Amplifying the Voices of Global-South Scholars

“The problem is that, without representation in the research community, developing countries become the object of research and not participants in it,” Sarah Cummings said in an article in SciDev.Net.

The quote above comes after a study of journals in the field of development studies found very few contributions in those journals come from scholars actually from developing countries. Editorial-board diversity was also lacking. I suspect most academic fields have similar statistics or worse. The article reports that Cummings suggests the need to rethink “the publication process and explore how traditional measures of quality can be balanced against giving the developing world a greater hand in knowledge generation.”

Good point. As April Hathcock has recently written, “If we truly wish to transform scholarly communication on a global scale, then we need to be open and honest about what that entails…The conversation needs to be an actual conversation and not a one-way soliloquy from the global north that gets imported colonial-style to the global south. There needs to be a dialogue, real dialogue, that de-centers white North American and Western European values and knowledge creation. Those of us from the global north need to acknowledge the harm our neoliberal colonizing has done to scholarship around the world and take responsibility. Then, we need to step back and listen.”

Right. But as a scholar from the global South… what is one to do? Wait until the North listens? Because, really, so far the only way to make them listen has been to write in their language, their journals, to their standards of scholarship and hope for the best. Which clearly only works for a minority of us (probably those who studied and/or trained in said global North institutions because… the others don’t get those invisible standards, can’t write to those standards, don’t have access to that research or that mentoring).

The flaws of (some) developing-world scholarship get in the way: histories of plagiarism, poor-quality research methods, and poor writing that native speakers of English can’t follow. But these aren’t things the authors of that scholarship are fully to blame for. It’s not their fault that most journals are subscription-based and they can’t access them (legally), or that English isn’t their first language, or that they have fewer and poorer-quality resources to conduct research or poorly paid research assistants. It’s not their fault that their culture doesn’t discuss plagiarism by Western standards. (Years of education in places like Egypt do not adequately prepare a scholar to respect copyright or understand plagiarism, mostly because those principles are completely ignored through school and university at public institutions.)

In a recent e/Merge Africa seminar I co-facilitated with South African scholar Laura Czerniewicz , one participant suggested Africans should start their own journals, since African scholarship wasn’t getting accepted in international peer-reviewed journals. But there’s a catch: our local institutions value internationally peer-reviewed publications more, much more, than local ones. Building a reputation for local journals takes years of effort. We would still face a quandary: to give those journals legitimacy, we might need to succumb to global-North standards of what is considered scholarly.

I would like to share my own micro-activism in the area of slowly decolonizing scholarship in my field. My approach is by no means revolutionary. It’s just nudging forward slow change within the existing standards.

  1. I review as many articles as possible for journals. I have found some journals will give me articles by non-native speakers. I make a concerted effort to review those as fairly as possible, focusing on substance and overlooking minor problems with language, and giving constructive feedback to authors. Sometimes an article is a borderline reject but I ask the editor to consider giving authors an opportunity to improve upon their work (and if needed, get help improving their English; the importance of the language barrier for some people should not be underestimated).
  2. I make as much of my own work as possible open access. It is an ethical imperative for me that scholars in developing countries can access my scholarship. Many scholars aren’t affiliated with a powerful institutional library. Egypt’s EKB initiative will help locally, but that’s just local. It isn’t enough. I still advocate for open access. And access, of course, should go beyond being able to download an article; it should mean being able to actually read and understand it.
  3.  If I am ever offered a position of some power, such as being an editorial-board member, I accept those opportunities. I  advocate for more diverse boards. And more diverse authorship. And openness.
  4. When I can, I mentor  junior scholars to help them find outlets for their research and to prepare their research papers for publication. I also point people toward an online mentoring network called AuthorAID  that helps junior scholars work with more established scholars in their field. Unfortunately some Egyptian scholars worry about sharing their article with a stranger lest someone steal it as their own. Many junior scholars have experienced such theft firsthand, by people they trusted and worked with locally.

None of the above challenges the dominance of global North standards of scholarship. What would challenge such dominance of the global North?

  1. It would be a great start if we created our own journals and set our own standards and our institutions accepted and valued them. Unfortunately, the only way I see such journals gaining legitimacy in the short term would be if board members were credible, established scholars. Which is again based on international (read: North) standards. Which means they’re successful at conforming to Western standards. Would they be willing to challenge and subvert Western scholarly norms or would they fear risking their reputation internationally?
  2. If we wrote our scholarship in our own language. And again, not something I can do or have done much—thanks to the Al-Fanar Media translation team for being responsible for the majority of my online Arabic content. But perhaps content in our journals can and should include multiple linguistic versions of articles  (some journals already do French/English— there could be Arabic/English. I know of a few such journals but not ones that translate every article). I know of one U.S.-based journal that wanted to experiment with authorship in different languages. I suspect some editors will be amenable to this idea—but implementation will be difficult. It would make scholarship accessible to many more readers. Worth it, for some of us, but admittedly quite difficult and costly.
  3. Conferences. I am sick of attending conferences where I listen to panel after panel of older men in suits. What if we challenge conferences to have more diverse and strong keynote speakers—women, international scholars, people of color—more intentionally and not in tokenizing ways? Local as well as international conferences? (see Rafranz Davis’ post on this). I have been on steering committees of international conferences. I am often the only international, or at least the only Southern, person there. I understand why this is the case, but accepting the status quo isn’t getting us anywhere.

As April Hathcock wrote: “It is possible to disrupt the way these conversations tend to take place, but it will take intentional, thoughtful, and critical work.”

I’m sure I haven’t highlighted all possible ways to strengthen the voices of scholars from the Global South. What do you do to challenge global-North dominance of scholarship? What else do you think we could do?


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