University
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

English-speaking white men decide your publishing fate

It’s not science if it’s not European

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
If you’re a scholar from Turkey, India, or Colombia, your research is often not taken seriously in Western academia. Good luck trying to get published or raising grant money, then.
12 January om 11:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 January 2021
om 12:14 uur.
January 12 at 11:08 AM.
Last modified on January 12, 2021
at 12:14 PM.


Door Yelena Kilina

12 January om 11:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 January 2021
om 12:14 uur.

By Yelena Kilina

January 12 at 11:08 AM.
Last modified on January 12, 2021
at 12:14 PM.

Yelena Kilina

International editor
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Whenever Yasin Koc, assistant professor of social psychology, wants to use data from a non-Western sample in a paper, his journal reviewers raise a red flag. ‘They’ll ask me to justify why it’s important to study this topic in this cultural context.’ Oddly enough, Western samples are never questioned, he says. 

Koc, who wrote his PhD on the attitudes towards muslim gay men in Turkey, his home country, is now focusing on muslim feminist women. ‘Reviewers say it’s very hard to generalise a Turkish sample, but when data comes from the US, suddenly you can generalise that to the world.’

Skewed power relations 

European researchers often don’t realise that a non-Western background can be a barrier to making your voice heard, even when it comes to choosing the focus of your research. That’s because the editorial boards of international journals are still run in majority by ‘white, English-speaking, well-educated males’, says associate professor of cultural geography Bettina van Hoven, who also works as director of education at University College Groningen. That means knowledge is produced, valued and disseminated on their – European – terms. ‘There are power relations embedded in the histories of our scientific disciplines that are difficult to break.’ 

The power relations are difficult to break

European topics and norms are seen as superior to non-Western ones, which leads to a one-sided perception of the world that is indifferent to non-Western realities. That needs to change, Koc says. ‘When science is already very Western-centric, it is important to get other data.’ A Turkish sample can be applicable to other contexts, he explains, as long as you understand what his research is about. 

Muslim gay men who face problems because of their sexual orientation don’t just live in Turkey, after all, but all around the world, including in European countries. Besides, Koc says, there are Christian gay people who are in a similar situation, which means his research can be generalised just as well. ’Don’t be afraid if you see the word ‘muslim’ or ‘Turkish’ in research’, he stresses. 

European agenda

Another obstacle for Europe-based researchers who focus on non-Western countries is having to fit their proposals to a European agenda, says associate professor of global economics and management Sathyajit Gubbi. ‘Who gets to be funded by European agencies depends on societal impact, currently, but because my research is not specific to issues that are relevant for Europe, I’m at a disadvantage when applying.’ 

His research deals with emerging markets in India, Brazil, and Turkey, so his findings on how firms need to operate differently from those in more established markets aren’t as interesting to Western countries. That may affect his academic career in Groningen. ‘If you want a professorship, then you have to prove that you can attract funds’, says Gubbi. That’s why he has to be creative in suggesting how his research can be valuable in Europe.

European governments encourage research institutions to focus on research that will benefit the tax-paying society, Gubbi notes. While he understands that, he believes there should also be room for a bottom-up approach. ‘Their agenda shouldn’t compromise core areas of faculties’ expertise and leave out good researchers. For that, the university could create a funding pool, so any researcher could apply for it.’

High-impact publications 

Drawing her roadmap for a future PhD, Lebanese global health student Catherine Moughalian is conducting research on sexual health in India, which she wants to publish in a scientific journal. But what is considered a reputable journal is problematic, she says. To begin with, whose views and knowledge do those high-impact journals represent?

‘There are open-access journals that are popular among Indian authors who aren’t tailoring to the Western audience,’ says Moughalian. If she wants to cater to the Indian policy-makers, then she should publish there. ‘But those journals don’t have good review mechanisms, so it will not advance my career in Europe.’

For a professorship, you have to prove you can attract funds

Journal impact factors and other metrics are often used to evaluate individual researchers, who therefore feel pressured to advance their scores instead of focusing on the practical usefulness of the research. 

