Where developing nations’ authors are under-represented

Where developing countries’ authors are under-represented

One’s lived experience of having worked or spent time in a developing country surely matters

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In a recent column for Project Syndicate, renowned economist Dani Rodrik, said: “Economics is currently going through a period of soul searching with respect to its gender and racial imbalances. Many new initiatives are underway in North America and Western Europe to address these problems. But geographic diversity remains largely absent from the discussion..”  Rodrik’s remarks here, particularly on the ‘under-representation of voices in economics from the developing world’ merits deeper reflection and introspection, not just within the context of economics-economists, but for other social sciences too.

It is true to acknowledge how instrumental it was for scholars like Joseph Stiglitz to work in developing nations like Kenya, where he was “struck by various oddities in how its local economy operated”. Stiglitz’s seminal theories on ‘asymmetric information’, for which he later won a Nobel was vital in shaping his ideas on the ‘economics of information’. In a similar vein, Albert O Hirschman’s experience in Nigeria offered him useful insights which shaped his work in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Thomas Piketty has something similar to add about his experience of working/being in India-and his ideas on studying (and understanding) the multi-faceted nature of ‘inequality’.

One’s lived experience of having worked or spent time in a developing country surely matters. Travel, exposure and collaborative engagements are key in the complex process of ‘ideation’, knowledge creation, and also in its subsequent dissemination. However, the underlying spatial politics of power significantly affects/shapes the politics of ‘knowledge dissemination’ too. For a social scientist working in a developing country without the benefit of such ‘networks’ or established contacts with scholars working in North America-Europe-Australia, the chances of having a body of original work — irrespective of the degree of its novelty - published in a journal is beyond ‘difficult’. 

In a recent paper, Jacob Greenspon and Dani Rodrik have tried to analyse the locational pattern of authorship in leading economics journals. They base their analysis on Fontana et al.’s (2019) database, constructed using information from the ISI- Web of Science and JSTOR Digital Library. The database includes 3,22,279 articles, 2,15,203 unique authors and more than 10,000 journals over the period 1985-2016. Fontana et al.’s focus is on the geographical diffusion of frontier knowledge. They provide summary statistics of the geographical distribution of authorship for only the top seven journals.

And since they explore trends in forward citation counts, their analysis focuses on articles published until 2012 only. They also do not present disaggregated country or regional information beyond the US, Europe and the rest of the world. Greenspon and Rodrik are able to use their rich data set to generate additional results of interest, with a finer geographical and journal classification and longer (more recent) time coverage. The results point to striking imbalances in the geographic distribution of authorship. Perhaps not surprisingly, developing countries’ authors are greatly under-represented. But what is perhaps more surprising is that their under-representation in economic journals is out of proportion to the weight of their country or region in the global economy.

The share of developing countries’ authors in top-10 journals is significantly lower than the share of their respective regions in global GDP – a discrepancy that is most marked for East Asia and South Asia. While authors based in China have steadily increased their participation in top journals, their representation still falls far short of China’s share in the world economy, by an order of magnitude (1.5% versus 16%). Meanwhile, Western and Northern European authors have made substantial gains, despite the declining relative economic power of Europe. Hence, there is only a poor correlation between changes in economic resources and access to top journals. Financial constraints may not be necessarily the main factor that prevents geographical diversity. While the experience of Northern and Western Europe provides some encouragement, it seems also to be the case that once networks and hierarchies are established, it becomes difficult to break into them.

‘Ranking obsession’

Adding to this, Indian private universities, in an increasingly competitive and commodified education market space, are now desperately striving for better/higher ‘institutional rankings’, where having ‘research publications in Scopus-like indexed journals’ is a norm. Institutions are happy to design performance incentives (or give tenure to faculties) based on the publication record within these ‘indexed’ spaces alone, which are administered by those placed in the global North.

Higher educational institutions with greater publications, citations from ‘impact factor based journals surely have a better chance to do in these rankings which have other metrics of evaluation too, but the performance in categories of ‘research’, ‘international reputation’, ‘grants’ take precedence in determining the ‘credibility’ of an institution and its scholars. The collateral damage of this can be observed in the lesser regard being put to the other essential functioning in an academic scholar’s life: the time and energy put towards ‘teaching’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘curriculum development’, ‘mentoring’, and in pursuing real collaborations- driven by a mutual appreciation for catering to a larger public good.

Yes, some ‘benchmarking’ or moving towards a (quantified) vision to excel, developing robust research capacity is vital for an educational institution’s growth evolution (more so for those in countries where national/state-funded endowments are limited).  Still, the personal and professional struggle involved for scholars - living/residing in developing nations - to publish in a certain category of journals, present at a certain group of workshops, be affiliated to a certain category of ‘institutions’ that is part of an attempt to quantify, industrialise a formulaic approach to ‘academic success’, merits wider discussion and policy-focus. Such an approach, stemming from the asymmetric-spatial politics of power, is counterproductive for an organic promotion of creative, original work in/across social science, and in the process of its knowledge dissemination.

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