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.