But this is changing, says physics professor and president of the European Physical Society, Petra Rudolf. Scholars are no longer asked to only count publications and citations, they are also invited to describe why a publication is valuable. ‘Something that helps to significantly improve health in India is equally important as a publication in a high-impact journal.’

Spreading the word 

Jorge Mario Salazar Rios, who obtained his master in nanoscience and a PhD in physics at the UG, found that it was much harder to spread the scientific word when he returned to Colombia to work at a private university. He soon realised he couldn’t get his articles published without his European network. ‘I submit my manuscripts with the UG’s name on it, not my local university’s.’

But that wasn’t his only problem. ‘Even paying for a paper that’s been accepted can be a challenge for a smaller university’, he says. Thanks to his supervisor in Groningen, he did manage to continue publishing in open-access journals. ‘Because the UG has agreements with journals, people can read my papers.’ Some of his Colombian colleagues, however, only manage to publish one paper every few years. ‘They didn’t have a chance to be in the environment I was in.’

Issues like these mean that local expertise may not reach the global audience, keeping the Western research in the spotlight. 

Money issues

The 2015 Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape report, conducted by Elsevier and SciDev.net, showed how global inequalities affected scientific output. Low-income countries like Cambodia and Kenya, it noted, produced only 2 percent of the 334,000 publications on sustainability between 2009 and 2013, despite the significant environmental challenges those countries face. High-income countries produced 76 percent of publications, with the largest research output by the US (31.6 percent) and the UK (10.9 percent). 

Paying for a paper can be a challenge

‘You start at level -1, not zero’, says Agha Bayramov from Azerbaijan, who lectures on international relations with a focus on the Caspian Sea region. Having spent six years as a Europe-based researcher, he has seen very few colleagues from the region – between Kazachstan and Iran – make it to European conferences. ‘I meet Western scholars more often than the local ones’, he says. ‘They often cannot afford to come to Europe due to visa and travel expenses, so their research stays under the radar.’ 

He, too, never goes to big conferences in the UK and the US. Because of his nationality, ‘every time I have to apply for additional permissions, it takes a lot of time, energy and grant budget.’ As a consequence, he says, he is losing in terms of expanding his network and getting feedback from senior researchers.

Helping hand

So how can non-Western researchers get a leg up? One way to help them be published is through multilingual journals like the International Journal for Critical Geographies (ACME), which publishes in multiple languages and encourages submissions from outside ‘Anglo-America’. 

‘Of course, the editorial board has to make extra effort to assess the quality of articles in various languages, but this way they are open to non-English speakers’, says Van Hoven. She helps master students publish their work in another journal, Gender Place and Culture, where referees take extra time to help junior researchers improve their papers. ‘The culture of helping junior researchers is important for balance and diversity.’

In psychology, says Koc, some editors encourage young researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds to publish their papers. That’s what they do at the Journal of Social and Political Psychology. Moreover, they filter out some comments by peer reviewers who don’t see the relevance of a study because the data comes from a minority. 

Fellowships

Still, researchers who don’t have help to guide them through the Western research culture risk their papers being rejected. That’s because their research is designed in a way that’s not up to the current standards of high-impact journals, says Rudolf, who has been peer reviewing academic papers for decades. 

Researchers need to set up facilities at home

‘Even after having obtained a degree in Europe, researchers often need to set up competitive experimental or computing facilities in their home countries. Meanwhile, they have to stay up to date to publish new papers’, she explains. 

One of the ways out of this problem is to support non-Western researchers with fellowships, Rudolf says, so they can return to their European lab to collect fresh data while they are setting up laboratories at home.

Salazar Rios has just become the first grantee of one such fellowship, the International Training and Research (INTR) programme, which is set up in collaboration with the European Physical Society. This summer, he’s coming back to Groningen for two months as a visiting researcher. ‘It’s great to have access to equipment’, he says, ‘but I’m also glad I’ll be able to keep up and grow my network.’

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