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It is difficult being an African researcher, but you mustn't give up!

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It is difficult being an African researcher, but you mustn't give up!

Editor’s note: This story was originally submitted as an audio file. We have made some necessary edits to the transcript to ensure flow and clarity. It has been published here after the author’s approval.

Hello everyone, my name is Dr. Francis Fagbule. I am a community dentist and public health professional in my mid-30s. I started undertaking research actively about four years ago and this is the challenge that I am going to talk about in this story. While this is my story, it may also be similar to the stories of many researchers from Africa, especially Nigeria.

I graduated as a dentist 10 years ago and after the usual internship and mandatory service, I started professional practice. I wanted to specialize in dental public health through a residency training program, which I am still currently part of. I also opted for a master’s degree in global health, and this had a research component. That was in 2016.

That was not the first time I was conducting research but this experience gave me a different, more vivid, and encouraging perspective about the importance of conducting research. In fact, it led me to choose research as the future direction for my career.

I think the biggest challenge that many African researchers like me face is that we do not get introduced to the basics and rigors of conducting research at an early stage. My first exposure to academic research was during my professional practice. Had I been taught about the basics of data analysis or research proposal writing, I might have become well-grounded in the basics of research at an early stage rather than trying to pick up a lot of things later.

I must mention that at the time that I was already working full-time, I was married and had children. I also had other responsibilities in the society. So, I had many things competing for my time and trying to learn a lot about research was one of them.

Apart from this late introduction to research, I think the other major challenge that researchers from Africa, like me, face, is scarcity of funding. Till this day, I have never received any grant or external funding for my research. All my research has been self-funded.

I once attended a training workshop facilitated by a professor from the National Institute of Health (NIH) who shared tips on writing grant proposals and other related topics that made me look at research funding in a different way. I was shocked when the professor said that he felt it does not reflect well on a researcher when applying for grants when they self-fund their project. I was shocked because I was expecting him to commend me for going the extra mile and spending my hard-earned money on research. Instead, he asked me why I was funding my own research!

Self-funding is common among researchers in Africa, Nigeria especially. So the professor’s words were a breath of fresh air to me! They gave me a new perspective on the importance of winning grants and getting donors to fund my research. But this perspective brought with it new challenges, the primary one being that limited funds meant that undertaking basic activities related to research would be problematic. For example, randomized controlled trials, large-scale research, hiring people, or procuring equipment for research becomes really challenging and also limits the kind and extent of research you can conduct. At least, that was the case for me.

Another challenge that I faced in my 3 short years while undertaking research was easy access to scholarly journals online. Many of these journals were not open access and needed me to pay for access. If you think about the sharp difference between the Nigerian naira and the US dollar, you’ll understand why it was impossible for me to access the necessary reading materials. I could only read the abstracts of the papers. Libraries were also not as accessible for me, because even though I am a researcher, I am not attached to a university. I work in a hospital. So I could not even easily access a well-stocked library. These were two other hindrances in the way of my research.

Of course, I still looked for alternative, legal ways of accessing articles. Sometimes I would ask friends outside Africa to find and read papers for me and then explain to me what they had read. I also used ResearchGate and twice, at least, reached out to authors for their papers, which they graciously sent to me.

But I must reiterate that access to scholarly works, especially paid ones, has been a major challenge.  Imagine accessing a journal by paying about $100 when $100 is almost a quarter of my monthly salary! There is no way that I can easily channel that money toward my research without it having serious repercussions on other aspects of my life.

This economic difficulty also extends to me publishing in high-impact journals, especially those that are in high-income countries. The article processing fee is often almost as much as my annual salary! So, how can I publish a paper in a reputed journal? This too has been another challenge.

An incident from my personal experience has also led me to believe that apart from the financial aspect, publishing papers is not easy for researchers from Africa for other reasons too.

Two years ago, I had sent a paper to a journal and was surprised by the response I received. Both of the reviewers said that the work was fine. The first reviewer recommended some minor corrections while the second reviewer left more extensive correction suggestions. But the editor-in-chief told me that his decision was to reject my paper, but also advised me to revise and resubmit it.

Since then, I have wondered why my paper was rejected. Nothing that the reviewers said, that’s for certain. So, I am left with a feeling that there is sometimes a bias against studies conducted by African researchers.

But having said all this, I must also say that I don’t want other researchers to feel discouraged. The truth is that I am still a young researcher and I am still striving and trying, and I believe that I am going to get where I want. You must also keep trying and not give up on your passion and path. There have been many moments where I have felt like giving up, when despite all my efforts, I could not see any tangible results. It is hard for me to admit but I have been depressed. Even as I share this story, I am not completely fine —the constant pressure that I feel from being there for my kids, working, taking care of my family, all this while trying to do good research and paying for it out of my own pocket.

But I have not given up and I hope that other researchers who may be in similar circumstances will not give up. Before I end this piece, I want to share what has helped me overcome some of these challenges:

  • Contacting authors directly to see if they can share their work with me when I cannot afford to buy a paper.
  • While I have not been able to get a grant to fund my research, I have been able to find ways of writing to international conferences to let them know the situation I am in and getting the conference fee waived in some instances.
  • I have also looked for coupons for free editing so that I can get feedback on my writing without worrying about money.
  • Platforms like Editage Insights have made it easier for us researchers from the lower and middle income countries by providing free resources that have been helpful in the research journey.
  • Having a social network of other Nigerian and African researchers has provided me with a sense of community. I have wonderful superiors and mentors whom I can share my concerns with and when they tell me their own stories and what they are going through, I feel uplifted and charged to move forward again.

So, my advice to anybody who is feeling depressed and finding it difficult to move on is to try as much as possible to look for a mentor, even among friends or family (not necessarily researchers) to discuss your thoughts and experiences with. Do not just keep everything bottled in. I believe sharing will help you feel better and move on.

I hope my story of being a happy, driven researcher who is committed to building an impressive career despite many challenges will leave you with something positive to take on your research journey.

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Published on: Jun 25, 2020

Early career researcher with a particular interest in tobacco control and oral cancer
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