Research without Borders from Kampala, Uganda

Published: Wednesday 13th March 2019
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by Patreece Spence

“Never again would I complain about the shortfalls of open-concept,” I thought as I squeezed into the editorial office lined with binders and files aired by the occasional breeze circulating through the barred windows. It’s in this dusty, hidden corner of Makerere University’s School of Public Health where African Health Sciences came to fruition 15 years ago, despite the ever-constant electrical outages & wifi shortages.

Editor-in-Chief Dr. James Tumwine works in a similar space, surrounded by mountains of loose papers & senior theses. He giggles in his sweater vest as he explains the theory of pedagogy and wonders why tourists take photos of homeless people when visiting his country, while he is considered wrong to do the same in the US or UK.

But just steps from the medical school were mothers selling fresh avocados and roasting plantains in the harsh sun, trimming each others’s hair, slums where young girls flew high on swings and open storefronts where men nailed tiny caskets together; some children covered in dust from playing in the sewer barefoot, making up games with bottle caps, others begging desperately. Men revving motorbikes waited in the shade beneath towering trees to offer a ride to every passerby – “boda, boda” – they’d say, speeding over sidewalks avoiding speedbumps or potholes and weaving through traffic on whichever side of the road was most clear, squeezing through honking traffic the locals call “jam”. Locals and ladies in dresses ride these electric bikes around town in style carelessly, maybe even with a baby plopped on their laps, meanwhile I nervously pull my knees in, hoping to avoid scraping my knee on a car door or headlight.

Were there any traffic laws in Kampala? I often wondered, because this driving wouldn’t fly in the States.

“The Journal was conceived out of frustration,” Professor Tumwine explained, noting that many journals in 2001 weren’t concerned with African health research – the experiments & findings were relevant enough to be published in existing western publications. So, he worked tirelessly with the university to create a space for African researchers to grow & share ideas.

“Why would African Health Sciences publish an article on frostbite?” he asked the Scientific Writing Workshop attendees, “and similarly, why would an American journal be interested in malaria?” Though a simple question of relevance & proximity, this led the group to what became the crux of the workshop: what is your message and how can you succinctly convey that through the paper’s title & abstract?

Many local graduate students at the university help review for African Health Sciences when time permits, but maintaining control of the journal’s backlog remains a constant challenge for the editorial team. The volunteer-based approach that the community so heavily relies on does its best to keep up with the overwhelming number of submissions, as the journal holds a rejection rate of 70%.

To manage the backlog, increasing productivity could only be achieved by first understanding the workflow of the journal’s editorial process. When assigning reviewers for each accepted manuscript for example, the managing editor began each search at Google to delve into a sea of TEDTalks researching related topics manuscript by manuscript, with hopes of finding relevant reviewers and his or her contact information.

Collaborating with the managing editor using Scopus & Scival, we put together a masterfile of author keywords, contact information & related publications, focusing on topic areas where the journal typically lacks reviewers, such as immunology & geriatric nursing, to help the journal more accurately hone in on finding the right reviewers. Exporting this information offline allows the editors to continue assigning topical reviewers even when the campus wifi or electricity fails, an issue that significantly delays the editorial process and impedes productivity.

I am extremely appreciative of the lessons and memories I hold from Dr. Tumwine and his incredibly inspiring editorial team.

This article was written by Patreece Spencer, Publishing Support & Insights Specialist at Elsevier. She is one of the Elsevier employees who volunteered in the Research without Borders program run by the Elsevier Foundation.