Siddhartha Yadav on optimism in South Asia for health research

Last week was a research-filled week for me. Two biomedical papers to review in the early part of the week and the South Asian Forum for Health Research (SAFHeR) meeting towards the end. Could not ask for more.

The SAFHeR meeting, by all standards, was a big one. The meeting saw official representatives from research councils or alike in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, India and Thailand, gathered in Kathmandu. And then there were big names who were especially invited for this meeting: Dr Giselle Jones from BMJ, Dr Jeremy Farrar from Oxford University and Dr Palmer from Wellcome Trust. 

The theme of this meeting was “strengthening communication in health research”. Consequently, much of the discussion focused on medical journals published in this region.

Representatives from different countries presented about the research capacities and the status of medical journals in their countries. India has the maximum number of medical journals in this region while Maldives does not have any.

What was important in these discussions was that every country had something to offer and something to learn from others. India, obviously, had the most to offer. With its research council, programs and journals comparable to many developed countries, it can act as a resource centre for all other South Asian countries to learn and get help from.

However, the most interesting part of the conference came from people outside South Asia: Giselle and Jeremy.  Giselle spoke impressively about how to prepare a manuscript while submitting it to a journal. She made us realise that writing a paper was as important as conducting the research.  She was and remains the focus of this year’s SAFHeR meeting.

Jeremy, on the other hand, talked about research prospects in South Asia. His experience with research on tropical diseases in Vietnam and Nepal was inspiring.  A discussion session with Giselle and Jeremy the next day was another highlight of the program.

The audience seemed engaged in these presentations and the discussions thereafter. It is rare to find a Nepalese audience asking questions or taking part in discussions. Ours is a receptive culture and that of passive learning, as is reflected in our limited involvement in research.

But this was a different breed of audience. Their hunger for research seemed insatiable. It seemed as if they had finally found a platform that could address their queries that they held within themselves for so long.

During these discussions, the editors of some of the journals in Nepal shared their experiences about editing and publishing a journal in Nepal. It was obvious from these discussions that they suffered from many constraints. There is a lack of trained editors, good peer reviewers and adequate financial resources to publish a journal. In addition, editors faced another kind of problem: pressure from authors, politicians, and seniors to publish a paper even if it did not meet the standards.

This situation has been improving gradually over the years, as evidenced by the growing number of medical journals in the country. However, there is a need to be protected from over enthusiasm while judging these numbers.

The agenda of research should not be dominated by the agenda of publication. Research and publication should be complementary. Quality of these journals is an important issue. Most of these journals have a very high acceptance rate (more than 90 % in some of the journals as one editor said during the discussions) because of a dearth of articles to publish. All of the journals in Nepal are institutional journals and deal with the same range of topics. Their objectives to promote health research sometimes seem lost in their roles in promoting their institutional agendas. Many a time it is the same editors working on different journals.

What purpose do these journals serve then? Do we need ten different journals when one could fulfill the same purpose? Does having a large number of journals mean that the health research situation is improving or does it simply mean that more poor quality researches are now being published which would not have found a spot for publication otherwise? And most importantly, how many of us read Nepali journals (and these are not in Nepalese language, as Jeremy rightly pointed out), even if we are in the habit of reading journals, anyway?

But what ultimately matters is that that the group of people gathered at SAFHeR was not here to fulfill few bureaucratic requirements but because they were genuinely interested in research. They were here because they truly believed that health research and evidence based medicine are the way forward for South Asia to combat its indigenous health problems.

This inspires confidence and provides optimism for a better future of health research in this region. Hopefully, everyone will build on from the experiences gained in this meeting to excel research communication and capacities in their individual countries. As somebody rightly said during the conference: Meetings should not be the end point, but the beginning.

Competing Interests: I am a research editor at Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), former Clegg Scholar at BMJ and have recently completed my medical school. I am deeply interested in research and public health issues. I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Buddha Basnyat for helping me participate in the SAFHeR meeting.