What's driving the inequality in scientific research?
If the world were mapped according to how many scientific research papers each country produced, it would take on a rather bizarre, uneven appearance. The Northern hemisphere would balloon beyond recognition. The global south, including Africa, would effectively melt off the map.
This image makes a dramatic point about the complexities of global inequalities in knowledge production and exchange. So what is driving this inequality and how can it be corrected?
Money and technology are needed to produce research. The average research and development intensity – that is, as a percentage of GDP – was 2.4% for OECD countries in 2009. But few developing countries had reached 1%. Without sufficient national funds, researchers must spend a great deal of time fundraising and dealing with grant organisations outside their universities. This means less time for actually undertaking and producing research.
When it comes to technology, substantial bandwidth powers the global north and connects it to its neighbours. The internet is far slower and more expensive in Africa, making collaboration between researchers on the continent difficult and making it tougher for them than those in the US, Europe and Asia.
These technical, financial and even mechanical issues are easy to identify. It is tempting to put one's faith in the idea that more money and machines will solve the problems of knowledge production inequality. But it's not that simple.
A double bind
Values and practices contribute just as much to global imbalances as material disparities do. The science journals that publish the research which populates our strange map aren't neutral: engagement with them is characterised by several levels of uneven participation.
A study of four high impact journals in the management social sciences found that they attracted authors from many countries worldwide but their empirical sites of investigation were significantly located in Europe and North America. This suggests that local researchers will use their scarce financial and technical resources to get published in high impact, supposedly international journals.
Given the overall constrained research environments in which researchers operate, these resources are lost to local research needs and may in effect subsidise the research of the global north. At the same time, relatively well-resourced researchers from the global north undertake research in developing countries and publish in those same journals.
In the worst cases, the global south simply provides novel empirical sites and local academics may not become equal partners in these projects about their own contexts.
Researchers in the global south are caught in a double bind. They are rewarded for publishing in "international" journals in several ways: through promotions and often even financially. But development imperatives, government policies and their own interests pressurise them to undertake research that is relevant to pressing social and related problems which may not be appealing or even "academic" enough to interest the international journals.
There is another problem with this journals map: it measures science journal articles as the sole representation of scientific research output. It ignores things like monographs and edited collections and interprets "science" narrowly – excluding social sciences and humanities' genres.
In many contexts valid research is undertaken and published with the unfortunate name of "grey literature". This includes working papers, technical and policy reports. These genres of output are often prevalent in research areas focused on pressing development issues.
Another category of "invisible research" from the South is the considerable output commissioned by government and undertaken by consultants, many of whom are practising academics. Even when it is published, this kind of research is often not attributed to its actual authors. It has the added problem of often being embargoed – researchers sometimes even have to sign confidentiality agreements or "official secrets acts" when they are given grants.
Some complain that including these genres in our understanding of scientific research will compromise quality. But we shouldn't reject these outputs. We should find ways to prove their worth, whether through new mechanisms of peer review or new metrics that measure impact and value through use and re-use.
Access is another issue. These coveted journals generally reside behind paywalls. This excludes those who cannot afford to pay for it, like researchers in resource-constrained environments and members of the public who don't have passwords for the electronic facilities of universities and research institutions.
This situation will improve thanks to the open access policies that are currently being developed in the European Union, the UK and elsewhere. These policies will substantially increase the volume of research to which scholars and readers worldwide have access. But there's an ironic danger in this more ubiquitous availability.
If the developing world doesn't have similar national and regional policies and if resources aren't made available to actively support open dissemination in these countries, research from the developing world will be rendered even more invisible.
This may unwittingly consolidate the erroneous impression that these scholars are undertaking little of value, have little to contribute to global knowledge and are reliant on the intellectual capacity of the global north.
Starting to change the map will require several steps. Firstly, funding and technological infrastructure must be improved. At the same time, our own perceptions of "science" must be broadened to encompass the social sciences.
Research outputs need to be recognised as existing beyond the boundaries of the formal journal article. Incentives and reward systems need to be adjusted to encourage and legitimise the new, fairer practices that are made possible in a digitally networked world.
And finally, the open access movement needs to broaden its focus from access to knowledge to full participation in knowledge creation and in scholarly communication.
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