May 2011

AuthorAID: Internet working for scientists from the developing world

Online global research community provides networking, mentoring, resources and training for researchers in developing countries.

As a technophile, I have to ask, What doesn’t the internet make easier? Case in point: the poor distribution of scientific mentors and one nonprofit’s network-based solution.

AuthorAID is much like a social networking site, but with a greater purpose: to bring scientists into places where government or local institutions don’t have the resources to support local researchers in this way.

Scientists from developing countries often are disadvantaged when it comes to publishing their work. According to Julie Walker of AuthorAID, which connects mentors with potential authors, “There are many barriers to publication for developing country researchers,” including

* limited resources (large classes, lack of access to computers and the internet),
* limited staff for personal mentoring and support,
* language limitations (technical writing in a foreign language), and
* lack of writing-skills training (funds instead are directed toward core needs).

AuthorAID is an effort by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications to overcome these barriers by harnessing the connectivity offered by the internet, allowing researchers and editors to meet and mentor scientists regardless of location.

“Volunteering to be an AuthorAID mentor is a perfect way for retiring editors to remain involved in editing and publishing and to keep in touch with their research areas,” says Walker. The site has 481 registered volunteers. Many of them, be they mentors or editors, are drawn from such organizations as the Council for Science Editors and the International Foundation for Science. But this kind of volunteer work can be rewarding at any point in one’s career.

Jackie Goodrich, a fourth-year graduate student in toxicology at the University of Michigan, has been a mentor with AuthorAID for about a year. She’s worked with two students in East Africa, and they were at different points in their scientific careers. One was an early undergraduate or high school student with some simple questions about obtaining references. Her second interaction, with a research scientist with the government working on epidemiology studies and public health who has two papers at the peer-review stage, has been much more longstanding. “I have learned much about her specific areas of research during this process, as our areas of research do not overlap. Additionally, the editing experience has improved my own writing skills by forcing me to think about better ways to present data and information to a broader audience,” Goodrich says. Her second mentee has obtained a bachelor’s degree and hopes to attend graduate school.

AuthorAID started as a pilot program in 2007 and, after a three-year evaluation, was established on a permanent basis. The site’s emphasis is on supporting scientists in the developing world, with partner institutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America and more than 2,800 registered users.

AuthorAID also provides online resources for those looking to teach or write about science and a forum in which members pose and answer questions. Walker says the online tools, mentoring and workshops conducted in multiple languages work together.

AuthorAID’s international funders and partners

• Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
• The Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation
• U.K. Department for International Development
• International Foundation for Science
• National University of Rwanda
• The Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases

“Workshops and training complement the online exchanges and help researchers to learn new skills and consolidate their existing knowledge,” she says, “as well as providing an opportunity to work on revising their papers in a peer group.”

Devendra Adhikari, a physics doctoral candidate and associate professor at Tribuhuvan University in Nepal, was grappling with suggested revisions from an Elsevier journal when he attended one of the AuthorAID workshops.

“I knew that if we do not agree with the reviewers, we can submit [a rebuttal] logically and politely,” Adhikari says. After attending the workshop, Adhiakri wrote his response and published his paper with the journal.

Another volunteer with the service, Daniel Korbel, has a doctorate in infectious disease immunology and serves as a science adviser for the Wellcome Trust. He has taken two mentees under his wing, one from Nigeria studying in Romania and the other from Cameroon. According to Korbel, the decision to aim for an international journal can be a difficult one to make.

“My mentee’s work was certainly good enough to at least give it a try … but, unfortunately, she was overruled,” he explains. As a result, his mentee’s lab in Romania decided that the difficulties involved in submitting internationally were not worth the payoff.

This series of events can become a vicious cycle in which labs that don’t get much funding to do preliminary work don’t feel confident about submitting the results for international publication, which can inhibit the lab’s ability to get more funding. As Korbel puts it: “Both my mentees complained about the fact that they and their labs find it difficult to attract sufficient or any funding for their research, mainly because they are not viewed as internationally competitive.”

Despite these frustrations, Korbel says he has found his participation rewarding. “I have a strong desire to support more junior researchers and the research-into-policy process in low- and middle-income countries, and I realized that the AuthorAID scheme would be a good way for me to contribute.”

Although quantifying the value of the program can be challenging, speaking with volunteers and members made it clear that this type of international outreach is worth it for the participants.

Sarah CrespiSarah Crespi ( is a multimedia communications specialist at ASBMB.

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