Closing the gap: the promise and challenges of addiction journal publishing in Africa

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Discussions about growing inequalities between developed and developing countries have flourished in recent years. The economic gap is a well-known and persistent problem; current discussions have targeted disparities in health, scientific research and publication of research findings in scientific journals. Also receiving the attention of individuals and international organizations is the so-called technological divide which, among other things, restricts access of scientists and professionals in developing countries to research information.

The gap in these areas has been described in various forums as widening, unacceptable and requiring urgent attention. What has rankled many is the fact that a disproportionate share of the problems that attract the attention of researchers in the ‘north’ are largely situated in the ‘south’, and yet the voice of southern researchers is faint if not totally missing. Only an insignificant number of them produce the knowledge needed to address the health problems in their countries, and fewer still participate in the process of assessing and publishing international research as reviewers and members of journal editorial boards.

Responses have been many and varied, ranging in scope from omnibus declarations and initiatives by international organizations to more focused projects by the World Health Organization (e.g. WHO 2003) and the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors (Babor, Stenius & Savva 2004), which have recently targeted the global divide in research and publishing in mental health and addiction, respectively.

There are currently 75 journals publishing addiction science around the world. Forty-nine of these are English language journals while 26 are published in various other languages; 31 are based in the United States and 10 in the United Kingdom. Only two of these journals are published in developing countries—one in Brazil and the other in Nigeria (Babor, Stenius & Savva 2004). The story of the latter, the African Journal of Drug and Alcohol Studies (AJDAS), is a good illustration of why a regional journal is a much-needed medium but also a story of the challenges facing scientific (in this case addiction) publishing in this region.

AJDAS was launched in 2000 as a biannual publication of the non-profit Centre for Research and Information on Substance Abuse (CRISA), founded in Nigeria in 1990 and known for its biennial scientific conferences, book publishing, library services and prevention activities. After a decade of existence, publishing the journal was for the centre a natural progression from being an instigator of research, to providing a forum for the presentation of findings, and finally getting the studies into print. It was designed not as a tool to ‘mop up’ research that could not be published in the established international journals, but as a visible source of encouragement for a growing number of young and experienced researchers in the field of addiction in Africa. An extensive search of the international literature on alcohol and drug use showed that interest in substance use was increasing, especially in Nigeria and South Africa, among psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists.

Nigerians and other African scholars have a relatively long history of publishing addiction science in international journals dating back to the 1950s. In those early days (and up to recently in some regions), each country had one or two researchers, trained abroad and back in their country working in a psychiatric hospital (which often served as the main source of his data) or research institute, and writing about cannabis (Lambo 1965; Soueif 1967). A lot has changed since then. The drug and alcohol situation in a growing number of countries is becoming more diverse both in terms of the types of substances used and the numbers or profile of users. For example, adult per capita consumption of alcohol in many African countries is showing dramatic increases (see WHO 2004; for the most recent estimates), concerns about the role of cannabis in treatment demand have risen in several countries, and the use of amphetamine-like substances and ‘club drugs’ by young people in South Africa has been reported for several years (SADC 2004). What has also changed is that those who seek to advance knowledge in this field are now coming from a variety of backgrounds, and are displaying interests in substances and methods which might only be of local interest.

Hence, launching the AJDAS was not a leap in the dark; it was a well-considered reaction to an expressed need. However, although the journal continues to hold great promise for research and knowledge dissemination among scholars interested in African issues, it has been a challenging journey from 2000. Four issues have been published and another one will be in press soon. Contributions have come from scholars working within and outside the continent and papers cover a wide range of issues, with most of them on the epidemiology of alcohol and other drug use. The journal also publishes book reviews, activity reports and opinion.

It is obvious that a biannual journal that just manages on average to publish an issue a year often after long delays must be faced with significant challenges. The financial challenge which makes it difficult to pay for printing and employ an assistant was expected, and remains a critical factor in the continued survival of the journal. Then there was the initial problem of low rates of submission. This, too, was expected for two reasons: one is that although growing in recent years, the pool of contributors to this journal is small; the other (not very obvious) reason was the reluctance of researchers to submit to an upstart un-indexed journal which did not satisfy the promotion requirements of various universities.

A problem with broader implications for scholarly work in African and other low- to middle-income countries is the mobility of those who should support the journals with data from their countries. The internal migration of scholars from the universities and research institutes to the private and non-governmental sectors and externally to western countries has depleted the pool of experienced researchers in these countries. This phenomenon has indeed been felt within the editorial board of the AJDAS, and would have dealt a fatal blow to the journal in the absence of electronic communication.

The question then arises: is a regional journal necessary in a field where the critical mass of contributors is small and fragile? The answer is yes. From the very beginning the AJDAS was set up as an educational tool, to encourage more research, provide greater voice to the often unheard and help nurture a speciality field in a region where more ‘noisy’ issues predominate.

There is reason for hope. The journal is in a rebound today because after some consultations it has, in a sense, been adopted by the community of scholars in the African addiction field. The general attitude among these scholars is that the journal must not fail. The submission rate has improved though the journal is not yet indexed by the larger services, a situation that is peculiar to most southern journals. Some members of the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors have pledged support and there is already a proposal for a twinning arrangement with an established western journal. Help is coming in other ways. Two training workshops on the continent using the ISAJE book on publishing addiction science have been proposed, one of which will be sponsored by the World Health Organization for French-speaking African countries.

It is our intention to open up the journal to researchers in these countries by publishing papers in French and abstracts in both English and French. Forthcoming issues will also publish personal interviews with people who have contributed to the field (an interview with Alan Haworth of Zambia will be the first), news, information about events, conferences and opportunities that should be of interest to its readers. The future is that of a friendly journal that will appeal to a broad range of users (from researchers to policy makers), a journal that will become for them an essential resource on matters of addiction in the Africa region.

Being given an opportunity to tell this story in Addiction is another valuable show of support for the journal not because it helps us celebrate our limited success or publicize the journal, but because it challenges us to stay the course. Although the AJDAS is a journal on African addiction studies, it occupies an important niche in our universal search for greater understanding of addictive behaviours. Whether it succeeds or fails should interest us all.

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