Elizabeth Loder: African medical journals are alive and thriving

Elizabeth LoderI came away from this year’s meeting of the African Journals Partnership Project (AJPP) with a healthy respect for the multitalented, multitasking African editors who are involved in the initiative. In addition to all of the usual duties of a medical journal editor, they also have to worry about such things as internet connectivity, the fine points of digital publishing and website hosting, and how to get indexed by search engines. Since most of the African journal editors are volunteers, all of this comes on top of their day jobs.

This was the second time I’ve represented the BMJ at the AJPP meeting. The AJPP started in 2004 as a joint undertaking of the US National Library of Medicine and several other partners. Participating African journals are paired with counterparts from the US and Europe. Original objectives of the project were to facilitate collaboration among the journals and their editors, provide training resources for health researchers in African countries, and improve the caliber and accessibility of their research in local and regional journals.

This year’s meeting was ably chaired by Annette Flanagin of JAMA. Among others, we heard from Paige Angle of ScholarOne, which has generously made its electronic manuscript handling platform available to the African journals. Carol Anne Meyer of CrossRef discussed DOI deposit rules and the iThenticate plagiarism checker. The ensuing discussion made it clear that plagiarism is as much, perhaps more, of a problem for the African journals as it is for their journal partners. Medical publishing consultant Cara Kaufman of the Kaufman-Wills Group donated her time to provide an update on how to improve a journal’s web presence.

We also heard individually from each editor about the triumphs and challenges of the past year, and their hopes for the future. Their talks covered the usual facts such as circulation numbers and editorial procedures, but each was sprinkled with other fascinating details. For example, in discussing why there are so few letters to the editor sent to the Ghana Medical Journal, Dr David Ofori-Adjei suggested it is the result of cultural reluctance to appear critical of experts.

Suggestions to exploit Facebook and Twitter to increase the visibility of medical journals might work in the developed world but some African governments, we learned, discourage their use.
Dr. Abraham Haileamlak of the Ethiopian Journal of Health Sciences noted that his big problem is the unreliability of the internet. This drew nods of agreement from his fellow African editors who observed that internet connections and electricity can be unreliable; sometimes, they said, “we can barely keep the phones working.” Rural African medical facilities may not have electricity or internet connections in the first place. This prevents the African journals from realising the substantial cost savings that would come from abandoning print in favor of online only publication. Such a move would make their journals inaccessible to those who need them most. “Print is with us for the foreseeable future,” said John Kachimba of the Medical Journal of Zambia.

The BMJ is paired with the African Health Sciences Journal, edited by Dr James Tumwine and based at the Makerere University Medical School in Uganda. Dr Tumwine recounted the journal’s history. After he founded the journal in 2001, he solicited content “from every corner,” including a former veterinarian! At that time there were no other regular medical journals in Uganda and he faced tremendous skepticism that his would succeed. But, he said, “the rest is history” and he sees his journal now at the “beginning of adolescence.” Most of the visitors to the journal’s website are from Nigeria, as are 40% of article submissions, so he speaks proudly of “becoming a truly African journal.” His goals for the next year are to improve the journal’s visibility by upgrades to the website and engagement with the local media.

The constructive experience of the meeting was on my mind as I made my way home. Although formidable challenges remain, many of the original goals of the AJPP have been realized: the journals all put out regular issues in print or online, and several have been accepted into MEDLINE. Their editors interact regularly and have turned their attention towards succession planning that will ensure their journals’ future.

Imagine a world with many flourishing regional and national medical publications, each one in touch with and devoted to the needs of its individual constituency. Because of the AJPP, that vision is just a bit closer to becoming reality.

Elizabeth Loder is the BMJ’s US based clinical epidemiology editor.