STUMBLING BLOCKS on the road to social science research

International academic journal publishing and the trend to increasingly use consultancies to do problem-orientated research to shape practice and policy are to the disadvantage of social science in developing countries. These topics were highlighted at a seminar on the 2010 World Social Science Report, hosted by the HSRC. INA VAN DER LINDE reports. 
  
The limitations of consultancies in seeking research solutions
   Staff member photograph
 

 Professor Linda Richter,
distinguished research
fellow, HSRC, addressed
the development of
consultancies in South
Africa.

Professor Richter, a distinguished research fellow at the HSRC, addressed the tendency of governments, inter-governmental organisations, aid agencies and donor groups to increasingly make use of problem-orientated research, focused on a specific context to shape their practice and policy.

Although this form of research is attractive because of its immediate relevance to real-world challenges and complex social problems, it has turned out to be a double-edged sword.

Reductions in public funding for research in Africa have crippled the capacity of academic institutions. Instead, independent consultants, consisting of academics, programme officers from aid and development agencies and recent graduates, were drawn by financial incentives to do problem-orientated research. Because they tend to work on their own instead of via established institutions, they come at a much lower price than institutions with overhead costs, training commitments and the like.

‘Many of these individuals had relevant practical experience, but limited and fairly narrow research expertise. The consequent growing reliance on consultant-led research in social science in Africa is now evident in professional associations and networks, particularly regarding monitoring and evaluation, and in the growing roles played by market research companies in the social policy and development domains,’ Richter said.

Reductions in public funding for research in Africa have crippled the capacity of academic institutions.

Lack of quality control and peer review
   
   

Dr Heide Hackmann (right), secretary-general of the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC),

presented the findings of the 2010 World Social Science Report at an HSRC seminar. Professor

Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor, University of Johannesburg (left) challenged the

international academic publishing industry during his presentation.

And while social science has certainly gained enormous visibility and popular legitimacy as a result of these developments, making findings more acceptable and the field more attractive to graduates, it has a clear downside.

The growing role of consultants creates problems regarding quality control and the development of a reliable body of knowledge.

“To become a good researcher takes many years of training. They need doctoral degrees and multiple, peer-reviewed publications, criteria that help build skills and ensure quality. In contrast consultants, particularly in the African context, are not necessarily equipped with the training or inclination to review existing literature thoroughly and build on existing work.

“Peer review is not required, and consultants frequently move between topics, resulting in limiting the research to a small area instead of looking at the broader context.”

Richter said the combination of the practices and pressures shaping consultant-led research makes it particularly vulnerable to the generation and repetition of ill-informed and even incorrect ideas, often with substantial implications for policy and practice.

The idea of AIDS orphans as the primary face of the epidemic’s impact on children, shaping the use of so much of this funding, became increasingly difficult to challenge.

Case study of ‘AIDS orphans’

A case in point was the emergence and concentration of global attention on the ‘AIDS orphan crisis’. Through what Richter called ‘grey literature’, estimates were drawn up through consultancy review and meeting reports of estimates of millions of AIDS orphans.

The result? Discussion of the impact of HIV and AIDS on children narrowed to an almost exclusive focus on orphans, understood as children who had lost their parents and were dependent on a charitable world for assistance.

‘In retrospect, it is perplexing that a complex, long-term and global phenomenon, with multiple ramifications for children and families, could be reduced to such simplistic ideas. But these complexities were lost in the sheer size of the projected orphan numbers bandied around and constantly recycled through reports produced by consultants. Concerns about child-headed households flourished, followed by dramatic increased financial support,’ Richter said.

The very success of the AIDS orphan image in fundraising and advocacy, together with the near absence of stringent, discipline-informed research resulted in increasingly rigid perceptions and practice.

The idea of AIDS orphans as the primary face of the epidemic’s impact on children, shaping the use of so much of this funding, became increasingly difficult to challenge.

Reshaping research on children affected by HIV and AIDS

It took nearly 20 years for these simplistic ideas to be questioned by a systematic review of academic work, critical appraisal of estimates and careful re-examination of these often-quoted data, according to Richter.

This re-evaluation guided substantial revisions of the ideas that had long shaped policy, programmes and research on children affected by the epidemic.

It became clear that children are affected in multiple ways by their experience of HIV and AIDS and by the impoverishing effects of the epidemic on their families and communities.

“We have also learned that children who lose parents are unlikely to become de-socialised threats to society. Furthermore, the vast majority of so-called AIDS orphans actually have a surviving parent. To be effective, assistance needs to reach not only orphans, but many other affected children. Interventions need to target vulnerable families and address the poverty that lies at the heart of the deprivation associated with HIV and AIDS,” Richter said.

So, while the work of consultants helped bring children and AIDS into the public view, generating widespread interest and support, it also led to the acceptance of underdeveloped ideas and data, and caused resistance to change in response to new evidence.

Huge profits to detriment of academic study

The world of the international academic journal publication industry reminds one of 'colonial imperialism at its best', said Professor Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor of research innovation and advancement, University of Johannesburg.

These publishers, who tend to be European and North American, take the work of scientists, subsidised by public money, and then sell it back at huge profits to the very public institutions that paid for the research. Their products are priced in Euros or US Dollars at the cost of beleaguered national budgets of institutions, especially those of the developing world.

The world of the international academic journal publication industry reminds one of 'colonial imperialism at its best'.

He quoted a profit figure for UK-based Reed Elsevier for 2008 of £1 379bn, and for its competitors, Informa and Springer, who made smaller but “similarly obscene profits” of £305.8m and €285m, respectively.

But there are huge social costs to these profits. It’s a given that for students to succeed they need to have access to academic journals, books and papers published by other scholars in leading journals.

Poorer universities that service the poorest of South Africa’s citizens cannot afford quality academic journals, and this affects even better-off universities in South Africa.

“Every Rand that gets handed to multinationals is a Rand taken away from a scholarship for a poor South African student to succeed,” Habib maintains.

Finding solutions

In search for solutions, the department of science and technology (DST) commissioned the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). The Academy has proposed a set of measures to encourage and facilitate the publication of academic books in and from South Africa, and the development of a cost-effective, high-quality indigenous journal platform to serve as an outlet for the free online dissemination of research results worldwide. The platform is called SciELO South Africa, and is embedded in the growing multi-country SciELO system originally created in Brazil.

To develop cost-effective access to Western European and North American journals, the DST has requested ASSAf to investigate how other countries have been able to do this, with a view to making recommendations for a suitable local approach.

Instead of proposing that indigenous journals be supported by author fees paid by academic institutions, such a platform should be subsidised directly by the DST, Habib suggested.

Parliament should pass legislation making it mandatory for South African universities to make scientific articles published by their academics available free online within six months to a year of appearing in international journals.

At a higher level of national policy, parliament should pass legislation making it mandatory for South African universities to make scientific articles published by their academics available free online within six months to a year of appearing in international journals.

'After all,' Habib asserted, 'it is the money of South African taxpayers that enabled the research for, and the writing of, the article in the first place'.

Download the 2010 World Social Science Report from www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/resources/reports/world-social-science-report/

Ina van der Linde, editor, HSRC Review.