Here’s one way to recover and protect Africa’s ‘lost science’

There is amazing research and knowledge coming out of Africa – you just need to know where to look. Shutterstock

It’s been 20 years since Wayt Gibbs introduced the phrase “lost science” to the world. Writing in Scientific American, Gibbs suggested that science and research from the developing world was being lost because it wasn’t shared on global platforms. He wrote:

Many researchers in the developing world feel trapped in a vicious circle of neglect and – some say – prejudice by publishing barriers (and structural obstacles) they claim doom good science to oblivion.

Not much has changed. In 2010 the Africa Institute’s Solani Ngobeni warned that library budget cuts and the rising costs of subscribing to scholarly e-resources meant research from the developing world remains largely “lost”. This science is invisible to the reading public.

This invisibility has consequences. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, international research about the virus was not immediately available to the countries affected, which may have slowed treatment responses.

But developing countries are working hard to correct this imbalance with a homegrown Open Access research index that started life in Brazil two years after Gibbs warned the world about “lost science”.

Bringing African research to the world

Brazil established the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) portal in 1997. Today there are 14 developing countries in the SciELO network, mostly from Latin America. The platform is designed to tackle the global under-use of research publications from developing countries.

It is an open access – that is, free to access and free to publish – database of selected, high-quality scholarly journals. The full text of all articles is available rather than just an abstract. SciELO articles figure prominently in Google Scholar.

In 2009 South Africa became the first – and to date the only – African country to join the SciELO network. It was introduced by the Academy of Science of South Africa, which appreciated both its open access format and SciELO’s focus on developing countries. SciELO SA forms part of the academy’s scholarly publishing programme. The program focuses on enhancing the quality, quantity and worldwide visibility of original, peer-reviewed publications produced by researchers in South Africa.

The platform is funded by the South African Department of Science and Technology. Its journals which are listed in the SciELO Citation Index are accredited for funding purposes by the South African Department of Higher Education and Training.

A resource on the rise

To date, articles in the SciELO SA open access collection have been viewed almost three-and-a-half million times.

A resource on the rise. Google Analytics

As this graph shows, usage has climbed steadily and almost doubled over the last year. That’s significant exposure for the until recently “lost science” of South Africa.

The platform is helping to change South Africa’s research environment by providing equitable access to all researchers, globally and at home.

Some of these researchers may come from universities that don’t have access to traditional, peer-reviewed academic journals which charge high subscription fees. With SciELO SA, researchers can view, download and study information for free. To date there are 60 South African scholarly journals in the collection, and the Academy hopes this will eventually rise to more than 180.

Up next: the continent

After seven years of implementing SciELO SA, building expertise, establishing the model and enhancing the impact of the platform and journals, it is time to replicate this model in other African countries.

The Academy is working with the Network of African Science Academies to promote similar Open Access projects throughout the continent – a move that, we hope, will bring a great deal of Africa’s “lost science” to public attention.


This article was co-authored by Louise van Heerden, SciELO SA operations manager at the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and Susan Veldsman, director of ASSAf’s Scholarly Publishing Unit