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Global South Scholars Are Nowhere in Development Research – Even For Studies on Developing Nations

Researchers from the Global South represent the key stakeholders in development policies yet a culture of exclusion in the field of development economics seems to leave them out of the conversation.

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The majority of research conducted on development and development policies in the Global South is done by researchers from the Global North, a recent research article published in the journal Applied Economic Letters has found.

The research article, titled, ‘Underrepresentation of developing country researchers in development research’, found that fewer than one in six articles published in the top 20 global development journals between 1990 and 2019 were authored by researchers from developing countries (Southern researchers) while nearly three quarters of the same were by their developed-country counterparts (Northern researchers). 

Calls for “diversity” ring throughout the development sector but, in terms of academia, they are seemingly falling on deaf ears. 

Southern researchers have certain advantages when it comes to development economics, first-hand knowledge of a developing country’s problems being the foremost among them. Moreover, as stakeholders in the societies which development economics seeks to draft policies for, their voices deserve to be heard.

A culture of exclusion within the field of economics stands to undermine the very policies which are meant to help Southern countries in their development journeys.

“The motivation of our research was to illustrate the consequences of the multiple barriers that researchers from the south face in the academic world,” said Veronica Amarante, one of the authors of the research article.

The research article examines the evidence and extent of the underrepresentation of Southern scholars in development research; probable causes follow.

Metrics to measure representation

The research article calculated the representation of Southern researchers in three dimensions; attendance at seven prestigious international development conferences from 2010-2019; the treatment of Southern-authored research papers in the ‘publication pipelines’ of four development journals with varying levels of ‘prestige’ and final publication in the top 20 development journals from 1990-2019 as well as the citation records of these researchers compared to those of other researchers in the same.

“Researchers from the global south are underrepresented in development conferences [as well as] publications.” Amarante noted.

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Participation at development conferences

The participation of researchers at conferences “boosts” their publication record and career, the article notes. What’s more, networking at these conferences can influence the global development research agenda i.e. what the global development research community will choose to focus on, thereby guiding the trajectory of the field as a whole. This networking also influences how future research is planned and interpreted.

The seven development conferences considered by the authors of the research article were: the World Bank Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE), the African Development Bank African Economic Conference (AEC), the Poverty Reduction, Equity and Growth Network (PEGNet) conference, the World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) conference, the Centre for the Study of African Economies African (CSAE) conference, the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD) conference, and the North Eastern Universities Development Consortium (NEUDC) conference.

From 2010-2019, Southern researchers presented only 9% of the papers at these conferences while the share of Northern researchers at the same was 57%.

What’s more, all except the AEC were held in the countries in the developed world and, while over half of the delegates at the AEC were Southern researchers, their representation at the other six conferences was marginal. 

This affirms the notion that the location at which a conference is held influences regional representation.

Illustration: The separation of the Global North and Global South. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bramfab.

Publication in development journals

The actual publication of research by authors from the South is also important in terms of findings being reported and these authors engaging with the academic community. The authors of the research article examined the publication process at four stages: manuscript submission, desk rejection (when the article is not sent even for peer review), the peer review itself and finally, acceptance. 

Four development journals were considered studied by the authors of the research article. 

Economic Development and Cultural Change (EDCC) and the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities (JHDC) are two highly reputed journals (among Google Scholar’s Top 20 development journals.)

The Review of Development Economics (RDE), the third journal considered, is described in the article as a “typical mid-level development journal” and the last, the Journal of African Economies (JAE), is a regional journal.

The institutional affiliation of the lead author of a particular paper was considered while looking at submissions to these journals. 

The article found that the share of submissions by Southern researchers for each journal was 39%, 49%, 60% and 63%. 

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For the EDCC, the JHDC and the RDE, submissions from Southern researchers were “much less likely” to even reach the peer review stage than those by Northern researchers, getting rejected at the editor’s desk itself. For the EDCC, 57% of submissions by Northern researchers were rejected as compared to 79% of those by Southern researchers. The same for the JHDC were 35% compared to 69% and for the RDE, the figures stood at 36% for Northern researchers and 63% for their Southern counterparts.

Thereafter, the chances of Southern-authored papers being approved by peer review and  accepted for publication were similar to those of Northern papers in the case of the EDCC (23% for Southern against 25% for Southern); however, the chances for the same were clearly less for the JHDC (23% against 30%) and even more so for the RDE (29% against 50%), the research article notes.

Final results of the ‘publication pipeline’ were expressed as the percentage of published papers compared out of all the papers submitted. For the EDCC and the JDHC, this ratio for Northern authors is more than double that of Southern authors (9% published for Northern authors and 4% published for Southern authors in the EDCC; 18% for Northerners and 8% for Southerners in JDHC). For the RDE, the same is more than three times (19% for Northern authors and 5% for Southern authors) and for the JAE, the difference is almost six times (11% for Northerners and 2% for Southerners).

The regional representation of researchers was also studied in the top 20 development journals from 1990 – 2019 on the basis of Google Scholar rankings from February, 2020. The research article found that less than one-sixth of articles (16%) in these journals were by Southern researchers compared to the 73% by Northern researchers. 11% of the articles published were collaborations between Northern and Southern researchers.

Even when the researchers narrowed down the scope of their study to focus on a subset of papers (61%) which explicitly focused on a Southern country or region, they found that 62% of articles were by Northern researchers.

The share of articles by Southern researchers in these journals has not improved throughout the 29-year period.

What is encouraging, however, is that collaborations have increased from 2% in 1990 to 18% in 2020.

Citations in development journals

Finally, the research article studies how often the Southern researchers – those of whom that actually managed to get published – are cited in these journals compared to other researchers.

“Southern researchers not only publish less; they [are] also cited less,” the research article says. In the same 20 journals for the same 29-year period, there are fewer citations for articles by Southern researchers compared to those by Northern researchers as well as North-South collaborations. What’s more, naturally there are fewer citations for more recent articles.

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A majority of the research on developing countries is done by researchers from the developed world, a finding which the research article describes as “not encouraging”.

The article cites several “plausible” reasons for this disparity;  issues of English proficiency, scientific networks, access to research funding and travel grants, deficiencies in the research skills of Southern researchers (which, naturally, may be borne out of discrepancies in funding and opportunities); however, it also acknowledges the possibility of a culture of exclusion in the field of economics.

Excluding Southern researchers from the academic discourse on the developing world (where they, themselves are among the primary stakeholders) inhibits the “plurality and richness” of these discourses, the article notes. 

Development policies in the South directly – and sometimes, adversely – affect Southern researchers. Therefore, they have an additional claim to be adequately represented in debates regarding the same. What’s more, they have the advantage of first-hand knowledge in these regions, thus making the dominance of Northern researchers in these fields “unhealthy and unsustainable”.

However, the authors of the research article have found that North-South collaborations may provide an avenue for ushering in change by expanding the scientific networks of “second-language-English” researchers which could help them to publish their work.