This week’s blog post is a bit more of a Sociology of science topic… Perhaps only marginally related to the usual content surrounding data, but still worth consideration. I recently heard a talk by Laura Czerniewicz, from University of Cape Town’s Centre for Educational Technology. She was among the speakers during the Context session at Beyond the PDF2, and she asked the following questions about research and science:
Whose interests are being served? Who participates? Who is enabled? Who is constrained?
She brought up points I had never really considered, related to the distribution of wealth and how that affects scientific outputs. First, she examined who actually produces the bulk of knowledge. Based on an editorial in Science in 2008, she reported that US academics produce about 30% of the articles published in international peer-reviewed journals, while developing countries (China, India, Brazil) produce another 20%. Sub-saharan Africa? A mere 1%.
She then explored what factors are shaping knowledge production and dissemination. She cited infrastructure (i.e., high speed internet, electricity, water, etc.), funding, culture, and reward systems. For example, South Africa produces more articles than other countries on the continent, perhaps because the government gives universities $13,000 for every article published in a “reputable journal”, and 21 of 23 universities surveyed give a cut of that directly to the authors.
Next, she asked “Who’s doing the publishing? What research are they publishing?” She put up some convincing graphics showing the number of articles published by authors from various countries, of which the US and Western Europe were leading the pack by six fold. I couldn’t hunt down the original publication, so take this rough statistic with a grain of salt. What about book publishing? The Atlantic Wire published a great chart back in October (based on an original article in Digital Book World) that scaled a country’s size based on the value of their domestic publishing markets:
When asking whose interests are served by international journals, she focused on a commentary by R. Horton, titled “Medical journals: Evidence of bias against the diseases of poverty” (The Lancet 361, 1 March 2003 - behind paywall). Granted, it’s a bit out of date, but it still has interesting points to consider. Horton reported that of the five top medical journals there is little or no representation on their editorial boards from countries with low Human Development Indices. Horton then postulates that this might be the cause for the so-called 10/90 gap – where 90% of research funding is allocated to diseases that affect only 10% of the world’s population. Although Horton does not go so far as to blame the commercial nature of publishing, he points out that editorial boards for journals must consider their readership and cater to those who can afford subscription fees.
I wonder how this commentary holds up, 10 years later. I would like to think that we’ve made a lot of progress towards better representation of research affecting humans that live in poverty. I’m not sure, however, we’ve done better with access to published research. I’ll leave you with something Laura said during her talk (paraphrased): “If half of the world is left out of knowledge exchange and dissemination, science will suffer.”