Levelling the playing field in scholarly communications

By Andrea Powell (Research4Life) and Rob Johnson, 04/03/19

Levelling the Playing Field: how can the global scholarly communications community address economic and infrastructure imbalances that prevent researchers from the Global South from achieving equality? 

This was the question posed to a group of delegates at this year’s Researcher 2 Reader conference, held at BMA House in London on 25th & 26th February.  One of the popular features of this conference is the workshops which run over 3 sessions and allow the delegates to explore topical issues in more depth than usual.  Andrea Powell, STM’s Outreach Director and Publisher Coordinator for Research4Life and Rob Johnson, Founder and Director of Research Consulting, facilitated one such workshop which identified some of the main obstacles and barriers facing researchers in the Global South, not just in accessing scholarly literature but in performing their own research and finding suitable publication channels to communicate it to a global audience.

The workshop was attended by some 30 delegates who also identified which of these obstacles can feasibly be addressed by the players in the scholarly communications sector; specific actions included:

  • the need for more transparency around publishers’ policies on APC waivers for their Open Access publications;
  • the need for more mentoring of researchers in emerging markets around the use of social media and other channels to promote their research;
  • the need for initiatives like Research4Life to expand their range of content and to include discovery tools and other workflow solutions;
  • the need to keep raising awareness, especially by including speakers from developing countries in conference programmes. 

It was recognised that the problems facing research and researchers in the Global South are highly complex and multi-faceted, so a pragmatic and focused approach is needed to deliver change.  One measurable outcome of increased inclusivity and equality is the number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals (whether they are published in the North or the South), so this gave us a useful touchpoint throughout our discussions.   One stark statistic is that, in 2017, research publications from the top 10 countries in the world outnumbered those from the bottom 200 by 5 to 1!  (Source: Scopus)

The Workshop Approach

The delegates were divided into four groups, each of which considered one aspect of the research process:

  • Accessing research
  • Conducting research
  • Communicating research
  • Using research in policy and practice

During the workshop, it was noted that a further component should be added – evaluating research – especially since the systems of incentives and evaluation are often at the root of some of the challenges faced by the global research community, particularly as we make the transition to Open Science. Participants included representatives from publishing organisations, researchers from the Global South, consultants and service providers.  We were particularly fortunate to have Dr Haseeb Irfanullah from the Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy in the group; his first-hand experiences brought a particular insight to the discussions.

Here we see one of the feedback and discussion sessions during the workshop on Levelling the Playing Field. (c) Dr Haseeb Irfanullah.

Workshop One – Obstacles and Barriers

Each group identified a number of challenges researchers in the Global South face, particularly in comparison to their peers in more developed countries.   This table illustrates the richness of the discussion and the common challenges in each area:

Access to Research Conducting researchCommunicating researchInforming policy & practice
  • Basic infrastructure may not be there – e.g. in a war zone

  • Access is still a problem - but it's not a panacea

  • Mixed views of Open Access

  • Subsidised access – ‘arrogant’? Neo-colonial?

  • Not just a problem in the ‘Global South’ or for researchers

  • Discoverability is a key part of the issue - need good metadata

  • Training + digital literacy - Is the technology gap widening?

  • Volume of research is increasing

  • How to develop ‘cultural capital’?

  • Political environment / instability => short- term view?

  • Censorship or corruption

  • Development stage – research may not be a spending priority

  • Brain drain / are researchers and research infrastructure in place?
  • R&D may be more applied, less fundamental

  • Influence of global institutions? e.g. World bank

  • Unrealistic timelines?

  • Limit on knowledge transfer

  • Lack of programmes at regional level for collaboration

  • Mindset is often a big factor – people don’t have the expectations or incentives to undertake research

  • Post-colonial attitudes – desire to publish in international journals

  • Support on how to write, publish

  • Need for institutional support, librarians, local editor/publisher support

  • Importance of understanding of structures, styles, traditions, norms, predatory publishers

    • Communication between the North and South needs to be two-way, not one-way

      • Global South often faces higher rejection rates

    • Publishing for global audiences

    • Communication requires funding, channels and understanding
    • Access to conferences, peer support, networks (also pre-publication)

    • Access to/use of tools/social media

      • Kudos

      • Altmetric

      • Pre-print servers

      • Publons

    • Incentives - may not be an incentive to promote post-publication (will depend on evaluation structures)

    Workshop Two – Stakeholders

    In this session, the groups considered the key stakeholders in each category, with a particular focus on those with whom we have most influence or contact (these were identified as follows, with most discussion centring on those in pink):

    Workshop Three – Solutions

    To wrap up the discussions and to provide some tangible “take-aways”, the groups considered what practical steps could be taken to tackle some of the challenges identified.  Unsurprisingly, this discussion generated many suggestions, and it was another challenge to prioritise them!  Points discussed included:

    • The need to talk about these issues more, and raise awareness across the community
    • Looking at the stakeholders shows we are dealing with many-to-many relationships, with collective action required to address the problems
    • Waivers:
      • There are variable approaches to the granting of publication waivers across publishers, with a risk that researchers are put off submitting due to uncertainty over whether they quality.
      • There may be potential for a web-based tool to help with this, enabling researchers to check whether the qualify for a waiver prior to submission. However, any such tool would need to handle the fact that finite numbers of waivers are offered in a given year by some societies/publishers, meaning waivers may not always be available.
      • Some researchers do not want to ask for a waiver, and many are not aware that subscriptions are currently being subsidised by the West.
      • Some delegates suggested that the ‘free rider problem’ associated with large numbers of authors receiving waivers appears to be growing.
    • OA deposit and embargo policies:
      • Green OA is one way of solving the access problem – could publishers make it easier for authors to share their accepted manuscripts, and for non-subscribers to access a green OA copy?
    • Access to databases and tools is really important, and also needs to be sustainable
    • Tools and databases can be skewed towards traditional research-producing countries, however – it can take a long time for Southern journals to be indexed in Web of Science, for example
    • There is a need for education and support from institutions (and/or via other channels, such as learned societies) on predatory journals, and also a need for ‘rejection counselling’ to ensure researchers understand that failure is normal in a nascent research career.
    • There is need to work with key decision-makers and figures in the Global South, with in-country partnerships aimed at creating last change
    • Diversity needs to be considered in terms of geographical representation and career stage, not just gender and ethnicity. How can editorial boards become more representative of the author community?
    • Societies can help (e.g. London Mathematical Society has sponsored 20 exchanges between the UK and Africa) – but they have limited capacity, and are facing other challenges with threats to subscription income, Brexit etc

    Further feedback and discussion sessions during the workshop. (c) Dr Haseeb Irfanullah.

    Conclusion

    The three workshops generated a great deal of engagement and ideas, with some highly practical and achievable recommendations for further action.  A key question remains whether it is appropriate for the Global South simply to replicate the systems of research communication and evaluation which have existed for centuries in the North, or whether a completely new approach is needed, taking advantage of more recent developments in technology and publishing.

    What was very clear from the discussions is that we need to move Research4Life beyond simply solving the problem of access to scholarly content and use it as a springboard to improve the skills of researchers to perform and communicate their own research activities on equal terms.