The African Journal Partnership Project: Raising the visibility of African medical publishing and research

navjoyt_ladherFor the past 11 years, the African Journal Partnership Project (AJPP) has paired leading medical journals in the UK and the US with counterparts in Africa, aiming to foster the development of medical publishing in the African continent so that valuable African health and medical research is available to a wider international audience.

The project was started after the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and Fogarty International Center (part of the National Institutes of Health) recognised that there were problems with the availability and dissemination of medical literature in Africa. As the AJPP website explains: “Despite the recognised benefits of health and medical journals to clinical practitioners, Africa’s health and medical journal production and distribution are low and therefore do not make research from endemic areas available to colleagues on the continent or in the international scientific community.”

With the realisation that a capacity building programme focused on medical journals may help address this issue, the first AJPP meeting was hosted by The BMJ at BMA House in September 2003. The idea was for the project to provide equipment, training, and support to participating journals. Initially four African journals were partnered with five international journals. Over the years, the project has grown and there are currently eight African journals paired with five Northern partners:

African Health Sciences with The BMJ
Ghana Medical Journal with the Lancet
Ethiopian Journal of Health Sciences with Annals of Internal Medicine
Malawi Medical Journal with JAMA
Mali Medical with Environmental Health Perspectives
Medical Journal of Zambia with New England Journal of Medicine
Annales Africaines de Medicine with Mali Medical and Environmental Health Perspectives
Sierra Leone Journal of Biomedical Research with Ghana Medical Journal and the Lancet

ajpp_giraffepicLast week AJPP held its 11th annual meeting in Blantyre, home of the Malawi Medical Journal.

The meetings are intended for training, progress reports from the participating journals, discussions about how the project is working, and planning for the future. They are attended by editors from each participating journal, as well as representatives from a number of organisations that support AJPP, such as NLM, Fogarty International, hosting platform African Journals Online, and Thomson Reuters who provide manuscript managing services. I was there on behalf of The BMJ.

This year’s theme was “Promoting Scientific Integrity for African Medical Science and Journals” and the meeting started with a keynote speech from Joseph Mfutso-Bengo, professor of bioethics at the University of Malawi, about the responsible conduct and reporting of research in Africa. We learnt that while there are established ethics committees and a good culture of teaching bioethics in Malawi, a number of challenges remain. Ethical practices in research need to become better standardised and harmonised across the continent, including a greater emphasis on the importance of declaring competing interests. We also learnt that the Chichewa word for trust is khulupirira, “to believe,” and—as Professor Mfutso-Bengo explained—when it comes to research conduct and reporting “it’s all about khulupirira.”

Updates from the participating journals illustrated the range of experiences at different publications.ajpp_pic

African Health Sciences (AHS), based in Uganda, is a founding member of AJPP and has gone from strength to strength. The journal now receives a high number of submissions from across Africa and beyond, and has seen its acceptance rate go down. With this success comes associated problems: for example, potential authors attempting to bribe their way into the journal, a relative lack of peer reviewers for the high volume of submissions, and some poor quality submissions. As its twin journal, some of these problems are familiar here at The BMJ (although I’ve yet to experience an attempted bribe), but as editor in chief James Tumwine explained, they are not trying to emulate The BMJ; rather AHS strives to publish research that is relevant to readers in the region, where diseases such as kwashiorkor and cholera remain a problem. In his words, “We are passionately into publishing to humbly contribute to tackling ill health.”

One editor in chief described the challenges of publishing a journal with very limited office space and no full time staff. Another talked about building sustainability into their activities, with succession planning a hot topic at many journals.

The update from Aiah Gbakima, editor in chief for the Sierra Leone Journal of Biomedical Research (SLJBR), gave a stark reminder of what the project is trying to achieve. Publishing activities at the journal have been at a standstill as the entire editorial board has been deeply involved in the response to the Ebola outbreak. At the now (hopefully) tail end of the outbreak, Professor Gbakima described how even with the experiences of the past year, there was a lack of research papers, case studies, or perspective pieces about the current Ebola outbreak submitted to SLJBR. Much of the research published so far has been in journals outside of Sierra Leone, which are difficult for local healthcare workers to access. How can more of this information be made available to the people who need it most?

One by one each journal gave their updates about the past year. Every report highlighted great progress, distinct challenges, and added to the already strong conviction that the goals of AJPP are well worth pursuing.

There were many other interesting talks. Iveta Simra from the Equator Network ran a workshop on reporting guidelines. Mike Berkwits, deputy editor at JAMA, presented a report of each journal’s digital activities and led a discussion on future web and social media plans. Ian Potter from ThomsonReuters presented data on research output in Africa, which suggests that research output and collaborations are thriving in many countries (however, as one editor noted, it would be interesting to see how much of this research is actually published or easily available on the continent, particularly research involving big name partners and funders). There were many discussions about the future of the project too, with plans to add more partner journals over the year and to explore ways of disseminating research published in the journals more widely.

ajpp_zebraSo all in all, a rich and packed programme across the two day meeting. When I arrived in Malawi, I kept hearing reference to the term “AJPP magic.” After hearing all about the past year’s achievements and the plans for the coming year, I understand what it means. The ability of this small project to achieve big things with relatively limited resources is remarkable, and I hope it continues to get recognition and support to match the enthusiasm and dedication of its partners.

Navjoyt Ladher is a clinical editor, The BMJ.

Competing Interests: The BMJ is a founding partner of AJPP. AJPP covered the costs of my accommodation and meals during the meeting.

Learn more about the African Journal Partnership Project. The project is also on Twitter at @AJPPEditors