COVID-19: Study augurs well for research output

30 June 2021 | Story Wachira Kigotho. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
UCT had the highest number of first and last authors of published COVID-19 articles in and about the continent.
UCT had the highest number of first and last authors of published COVID-19 articles in and about the continent.

Four South African universities – the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – led 15 institutions that contributed most to the science of COVID-19 in Africa during the first year of the pandemic, according to a bibliometric analysis conducted by a team of researchers.

The researchers are allied to the Kenya Medical Research Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Oxford’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health.

In a study, ‘A bibliometric analysis of COVID-19 research in Africa’, published in the online medical journal BMJ Global Health, researchers noted that the four South African universities had the highest number of first and last authors of published COVID-19 articles in and about the continent.

The significance of the first and last authors is that the first author is often the person who has made the biggest intellectual contribution to the work in question, in terms of designing the study, analysing the data from experiments and writing the manuscript, while the last author is the supervisor of the research and, in that role, is considered to have made significant intellectual input.

According to Fatuma Guleid, a medical researcher at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust research programme and associates that included Professor Edwine Barasa, the Nairobi director of the joint partnership, 1,296 peer-reviewed publications on COVID-19 research in Africa were retrieved from databases that included PudMed, a comprehensive archive of biomedical and life sciences journal publications and from Collabovid, a platform sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research that allows searching for COVID-19 related publications.

“Further searches were also conducted on 

medRxiv, a server for health sciences, operated by the United States-based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, as well as on the World Health Organisation’s global research database for COVID-19 and Google,” said Barasa, who is also a visiting professor of health economics at Oxford University.

Developing scientific capacity

From the retrieved publications, the University of Cape Town had 40 first and 42 last authors, while Stellenbosch University was in the second position with 39 first and 36 last authors. The University of the Witwatersrand took third position with 25 first and 31 last authors, while the University of KwaZulu-Natal had 25 first authors and 22 last authors.

In the fifth position, Uganda’s Makerere University had 22 first and another 22 last authors, while the University of Pretoria in South Africa was in sixth position with 18 first and 19 last authors.

Other institutions that had more than 10 first authors included the University of Lagos (14), the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (13), Libya’s University of Tripoli (13), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (12), and the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme (11).

Groote Schuur Hospital in South Africa, the University of Zimbabwe, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States each produced nine first authors, while Morocco’s Mohammed V University had eight first authors.

In the last author category, Cairo University, the University College London, the University of Ibadan and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had 13, followed by the University of Lagos (12), the University of Oxford (12), the University of Tripoli (12), Groote Schuur Hospital (8), and KEMRI- Wellcome Trust Research Programme (7).

In Africa, South Africa had the highest COVID-19 research productivity with 200 papers, followed by Nigeria (160), Ethiopia (89), Egypt (70), Kenya (60), Uganda (51), Morocco (46) and Ghana (45). There were also 263 papers covering Africa as a whole and another 48 papers specifically covering COVID-19 research in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Unevenly distributed

Still, 90.3% of the 1,263 articles that were retrieved had at least one author affiliated to an African institution, while 78.5% of the articles had a first author affiliated to an African institution and 63.5% had a last author affiliated to an African research facility.

But there were concerns that more effort is needed to ensure even distribution of research productivity across the continent, as well as over specific areas of research.

The issue is that about 50% of the articles were of non-original research as they were commentaries and editorial-type pieces, while 20% used the entire continent of Africa as their study setting.

According to the study, other common topics of research included country preparedness and response, as well as direct and indirect health impacts of the pandemic and only 1% of the articles focused on COVID-19 treatment and vaccines.

Missing out in the database searches were publications in randomised controlled trials, as only five publications were retrieved.

Commenting on the issue, the researchers argued that a lack of local research in vaccine and therapeutics development is likely to lead to an over-reliance on non-African countries to provide these interventions which will delay availability in Africa.

“Africa requires interventions that fit the local context and are safe for the local population,” stated the researchers.


Highlighting issues of funding of COVID-19 science, the study noted that 12 out of 15 top funding bodies for COVID-19 articles in Africa were from outside the continent, while the other three were all from South Africa. They included the South African Medical Research Council, the National Research Foundation and the South African Department of Science and Innovation.

The top five funding bodies in that order included the British Wellcome Trust, the National Institutes of Health of the United States, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the British Department for International Development and National Institute for Health Research.

But, whereas external funding may have contributed to increasing scientific research capacity on the continent, the researchers argued that it might hinder the development of sustainable African-led knowledge production and may also deflect research priorities away from local needs.

“Few studies were funded by African organisations, and specifically, African governments,” noted the study.

Despite funding difficulties and uneven productivity challenges, the study pointed out that a high proportion of articles on COVID-19 science were by African researchers, in terms of being first or last authors, a situation that augurs well for further scientific research on the continent.

“Contrary to other studies on the output of research publication on infectious diseases, we find that African researchers have played a lead role in publishing COVID-19 research from the continent,” said Guleid and her associates.

Although most of the articles were published in medRxiv, three African journals, The Pan African Medical JournalSouth African Medical Journal and African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine, featured in the top 15 journals publishing COVID-19 articles in Africa.

But, as Guleid and her colleagues pointed out, there is still a long way to go and the development of local journals and publishing houses should be encouraged so as to create a direct avenue for local academics and researchers to publish their research findings in Africa.

This article first appeared on University World.

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