As the world is still grappling with the pandemic and its devastating effects, the need for rapid and affordable means of communicating and accessing scientific knowledge is strikingly apparent. Earlier this year the international scientific community, as represented by the ISC membership, recognized the need for a change through a resolution committing to work to reform scientific publishing. In this blog, we explore how Africa – similarly to the rest of the world – has adapted to the pressing realities of doing science in a pandemic by turning to preprints.

The COVID-19 pandemic, among other things, brought to the fore the long-simmering issues around access to scientific knowledge. In the face of this unprecedented emergency and in response to the widespread drive for open science, preprint repositories have gained particular popularity. Even the most resourceful journals with fast-tracked peer-reviews could not compete with the ease and speed offered by preprints. Preprints became key to swift dissemination of scientific output, accounting for 17 – 30% of all COVID-19 research papers in 2020.

Such platforms are hardly new. They have been in use for a while, steadily gaining a foothold in the knowledge production system. The encouragement from leading funding agencies and journals for preprint postings around Zika and Ebola outbreaks in recent years helped build the case for a more commonplace use of preprint servers. Recognizing the value of accelerating knowledge sharing, more and more people turned to preprints when COVID-19 hit, becoming part of a ‘torrent of COVID science’. However, this surge was anything but equal – two studies concluded that African scientists authored only 3% of all COVID-19 research (not including preprints), and content related to the continent amounted to slightly over 4% (BMJ) – reflecting a long list of biases and barriers that prevent African scholars from publishing in indexed journals.

These statistics point to the need to boost production of research led by African scientists in Africa, but also to the need to support the publication of research findings, and ensuring that publications are findable and accessible. Smaller African journals do not always have the capacity to host their full content online, so having a strong, interconnected and searchable digital repository is recognized as a key means of offsetting the lack of visibility for African research. Publishing research under open access could further increase its visibility among lay readers and media (who increasingly turn to open preprints for information), and among researchers, which consequently fosters scientific collaboration and output.

‘AfricArxiv, a community-led digital archive for African research, was launched back in 2018, but it was the 2020 pandemic that brought public attention to the repository. In this particular sense, the pandemic was ‘a blessing in disguise’ for the Sub-Saharan scientific community,’ said Joy Owango, Executive Director at the Training Centre in Communication and, as such, AfricArXiv institutional partner. ‘We take advantage of the latest trends in scholarly communication and scientific publishing to increase the visibility of African research output, particularly on COVID-19, where we showcase what African researchers have published along with research from outside Africa about COVID-19 in the African regional context.’

Jo Havemann, executive director at AfricArXiv, adds: ‘AfricArxiv serves as a platform to publish African research immediately and free of charge, thereby providing increased regional and international visibility to the work of African researchers and to foster inter- and intra-continental collaborations.’

As a signatory of the Helsinki Initiative on Multilingualism, AfricArxiv encourages submissions in traditional African languages such as including Swahili, Zulu, Afrikaans, Igbo and Akan:

‘Since our launch in 2018, we have received most submission in English, and also a few submissions in French and Setswana. The uptake of submissions in languages other than English is still slow: there is still a relatively low level of awareness of our services in non-English speaking countries, reluctance ​​to share research output outside the traditional publishing workflow, limited digital capacity at the institutions, to mention a few reasons. However, through our partnerships, we are in continuous effort to change that, one example being our collaboration with Masakhane, ST Communications and ScienceLink with whom we are in the process of translating 180 research articles from English to six traditional African languages,’ added Jo Havemann.

The use of preprints is not without controversy. The differences between preprints and standard peer-reviewed articles are not always properly communicated or understood by media and the public, which can lead to premature and misguided claims and feed confusion. In times of emergencies, however, such repositories can become a powerful channel for a timely dissemination of crucial information, and the rise of preprints in Africa ensures more diverse voices are represented. To tackle pandemics – global by their definition – we need a truly global input. Hopefully, this wider participation of the international scientific community will be maintained and even strengthened in the coming years. In the context of the complex existential challenges facing humanity, from climate change to emerging technologies, it is all the more essential that the published record of science is global, diverse and accessible to all.