Despite promising developments, African researchers are still disadvantaged in publication
The 7th World Conference on Research Integrity, held in May–June 2022 in Cape Town, focused on issues surrounding ethics in collaboration between researchers in the Global North and South, culminating in plans to establish and publish a “Cape Town Statement” that hopes to address issues in equity between these groups of researchers1,2.
I must admit that I had not been confronted with the ongoing ethical issues in such research collaborations before. To this end, I decided to look into the current challenges to equity in scientific publication for researchers in Africa, in particular, and I would like to share some insights from my reading here.
Research authorship in Africa may be worsening
Africa has seen significant improvements in quality of life and industry in the 21st century3, but research in Africa still accounts for only a tiny fraction of the global academic output4, despite the continent being home to a growing population of over a billion people.
Improved access to information suggests that dissemination of information should have improved similarly, but the situation is more complicated. While we can easily self-publish anything we like with a web page, peer-reviewed studies rightfully remain the “gold standard” for up-to-date, trustworthy information. However, Africa has not seen great improvements in the volume of research published in such channels. A recent research paper published in PLOS Global Public Health5 sought to determine the authorship trends in infectious disease publications in low-income countries from 1998 to 2018. While the numbers of lead or last authors affiliated with these countries increased over this time span, the proportions of these authors decreased.
This trend indicates the persistence of “helicopter research” or “neo-colonial science.” Helicopter research, as the name suggests, is the tendency for researchers from the Global North to “helicopter” into less wealthy parts of the world, receive information from local collaborators, and then depart with no further consideration of the contributions6. Such research siphons away scientific prestige from collaborators and keeps inequality entrenched by preventing more resources being allocated to places where this research is taking place.
The digital revolution has not delivered evenly
The shift to primarily digital forms of publication has greatly improved access to the latest in research. Researchers no longer need to wait for a new research volume to go into press in their country, if indeed it is published at all. New publishing paradigms, such as open access, have also enabled many people to gain information that might otherwise never have been available to them in the pre-Internet era. Despite continued controversies regarding the costs of journal access, the barrier to access for information is lower now than at any other point in history. Furthermore, finding necessary information in seconds using online resources at home or in the office is simply more convenient than searching through rolling stacks at the library.
Digitization and the shift to transformative and open models of publication should also mean great improvements in publication prospects for academics worldwide, but many researchers in the world’s less economically developed countries still find themselves shut out of this avenue for publication. Open access publication remains costly, sometimes exceeding $10,000 USD per publication7. Despite these challenges, researchers in Africa are in fact proportionally bearing a greater burden of bringing open access research to publication while not receiving credit for this leading role8.
Predatory publishing fears—Convenient scapegoat?
Commercial publishers have disseminated discourse about so-called predatory publishers8. Predatory publishers are those who offer open access publication without sufficient peer review, circulation, or perpetual storage9. While predatory publishing can be a legitimate threat victimizing researchers from low-income countries, notions of predatory publishing can also threaten fledgling scientific publications from Africa and help maintain the entrenched control that major publishers have over academic publication and discourse10.
There has been some evidence that the notion of predatory publishing lacks rigor, as shown by the overlap between the “blacklists” and “whitelists” of predatory publishers11. Meanwhile, misconceptions about academics’ motivations for submission to these journals may perpetuate ideas that researchers submit to these journals due to naïveté or lack of understanding10. Ultimately, warning researchers to stay away from non-prestigious publications without any alternative course for publication can further deepen inequities in research.
Tackling these issues
In the 21st century, the concept of coloniality, where the structures of social domination from the colonial era maintain Eurocentric norms of modern thinking, has come to attention in the field of bibliometrics12. If unaddressed, current trends of inequitable publication will maintain the current domination that companies and institutions of the Global North have over academic publishing.
In a session about the Hong Kong principles13 at the aforementioned WCRI conference, Dr. Sabine Kleinert has stated The Lancet has been rejecting papers using information gathered in Africa without recognition of African collaborators. The prestigious UK-based medical journal has also worked to improve publication prospects in less economically developed countries by offering adjusted publication fees according to region14.
At the same conference, Prof. Ntobeko Ntusi of the University of Cape Town identified that competition between research groups is “very unhealthy, not only for individuals, but for the entire research ecosystem15.” The drive to publish positive results and a lack of funding can result in compromised research ethics. Prof. Ntusi identified the key role of institutions in “[encouraging] those involved to exemplify [integrity] in every step of the research endeavour.”
Meanwhile, within Africa, academics have found some relief in recently improving trends. In Nigeria, for example, many universities are now hosting their own open access journals. One such example is the Nigerian Journal of Technology (NIJOTECH), which has existed since the 1970s and successfully managed a transition to online open access publishing16. Despite ongoing practical issues, it serves as an example of academics in Africa persevering despite a “credibility economy” that is stacked against them. Further, Africa-specific indexes act as vital resource for the dissemination of research from Africa, such as African Journals Online17, which hosts 610 journals at the time of writing, about half of which are open access publications.
- ‘Helicopter research’ comes under fire at Cape Town conference. https://www.science.org/content/article/helicopter-research-comes-under-fire-cape-town-conference.
- Else, H. African researchers lead campaign for equity in global collaborations. Nature 606, 636–636 (2022).
- Overview. World Bank https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/overview.
- Elsevier. Africa generates less than 1% of the world’s research; data analytics can change that. Elsevier Connect https://www.elsevier.com/connect/africa-generates-less-than-1-of-the-worlds-research-data-analytics-can-change-that.
- Modlin, C. E. et al. Authorship trends in infectious diseases society of America affiliated journal articles conducted in low-income countries, 1998–2018. PLOS Glob. Public Health 2, e0000275 (2022).
- Nature addresses helicopter research and ethics dumping. Nature 606, 7–7 (2022).
- Opinion: Is Open Access Worth the Cost? The Scientist Magazine https://www.the-scientist.com/critic-at-large/opinion-is-open-access-worth-the-cost-70049.
- Africa is a leader in open access—but gets little credit for it. Research Professional News https://www.researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-africa-pan-african-2020-10-africa-is-a-leader-in-open-access-but-gets-little-credit-for-it/ (2020).
- Cohen, A. J. et al. Perspectives From Authors and Editors in the Biomedical Disciplines on Predatory Journals: Survey Study. J. Med. Internet Res. 21, e13769 (2019).
- Mills, D. & Inouye, K. Problematizing ‘predatory publishing’: A systematic review of factors shaping publishing motives, decisions, and experiences. Learn. Publ. 34, 89–104 (2021).
- Strinzel, M., Severin, A., Milzow, K. & Egger, M. ‘Blacklists’ and ‘whitelists’ to tackle predatory publishing : A cross-sectional comparison and thematic analysis. https://peerj.com/preprints/27532 (2019) doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.27532v1.
- Some thoughts on how to confront bibliometric coloniality. University World News https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20220629101934650.
- Moher, D. et al. The Hong Kong Principles for assessing researchers: Fostering research integrity. PLoS Biol. 18, e3000737 (2020).
- Renowned journal rejects papers that exclude African researchers. University World News https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20220603115640789.
- Transparency, collaboration underpin clinical and biomedical research integrity. http://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2022-06-01-transparency-collaboration-underpin-clinical-and-biomedical-research-integrity.
- Nijotech, E. EDITOR’S NOTE: NIJOTECH is 40. Niger. J. Technol. 34, i–i (2015).
- African Journals Online. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ajol.
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