African Universities Hungry For Access to Global Research
African Universities Hungry For Access to Global Research

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African universities' demand for access to information and research is hampered by the prohibitive costs of accessing information online. Now West African universities are establishing an information-sharing network to improve access to research.

The library at the University of Dakar holds 500,000 books in stacks and another 10,000 electronic texts. There is even wireless Internet.

But as with most African universities, students and researchers here have trouble getting current data and research because of the prohibitive costs of accessing information online.

Ibrahima Diané, a 28-year-old IT student, has just finished his master's thesis and plans to continue with a PhD researching Internet telephony.

He says while writing his masters' thesis he had real problems getting hold of articles, especially the most recent articles. "We are studying current issues, he says, and so we need up-to-date information. But we are working with articles from 2005, even from 2002," he said.

Diané says while the university library has a lot of books, it has very little new information about computer science and information technology. The data he needs is on the Internet.

Boubacar Barry, coordinator of Research and Education Networks at the Association of African Universities, says the problem of access is rooted partly in the prohibitive costs of bandwidth in Africa. "There is big progress in terms of putting telecommunications infrastructure in place on the one hand. But on the other hand we see that access to this infrastructure is very difficult due to the very high pricing of telecommunication operators," Barry said.

African universities pay about 50 times what an American university pays for its bandwidth. In general, an entire university of 20,000 students in Africa will have the same bandwidth usually available for one household in America.

Low bandwidth makes it difficult for large numbers of students and researchers to download and upload information at the same time.

Barry says the bandwidth is available but lack of competition in African telecommunications sectors has kept prices high.

But it is not just the price of bandwidth that poses a problem. "For many African universities, the cost of accessing information like online journals are very high. We have examples of African researchers and scientists who publish in international journals and they even have problems accessing their own articles because they are required to pay," he said.

Fees can be up to $20 to view one article online without a subscription. African universities cannot afford subscription fees and individual students cannot afford to pay for several dozen articles for their research.

Ibrahima Niang is director of the Computing Center at the University of Dakar. He says accessing the latest global research is a big problem.

Niang says what is really problematic is getting access to information from global computer research networks like Europe's Géant. The answer, he says, is to set up African research and education networks and to ensure adequate bandwidth.

Research networks like Europe's Géant and North America's Internet 2 share huge technical and information resources. But in order to access these resources, universities must be part of a larger regional network.

In Africa, the Ubuntu Alliance is the first such grouping of research institutions and universities across 10 countries in Southern and Eastern Africa.

West African universities and research centers are meeting in November to set up a network similar to Ubuntu.

Barry hopes this network will eventually link up with Ubuntu and North African networks to create a continental-wide system allowing African universities access to cutting-edge global research, equipment and technology.