News & events


22 October 2010

Highways and Stumbling Blocks on the Road to Social Science Research

Kim Trollip

The world of the international academic journal publication industry reminds of colonial imperialism at its best, said Professor Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor: Research Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg.

Habib and Professor Linda Richter, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the HSRC, highlighted impediments  to scientific research in developing countries at a seminar on the 2010 World Social Science Report, hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

The report is a joint publication by the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) and UNESCO. Entitled Knowledge Divides, it is a worldwide status report about the social science disciplines.

Huge profits to detriment of academic study

Habib said international academic publishers make huge profits from publishing the work of scientists, whose work is subsidised by public money, and then selling it back to public institutions at inflated prices. These publishers tend to be European or North American and their products are priced in Euros or US Dollars at the cost of the beleaguered budgets of universities and research institutes in low and middle income countries

He quoted a profit figure for UK-based Reed Elsevier for 2008 of £1,379bn, and for its competitors, Informa and Springer, who also made smaller but “similarly obscene profits” of £305,8m and €285m, respectively. But there are huge social costs to these profits. For students and researchers to succeed they need to have access to books and papers published by other scholars in leading journals.

Universities that service the poorest of South Africa’s citizens cannot afford quality academic journals, and the situation even affects 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.”

Finding solutions

In search for solutions, the department of science and technology (DST) commissioned the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) to undertake an analysis. 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, 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.

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

At a higher level of national policy, he proposed that parliament pass legislation making it mandatory for South African universities to make scientific articles published by their academics available free online within 6 months to a year of appearing in international journals. “After all, it is the money of South Africa taxpayers that enabled the research for, and the writing of, the article in the first place,” Habib said.

The limitations of consultancies in seeking research solutions

Professor Richter, in turn, addressed the tendency of governments, inter-governmental organisations, aid agencies and donor groups to increasingly make use of rapid problem-orientated research, focused on a specific issue 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 moonlighting academics, programme officers from aid and development agencies and recent graduates, were drawn by financial incentives to do short-term 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 resulting growing reliance on consultant-led research in the social sciences 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.

Lack of quality control and peer review

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 of 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.”

She 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.

Case study of “AIDS orphans”

A case in point is 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.” 
Children were obviously affected before and after the death of their parents by asset loss and destitution. And poverty, dislocation and conflict also affect children.

“But these complexities were lost in the sheer size of the projected orphan numbers brandied around and constantly recycled through reports produced by consultants. Concerns about child-headed households flourished, followed by a dramatic increase in 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, Richter stated. 
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/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.

In conclusion: 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.

For further information on the 2010 World Social Science Report, go to 

Reference: related document

Kim Trollip

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