“Things weren’t always as I expected”: Volunteering for Researchers Without Borders

Published: Tuesday 9th April 2019
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by Adam Fraser

Prof. Tumwine, aka Prof, at a Researchers without Borders workshop.

When I’m asked about my time in Uganda with the African Journals Partnership Program, I want to mention how things weren’t always as I expected. I’d been told that it’d be intrepid, and that things can move slowly, and this was the idea I had, perhaps patronisingly, when I arrived. But, the reality wasn’t like that. It’s not really quite the logistical challenge you may think. Like many places in the so-called developing world, Kampala has Uber, the 4G connection is reliable and cheap (relatively for a Londoner). So, getting around, staying connected, and getting work done is more straightforward than I had envisaged.

Ok, those Ubers can get stuck in frankly bonkers traffic jams, meaning it can take 40 minutes to inch along the distance of a mile. But you can skip the traffic quite easily by clinging on for dear life to the back of a motorbike taxi (boda boda) and weave through jammed cars and lorries. You will, admittedly, be taking the chance that you’ll be one of the estimated 20 people a day taken into Mulago Hospital’s intensive care unit for boda-related traffic accidents.

And, it’s worth mentioning that most buildings suffered at least a few power cuts each day. But, as few places need heating or have the capacity for fans or air conditioning, the power cuts aren’t quite as problematic as they might otherwise be.

Be prepared

I’d prepared for the trip a few months in advance with a skype call with the Editor-in-Chief of African Health Sciences (AHS), Prof James Tumwine, who outlined the needs of the journal, and detailed where the journal needed support. My predecessors from the African Journal Partnership Program (AJPP), Emily Djock and Patreece Spence, got me up to speed on the work they’d done in Kampala.

Once I’d arrived, I was welcomed warmly by the rest of the AHS team: Grace Ndeezi (Deputy Editor); Pauline Salamula (Production Editor); and Ben Muhwezi (Editorial Office). James Tumwine—known simply as “Prof”—is one of these bafflingly productive people who makes you feel like they have more than 24 hours in a day. After spending his early career in Norway and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Prof now spends his time running the journal after attending to patients as a paediatrician, supervising dozens of students, and if that wasn’t enough, for the weeks I was there, also consulting a delegation from South Sudan trying to establish a University in the newly-founded nation to the north.

One morning after attending to patients late into the night, Prof was up early to work with me running a workshop on research methods, scientific writing and scholarly publishing, and had more energy than anyone else in the room. We spent two days with masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral students training them to improve their research questions, think about their goals and impact, and hopefully be the next generation of researchers finding the answers to the problems of HIV reactivation, trauma surgery, or water-borne pathogens. Prof impressed upon the students the importance of getting involved in peer review, how essential, but all to scarce, this volunteer service is for the community. He saw it as analogous to donating blood—a resource that people urgently need but not enough people provide. The comparison had a tragic potency that day, following the death of one of his patients the night before, a 5-year-old child, who died due to a shortage of compatible blood.

Making a difference

Most of the first week I spent listening, shadowing the AHS team, and learning how things worked. By the end of the week, I got a strong sense of what the Journal’s priorities were. The success of the journal was obvious—a diamond open access journal with 1,300 submissions a year, an improving impact factor, indexed in MEDLINE, and a truly international pool of authors and reviewers with a strong Kampalan core. But more than the numbers and stats, the journal was advancing research on critical issues, from the fight against HIV, to malaria, Zika, and more—really punching above their weight in global public health issues.

While the capacity of the AHS team was limited, their ambition certainly was not—they were looking to grow and connect even closer to the international scholarly communications community through listing in DOAJ and becoming a member of COPE. Ben, Pauline and I worked to overhaul the website, complete the necessary updates to get those processes underway, and begin to highlight more of the great work going on in the Journal. I’ll continue to work with them on this in the coming weeks, back home from London.

Success, though, comes at a cost, especially for an organisation running on a strictly limited budget, with volunteer editors, and minimal capacity for scaling up with only two staff working out of a small office in a corner of Makerere University, bordering the large public Mulago Hospital.

For the last few months, the journal had a growing backlog of hundreds of papers requiring reviewers, and several more papers submitted each day added to this. Things would worsen at this rate, and potentially overwhelm the team, beginning to undercut the great work done already, and slow down the communication of urgent and important research findings.

Turning back the clock to my days as an Editorial Assistant, I teamed up with Ben and got to work helping to find reviewers, to automate some of the processes of inviting and assigning reviewers, to help re-write some of the letters being, and to streamline some of the work done on revised papers. We discussed what would be suitable for the reviewer community and balanced the quality and thoroughness that the journal prized with the efficiency it needed, and worked out a way to eliminate the need for up to 12% of reviewer assignments that were being sent—helping to save the editorial team considerable time and effort.

While I was technically a “volunteer”, it really did not feel like a one-way “donation” of my time, skills and experience. The work is collaborative, involves you getting to understand the different market conditions in which the journals work, and you will be working with people who really know their stuff—just as you would in your day job.

I’ve met some great, inspirational people, and, for what it’s worth, those boda boda may be seriously dangerous, but they are loads of fun.

Adam Fraser, Senior Publisher

This article was written by Adam Fraser, Senior Publisher at Elsevier. He is one of the Elsevier employees who volunteered in the Research without Borders program run by the Elsevier Foundation. The program is aimed at boosting African health research and its discoverability within the global health community.