on research data and it currently contains around 20 repositories from Africa. These repositories cover topics ranging from the astrophysics and astronomy (South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array repository) to the West African Vegetation Repository, Cameroon’s Experimental Tropical Watersheds repository, Egypt’s Information Portal and Kenya’s Open Data platform.

OpenDOAR is a more comprehensive resource, and prides itself on providing ‘a quality-assured listing of open access repositories around the world’. Maintained by SHERPA Services at the University of Nottingham, it lists 155 African knowledge repositories. Of these repositories, two are classified as aggregating repositories, eight are disciplinary repositories, and two are government repositories. The remainder and the majority of the repositories, 143, are classified as institutional repositories and contain mostly African universities’ repositories.

Both Re3data.org and OpenDOAR are committed to only including fully open access repositories on repeatedly accessible sites. This means that African policymakers theoretically have access to at least 175 open access knowledge repositories. Taken together, these repositories provide access to hundreds of thousands of knowledge items.

The South African SDG Hub

According to our analysis, none of the existing knowledge repositories focuses on the knowledge related to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa. This is why the University of Pretoria launched the South African Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub (soon to be renamed the South African SDG Hub) in 2017. Its goal is to contribute to this growing network of knowledge repositories by focussing on peer-reviewed research relevant for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.

The beta version of the Hub includes peer-reviewed research from the institutional repositories of four institutions, tagged in terms of SDG and SDG-relevant keyword. This version is available at www.SASDKH.org. A partnership with South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology is enabling the addition of SDG-relevant innovations. Its intention is to redirect all traffic to originating repositories.

The Hub is currently building on lessons learned during its beta phase. This includes expanding its partnership base, investigating the integration of machine learning, and assisting researchers with drafting policy briefs based on their research. Its visual identity and website layout is also currently being updated.

Challenges

Yet, the mere existence of such repositories will not ensure their use and ultimately better policies. Why? Based on our experience at the University of Pretoria, we found that addressing the following can make African knowledge repositories truly useful:

  • The search function needs to enable intuitive and quick access to relevant resources. Currently, using most knowledge repositories is a laborious and time-consuming task. In addition, we found that many repositories incorrectly assign metadata (such as the type of resource, keywords, etc.) to knowledge items. This makes it difficult to gain access to the most relevant research.
  • More information isn’t necessarily better. All knowledge repositories need to grapple with a catch-22. On the one hand they want to – and need to – collect as many relevant knowledge items as possible. Yet, the more knowledge items they have on their repository, the less usable it becomes for policymakers with limited time available to work through all the potentially relevant items.
  • Digital isn’t enough. Even a cursory look at the literature, shows that evidence-informed policymaking is about more than merely the availability of knowledge items. It’s also about building high-trust relationships.
  • Availability doesn’t necessarily mean quality. Existing institutional repositories and sites such as Re3data.org and OpenDOAR focus on making as much knowledge as possible available. Unfortunately, many repositories in Africa and beyond contain bad data or unreliable research. Our analysis of selected African institutional repositories, for example, revealed a high number of articles published in so-called predatory journals.

In conclusion: the growth in the number of knowledge repositories in Africa is good news. But more needs to be done to enable that these repositories have a positive impact on policymaking on the continent.

Author bio

Willem Fourie is Associate Professor at the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership at the University of Pretoria, and Co-ordinator of the South African Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub. He can be contacted via his email.