This is part of a series of blog posts, thinking about “the situation” in Sub-Saharan Africa. It started out as a concept note to respond to a call by the IDRC’s Open Collaborative Science Development Network OCSDNet for projects.

Open Science, Collaborative Science, e-Science

We’ve created the Africa-Arabia Regional Operations Centre to act as a “container” collaboration for the development of e-Infrastructure in Africa and Arabia. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that this container is interoperable at low-levels (the network, computing and data infrastructures) with international peers such as EGI. However, a lot of things go unsaid in our line of work - they are simply taken for granted. For example, that the development of such an infrastructure would be good for everyone in our region and not exacerbate existing discriminations; that this infrastructure is conducive to sharing of resources and collaboration at technical and scientific levels. These assumptions need not necessarily be true… more importantly, they may be interpreted in very different ways by the members of the ROC, not to mention the communities that it serves.

What’s wrong with this picture ?

The headline picture in this article was taken from Olivier H. Beauchesne’s graph of scientific collaboration links, based on the Scopus corpus1. A high-res version is available here, while you can find an interactive overlay onto google maps here.

Left: "Scientific collaboration links derived from the Scopus database". Right "Cropped map Sub-Saharan African scientific collaboration networks"

I cut off the picture around the equator2, and I’d like to use the result as a reminder of how little south-south collaboration is really accounted for.

In this article, I will try to take apart my current understanding of how the Africa-Arabia Regional Operations Centre enables and supports Open Collaborative Science; perhaps later we can make some concrete recommendations for better quantifying the South-South collaboration. Critical comment is most welcome.

Focused developmental interventions

It is often argued that Africa’s challenges are developmental. While this is undeniable, this ignores the many cases in which there is scientific or technical leadership by Africans, in Africa, in particular sectors. These are usually characterised by unwavering public-sector or non-governmental agency support, given the lack of private-sector industry funding. While these may be a source of national or regional pride, and indeed may have significant impact in their field, they tend to have limited potential for collaboration, due to the focussed nature of the intervention.

The (stealthy) Bridging Across the Digital Divide.

Much has been made of the so-called “Digital Divide” and how the new internet age would allow Africans to leapfrog Western societies by massively adopting ICT to level the playing fields. The advent of the internet era has of course brought great potential to those who have been able to exploit it. The differentiator is often understood to be access to services and resources, however this is only true in the case where the user community is actually empowered to take advantage of these services in the way that they deem fit. Often, access to these services has been provided either by large corporations with little interest in advancing the interest of the end-user, or by large public institutions which do remain focussed on flagship projects of limited scope or impact.

What truly differentiates those who have from those who have not is the ability to exploit access to services and resources. We will argue that this ability comes in the form a fairly new kind of professional: the transversal expert.

We argue that it is access to this resource - the expert at the boundary between the science and the services - that differentiates performance in e-Science. However, there is a conflict to resolve first.

The invisible, transversal expert

Success in research - the ability to produce outputs that have impact, as well as the ability to ensure sustained development - depends on agility, access, specialisation, and reward systems, amongst others. These imply a series of support structures which researchers rely on in order to focus on producing these outputs and sustaining their community. Often, it is still assumed that these support structures need to be developed and maintained within the community itself. They include things like computational resources, data storage and sharing services, collaborative tools for software development and scholarly communication, etc.

Given the crucial nature of e-Infrastructure in almost all aspects of modern research, a significant amount of overhead in research collaborations goes into the acquisition and maintenance of computational and data resources. The combination of communication technologies with these resources has led to the pooling and sharing of resources that spurred the grid computing paradigm. This has subsequently evolved into the cloud computing paradigm, where the provision and consumption of services were further separated.

In the early days of grid infrastructure, there was a common denominator between the service providers and service consumers in that they were actually in the same collaboration. In the absence of this common denominator, cloud providers have often had to develop robust business models, and self-service functionality, which have subsequently been adopted by grid computing infrastructures.

This common denominator, despite the overhead associated with owning and operating the equipment, resulted in a special kind of scientist - the technical expert. These were “normal” researchers who out of necessity became very well-versed in the technology required by their community, and developed methodologies for providing these as services. This created a so-called “third career” for researchers, who up to then were either theoretical or experimental. This researcher, with extremely sought-after skills and transversal mobility, was however invisible, since traditional academic metrics did not take into account their contributions. This invisibility severely hampers the sustainability of the entire research programme, and constrains these catalytic roles to silos, within their particular research group.

Making the invisible visible.

This situation could be reversed, however, if proper impact metrics could be defined, and adjuncts to traditional scholarly communication channels could be adopted. Of course, this is not a new idea, and has been pursued under the “altmetrics” banner for a few years now, approximately since the publication of the manifesto.

Why don’t we share ?

Collaboration in Africa, between African institutes in particular 3 is often discouraged, despite an expressed desire to the contrary. This could be interpreted as a legacy effect of traditional impact measurement methods and their implicit bias, although this is certainly only one possible interpretation of a very complex situation. Whatever the true reality, it is undeniable that although there is a need and desire for collaboration and sharing of resources by researchers themselves, the institutes which they form part of are often extremely unwilling to share what they consider precious, limited resources.

We argue that limited resources are on the contrary wasted if not shared, particularly if they are of cross-cutting benefit to many communities. This argument is at the heart of public infrastructure and common investment practices - no university would consider building it’s own internet, for example - but have yet to be adopted widely in research institutes. Research is often conducted in silos, research outputs seldom shared widely, and there is much duplication both in effort and in outcomes.

We argue that sharing is central to openness and collaboration and propose to demonstrate how shared e-Infrastructure can benefit from open, collaborative science, and vice-versa.


  1. Let’s not get into how biased this method is right now. There are clearly very serious issues with using the Scopus database as grounds for a definitive quantification of collaboration networks. 

  2. I couldn’t find how he’d licensed the image, so I’m going with CC-NC-BY

  3. This has some truth in any context, but is meant in the African case in particular, where resources are scarce, and institutes are in strong competition with each other. There is far stronger motivation to collaborate with northern partners due to the funding and rating mechanisms.