Muza Gondwe: Malawi, a small poor country but with a significant scientific publication record

Muza GondwePoverty is synonymous with Malawi, a small African country, but nevertheless Malawi seems to be leading the field in terms of quality research. At least it is according to the Global Research Report: Africa by Thomson Reuters published in April 2010. The report assessed publication output in the Web of Science database between 1999 and 2008.

The report says, “…. other countries with limited resources are making notable and effective contributions of a high standard. Other analyses show that Malawi, with one-tenth the annual research output of Nigeria, produces research of a quality that exceeds the world average benchmark while Nigeria hovers around half that impact level.”

In reference to a comparison of publications with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) it says,
“The real leaders are Tunisia and Malawi with very different economic bases but strong relative productivity in both cases.” 

It is gratifying that Malawi produces research that is of higher quality than the international standard but Thomson Reuters fails to describe exactly what this quality standard is. Is quality referring to publication in high impact factor journals, type of study e.g. double blind randomised clinical trials, or the study’s research focus and its concomitant implications.

What would a closer analysis of Malawi’s data reveal? Thomson Reuters do make two important observations. Firstly that: “…the UK is a co-author on no less than 45% of research publications from Malawi,” and secondly, “Malawi is one of the sites for the Wellcome Trust major overseas programs.” So my initial excitement might have been slightly premature if we scrutinize the data further. A paper published in the Malawi Medical Journal in 2008 reveals that only 21% of papers from Malawi indexed in Medline between 1996 and 2006 had first authors of Malawian origin.  Therefore overseas partners such as the Wellcome Trust, Johns Hopkins, and University of North Carolina, which all have major clinical research programs in Malawi, should receive the credit for tipping the scales in favour of Malawi especially since the Malawi government budgets on average 0.03% annually for research (Malawi has a modest GDP of 4.27 billion USD).

There is much to be gained from these collaborations, for example access to modern facilities, technical expertise, and opportunities to publish in reputable journals.  But going beyond publishing (for tenure, international prestige, or as a funding requirement) – what has been the impact of this upsurge in research in Malawi?  Is there a way to connect dots between health care, policy, and research? Has a strengthened research capacity translated into visible local outputs?  And as a keen Malawian science communicator the burning question for me is: are research findings communicated locally and to what extent does the public, media, and government engage with these results?

Muza Gondwe is a science communicator from Malawi who is keen to engage Africans with science. She is currently on a fellowship at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa, working on a project titled African Science Heroes.

  • Mojuenyi

    Brilliant piece especially the questions at the end. You could also ask the same question in relation to Gambia where the MRC has had a research centre for the last 40 years. Many British researchers and clinicians have made their name doing research there.

    Until the appointment of the first Gambian director in 2002, how many Gambian or African professors had emerged from that Centre? How many Gambian and African PhDs? Progress has been made in reducing morbidity and mortality from pneumococcal disease, but has the health of the Gambian population improved as much as could be expected in this period

    I'm aware that the focus has changed in the last 10 years to begin to address some of these issues, but more still needs to be done

  • Sumesh Khanal

    I think this is the beginning, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk and you have to learn to walk before you can run. With all the technical and financial collaborations of the overseas partners, the scientific community in your country are learning the fundamentals of research and eventually they will be able to do it on their own.

    I should say that you are lucky. At least you all have got the opportunity to participate in research. In our country, Nepal, its just been a few years since people have started to appreciate the importance of research. At the institute of medicine (IOM), which is the leading medical college and research center of the entire country,(and where i study) we have a journal called JournalIOM. And this journal has no office and staff of its own. All of its work are conducted by the faculty and the editorial interns (medical students with no formal trainings) from their own home.

    Even more important is the attitude of the senior faculties and teachers towards research done by medical students. When some of us had gone to the research department of our institute to submit the proposal of our research for ethical clearance, the director politely turned us out by saying that as a medical student our first duty is to study and get good grades and not waste our time in things which are beyond our capabilities.

    And this is not just the situation in our institute, its the situation of the entire scientific community of our country. First of all there is no adequate funding and secondly the attitude of the seniors towards the new comers is so depressing. So, i think you can now understand when i say that the situation in your country would be like a dream come true for any medical students of Nepal.

  • Highlander

    Hi Sumesh, the future of scientific community is not as bleak as it seems. In fact there are more and more journals coming up. One of the newest and promising medical journal is “Journal of Advances in Internal Medicine.” It has just published its first issue and the articles there are really well written and well edited. Also there are a lot of scientific writing workshops going on (i have participated in a couple of them).

    The thing i would like to stress upon is that being an undergraduate student you can really do a lot. Getting ethical approval is not difficult as it seems, first explain your research department why it is important for you to apply for a medical research. For this you can take the help of a mentor (one of your profs) if possible.