Local researchers often lost in the shadows in international projects

A new Harvard Medical School analysis shows that papers that present research on health conditions within sub-Saharan African countries in collaboration with wealthy or prestigious institutions or countries often fail to mention local researchers working on the same project, especially in prime positions such as first or senior author. The paper was published on October 18, 2019, in the journal BMJ Global Health.

Image Credit: WHO

The study and its findings

The current study looked at 7,100 papers published in the period 2014 to 2016 with health themes focused on sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers, who included scientists from five countries, found that more local researchers are named in the author credits currently, compared to earlier papers. On the other hand, the odds of an African scientist making it to first or senior author positions are drastically reduced if the research paper is carried out in collaboration with someone from a richer country or top US institution.

In the current study, almost 70% of the papers included authors from the US, Canada, Europe or another African country.

Collaboration patterns

Of all the papers studied, about 17% had authors from top US universities, 37% from US or Canada, 37% a European author, and 12% an African author from outside the research country. If non-overlapping categories are considered, the figures are 12% for collaborations with top US institutions, 13% from US or Canada only, but not from the first category, 24% from Europe only, and 20% from other African countries or other regions.

Among the 7100 papers, almost 55% of all authors, and 53% of first authors, were from the African country being studied. The figures were highest if African researchers from one or more countries collaborated on a local project.

Authorship patterns

The chances of local authorship reduced with affiliation with higher-ranking countries or institutions. This especially applies to collaborators from a top-notch US university. For these papers, only about 40% of authors in total, and only 23% of first authors, were local scientists. If any authors were from the US or Canada, from Europe, or from multiple locations, the chances of a local author being included fell to 47%, 43%, and 36% respectively. In about 14% of papers there were no local authors at all.

Publication patterns

Publication data also shows the same kind of bias, with 61% of the articles authored only by Africans appearing in African or low-impact journals, whereas articles by African authors alone make up less than 5% of the total in high-impact journals.

However, even when local African researchers were included, they were less likely to be well represented on the author panel if the above-mentioned countries were involved. This reduces their chances of being recognized socially and professionally despite the work they have put into the research carried out in their own places.

The problem

The question is, does this reflect on the inferior contribution of local scientists to research on health in their own settings? Are race, color, and economic power still ruling even within supposedly impartial scientific settings? Are white scientists more capable and skilled than their African counterparts when it comes to research? These questions come to the fore with such papers, especially when viewed against the background of several other similar papers that also look into how well research mirrors the diversity of conditions and the people involved in these studies, in terms of appropriate representation.

The paper presents explanations for the increased contribution of high-income authorship, such as the poor research infrastructure, scanty funding, and training facilities currently available in many African countries. As a result, there are fewer local researchers capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of a first author (writing the first draft of the paper) or senior author (supervising the work).

Other drawbacks for local researchers include their lack of representation on prominent editorial boards, low-level and shallow research collaboration networks, lack of resources required to lead extensive projects, and better academic credentials, as well as familiarity with accepted scientific presentation styles – though it is hard to see how writing in a style that is different from the commonly accepted one could reduce the credibility of a correctly written, readable, well-conceived and skillfully executed research paper.

Why is authorship important? One reason is that academicians require publications bearing their names in prominent authorial positions in peer-reviewed journals, especially when such works are cited by others, to qualify for promotion. This probably explains why first and senior authorship is more likely to be assigned to foreign scientists from premier research institutes. Researcher Bethany Hedt-Gauthier concludes, “This dynamic incentivizes researchers from high-profile universities to push for first and senior authorship in order to advance their careers.”

The way out

The involvement of international research institutions is crucial to the proper study of health situations in low-income countries, but brings in its wake inequity of authorship and snubbing of local researchers when it comes to assigning positions of power within the research team. To correct this situation, the current study recommends that international collaborators examine ways and means to shift the balance of power towards local researchers, to groom more local scientists to take up the role of enquiring into the health situations in their own countries and regions, and to help advance scientific discovery worldwide at a faster pace. Changing funding and grant policies to reflect the demand for local leadership and participation at authorial levels, training investments to groom future research leaders, and delegating important parts of the research to local collaborators to enable their authorship to be upgraded to prime positions, are all methods that can be used to ensure a more fair research collaboration pattern in low-income regions.

Other interim measures include initiating and encouraging collaborations between researchers within the same low-resource region in order to enhance the visibility of local research work, while scientists who are already part of high-profile institutions need to push for local collaborators to receive due recognition and credit for their key role in the research.

In a pungent comment, Hedt-Gauthier says, “Collaborative and authorship dynamics are influenced by centuries of history and decades of poor practice in global health research. Institutions must address the systems that reinforce these dynamics, and we as individual researchers must hold ourselves accountable for promoting equity in our collaborations.”

Journal reference:

Stuck in the middle: a systematic review of authorship in collaborative health research in Africa, 2014–2016. Bethany L Hedt-Gauthier, Herve Momo Jeufack, Nicholas H Neufeld, Atalay Alem, Sara Sauer, Jackline Odhiambo, Yap Boum, Miriam Shuchman, and Jimmy Volmink. BMJ Global Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2019-001853. https://gh.bmj.com/content/4/5/e001853