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[NAIROBI] Electronic access to journals is improving dramatically in eastern and southern Africa — but actual use by academics and students is not keeping pace, according to a report.

A study published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) last month (November) found that availability of the world's top 20 journals across 15 disciplines is approaching that of European universities.

But it also found that problems further down the line mean that papers are not actually getting read.

"Academics often report that poor journals access is a serious barrier to their work but they are not aware of how much is actually already available through their library subscriptions," Jonathan Harle, author of the study and programme officer for research at the ACU, told SciDev.Net.

The report, 'Growing knowledge: Access to research in east and southern African universities', identifies several contributing factors. For example, many postgraduates lack access to, and the skills for working on, computers.

And academics spend little time on research activity because of time and money constraints.

The report identifies "a clear need for better promotion of resources, awareness-raising, and skills development". And it sees developing libraries and librarians as a key to achieving this.

Harle said researchers lack adequate support and information about what their libraries have to offer.

Ruth Oniang'o, editor of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, told SciDev.Net conditions in African universities are not conducive to research and writing.

"African academics are too busy teaching basic courses and are left with little time to do research. They do not go to libraries because what they teach does not require them to visit libraries."

Librarians, according to Oniang'o, are put in a subservient position in which their knowledge and skills for accessing online resources are undervalued.

And Mary Abukutsa, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya, said: "Researchers have not realised the importance of the libraries in their research and have a mindset that does not allow them to continuously seek assistance from the libraries."

Academics and librarians should come together regularly to learn from each other, Oniang'o told SciDev.Net. But for this to happen the researchers need to give librarians more power, she said.

Future availability of journals will depend on funding and internet connectivity on the continent, which has been improving with recent high-speed undersea fibre-optic cables but is still limited beyond major cities, the ACU report says.

Link to full 'Growing knowledge: access to research in east and southern African universities' report