A strong ‘gatekeeper bias’ could trap researchers from countries like India in a vicious cycle that keeps them from securing more money or availing important opportunities.
A lot of what we call ‘science’ today is driven by metrics associated with papers published in research journals. So it’s only to be expected that a lot of discussion has centred on who produces publishable science and, axiomatically, which publisher chooses to print their work.
A team of scientists from the University of Florida inspected this paradigm and found a big problem. Specifically, they looked at who decides which scientists to publish in which journals – and found most of these gatekeepers to be from more developed, more affluent countries.
These people are the editors, who sit on the editorial boards of journals. The Florida group found that the composition of these boards has remained almost entirely unchanged in the last 30 years. They’ve been idempotent even as more publications out of developing countries have published more research papers than ever before in history.
Their finding muzzles any hope that people from diverse regions will land up on editorial boards even as the journals themselves become more internationalised.
Emilio M. Bruna and his team analysed 24 journals and found that Latin America, Asia and Africa are only marginally represented. “Even today, more than 50% of the editors continue to be the residents of either the US or the UK,” Bruna, a scientist at the University of Florida and principal investigator of the study, told The Wire. “This reflects the lopsided internationalisation of journals.”
The finding is compelling because these editors are the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. They decide which study is published and becomes ‘visible’ to the authors’ peers, apart from providing a measure of validation to their work. So it’s a matter of deep concern that scientists from developed countries make up a big chunk of this coveted class. Such homogenous boards are likely to prioritise some areas of research while excluding others, leaving scientists from developing nations in the lurch.
For example, when picking papers to publish, there is the issue of what is locally relevant and what is globally relevant. “Some questions may appear local when coming from a developing country. But due to the sheer volume of researchers and a more networked group in the global north, questions arising from this region may be perceived to be of a wider interest,” V.V. Robin, an ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tirupati, told The Wire.
Richness v. diversity
This is not a new idea – it was something Bruna heard a lot as a young scientist in Brazil. “My colleagues would often say that [the editors] are not interested in our papers. So I decided to find out who are they are and where they come from.”
The fact that there’s a geographic bias within editorial boards was first prominently identified in the 1980s, and since then many researchers have tried to document that bias across diverse disciplines. But almost all of them sampled only thin slices of time, like a year or two.
This was one of the reasons Bruna’s team went for a thicker wedge. They examined 24 prominent ecology journals between 1985 and 2014. “We chose to focus on ecology because it is a field-based discipline and requires familiarity with local challenges” – according to Bruna – so he and his colleagues reasoned any geographic biases would be more apparent here relative to other, more lab-based areas of study.
They looked at each editor’s region of origin, the country of origin and the country’s per capita income at the time of joining the editorial board. Then they created year-wise timelines of the board’s composition. This allowed them to answer specific questions like how many editors were employed in a given year, how many of them were European, how many hailed from, say, Europe, and how these patterns have shifted in time.
Given what their conclusions were, it’s only fitting they picked ecology journals. “In ecology, richness and diversity are two very distinct concepts,” Bruna said.
A forest with 15 species of birds is richer than a forest with 10. But let’s say both forests had 15 bird species. In one, you’d mostly see crows, but in the other, you’d have an equal chance of spotting crows, eagles, sparrows and woodpeckers. The second forest is then said to be more diverse even though both forests are equally rich.
Similarly, the researchers found that editorial boards have become more diverse – but they’ve not become just as richer.
In 1985-2014, they found that the average size of an editorial board almost quadrupled. So it’s not surprising that more people from emerging countries are joining these boards. However, the richness is quite poor.
Bruna has a good example: “The fact that a country as large and with as many scientists as India has less representation than a country like Sweden exemplifies this fact.”
Moreover, when the editors were categorised according to the per capita incomes of their countries, Bruna’s team found that journals were more likely to recruit from wealthy nations even if they were conscious about picking from underrepresented regions. For example, if a journal wanted scientists from Asia on its board, it would likelier than not pick people from Japan and Singapore over India and Indonesia.
A logic for representation
Then again, there’s another way to explain this disparity. Some areas of research require more economic investment. “To be an editor you have to be able to produce that kind of science,” Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, told The Wire. A dismal science funding programme could then lead journals to scout in Japan, not Indonesia.
But there is a deeper problem that has been ignored.
Publishing in top journals is not the only criterion that affects editorial recruitment, according to Bruna. Many scientists in developing nations do publish in the pages of the better titles titles. But the decision to get someone onboard doesn’t come after a candidate’s papers are scrutinised or even their regions of origin, for that matter.
Instead, nominations are usually solicited from within the board itself. Members are likelier than not going to propose the names of their colleagues – people they know and whose credentials they can vouch for. Over time, these preferences can magnify smaller biases.
So exposure to and familiarity with scientists from far-flung regions can become a limiting factor. It reduces some people’s chances of being recruited for no fault of their own.
“You can’t make these decisions by picking up a phone book. You need to have a personal contact,” Ramaswamy said.
Indian scientists don’t usually attend a lot of international meetings where such connections are forged; fewer funds could be one reason. But because of this, they are relatively less known and might not get enough opportunities. “The flipside is that this, in turn, prevents them from securing more funds for their work and the vicious cycle perpetuates,” Ramaswamy added.
An editor from Europe could overlook a research problem that’s important to a researcher from South Asia. But an editor from South Asia on the board might be able to make sure – at least more often than the European editor – a paper impacting a broad local group or dealing with new solutions to a local problem is played up.
Such considered representation is very important in a world where global issues are having their most drastic effects on low-income countries – as well as vice versa. The deforestation of peat woods in Southeast Asia releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. At the same time, the malaria problem is more multifaceted in Cambodia than in Canada, but remains that much less represented in the medical literature.
Such benign neglect can be resolved by having diverse and rich editorial boards, especially when there is no dearth of qualified scientists from the global south. As we have it, in 2014, more than thrice as many scientists from developing countries published in the 24 journals (that Bruna and co. considered) as the total number of their editors. Sure, scientists from developed nations published even more, but – as Bruna says – it would be fitting “try and mirror the percentage of editors to the percentage of contributors.”
Their paper was published in the journal PLOS Biology on December 12, 2017.
Sarah Iqbal is a senior research fellow at the department of biochemistry, Aligarh Muslim University, India.