Top development journals dominated by Northern scholars

Girl in Library_Liba Taylor_Panos
Copyright: Liba Taylor/Panos

Speed read

  • Southern researchers wrote or co-wrote fewer than 15 per cent of papers
  • Only seven per cent of board members came from developing nations
  • But papers in top journals may not be the best way to spread useful research

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Elite journals in development studies are dominated by Northern scholars, with little developing world representation as either paper authors or on the publications' management boards, a study has found.

Fewer than 15 per cent of papers in the ten surveyed journals were at least partly written by authors based in developing nations, while some editorial boards consisted entirely of Northern representatives, according to a study presented at the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes in Bonn, Germany, last week (23-26 June).

While the concentration of funding and journal offices in the developed world may be partly responsible for the bleak findings, the results paint a “worrying environment of exclusion”, said Sarah Cummings, an information and knowledge development consultant based in the Netherlands, who authored the study.

“The problem is that, without representation in the research community, developing countries become the object of research and not participants in it,” she told SciDev.Net.

The study analysed three years-worth of articles across ten journals identified as influential by development scholars Andrew Sumner and Michael Tribe, such as World Development, The Journal of Development Studies and Third World Quarterly.

“Without representation in the research community, developing countries become the object of research and not participants in it.”

Sarah Cummings

Using the Web of Knowledge, an academic citation indexing and search service, it found that only 14.5 per cent of the 1,894 articles were authored or coauthored by researchers based in developing countries — a figure that drops to less than six per cent for one of the journals.

Editorial boards are even less representative, with the University of London, United Kingdom, alone accounting for one in ten of the 300 board members across all the journals, it finds. Only seven per cent of board members came from Southern institutions, it says.

Women were also underrepresented on most of the ten journals’ editorial boards, with less than 30 per cent — and as low as 8 per cent — of the boards being women.  

This small proportion was dominated by emerging nations such as China and India, leaving only three countries with a low Human Development Index score — Bangladesh, Uganda and Zimbabwe — with representation.

Although some journals with poor diversity on their review board had a corresponding lack of authors from the developing world, the results overall did not indicate a correlation, the study says.

Cummings said that limited access to academic literature due to high journal fees may also inhibit developing-world researchers from producing work to the necessary standard for publication in top journals.

So far, questions of fairness in development studies have tended to focus on how research is conducted, she said.

But now the academic community needs to expand the debate to the publication process and explore how traditional measures of quality can be balanced against giving the developing world a greater hand in knowledge generation, she added.

The results are “shocking”, said Alan Stanley, a climate change expert at the Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom, even though they are “totally unsurprising”.

A lack of capacity in many developing nations to produce work to the standards needed for publication certainly plays a role, but the close links between editorial boards and elite Northern institutions makes it even harder to gain visibility, he told SciDev.Net.

But he also questioned whether publishing in high-impact journals is important for development, saying that researchers who focus on practical concerns rather than the academic rigour needed for publication have the potential to have a far greater impact in development.

“The real question is how you get context-dependent, policy-relevant research to those people that need it to make good decisions,” he said. “An academic paper in a top journal is never going to be the best way of doing this.”

See below for a presentation based on the study: