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African scholars concerned over biases in review processes

Ongoing concerns over geographical biases in the evaluation of scientific research that could be disadvantaging Africa scholars remain and suggest the need for ongoing and targeted efforts to address inequalities in knowledge production and publication.

A March 2021 study, ‘Meta-Research: Weak evidence of country- and institution-related status bias in the peer review of abstracts’, showed limited evidence that the geographical location and institutional affiliation of authors influence how scientific abstracts are evaluated by their peers.

However, the authors stated that, in real-world settings, abstracts might be rejected before being read – if reviewers perceived the author’s institution or country of origin to be of lower scientific status.

This might reduce the likelihood of these abstracts being cited. Furthermore, status bias may also exist in other forms of peer reviewing, including the evaluation of journal articles or grant applications.

“We want to emphasise that geographical biases should not be underestimated,” stated a November 2021 study, ‘The impact of geographical bias when judging scientific studies’, which highlighted the need for more studies to “evaluate the impact of geographical biases in the scientific world”.

The 2020 study, ‘The role of geographic bias in knowledge diffusion: A systematic review and narrative synthesis’, indicated the significance of drawing attention to the role geographical biases play in the process of knowledge diffusion, prejudice against low-income countries’ research as well as addressing inequalities in knowledge production and publication.

Determining bias is difficult

Professor Juma Shabani is a member of the international editorial advisory board of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa.

“It is difficult to affirm that there is a geographic bias in [the] evaluation of scientific research and citation of African authors and African countries, given that some universities, particularly from South Africa, Egypt and Kenya, occupy strong positions in world ranking schemes, which are mainly based on research published in peer-reviewed journals,” he told University World News.

“African countries should identify and analyse the factors underlying the success of these African universities to apply them to their [own] situations.

“These factors possibly include effective research policies, investment in research investments and human resource capacity-building,” Shabani added.

He is also the director of the doctoral school at the University of Burundi and the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa.

Countering unconscious bias

Dr Birgit Schreiber, the vice president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services told University World News: “As the editorial executive of the accredited Journal of Student Affairs in Africa, we seek to publish specifically from, for and about the African continent and focus on issues that concern emerging democracies and higher education within it, and thus accept double-blind peer-reviewed research explicitly with a focus on Africa.

“While there might always be unconscious bias, we have put in place measures that counteract any conscious and explicit bias,” added Schreiber, who is an associate member of the Higher Education Leadership and Management or HELM programme at the membership organisation Universities South Africa.

“One such measure is that at least two of the three members of the editorial executive need to concur with a decision to reject a submission of a manuscript before it is peer-reviewed,” Schreiber pointed out.

“The second measure is that manuscripts are anonymised and double-blind reviewed, promoting unbiased reviewing,” said Schreiber, who is also a member of the Africa Centre for Transregional Research at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany.

“The third measure is that we encouraged peer-reviewers to be encouraging of research that illuminates conditions from under-researched contexts and to be particularly focused on sources of literature and references that relate to the area of research, thus not only focusing on the author of the research but also on the references that are cited by him or her or them,” she said.

“Overall, it has been my experience that, indeed, African authors are sought and supported,” added Schreiber.

Concern over biased processes

On the other hand, Dr Violet Makuku, a quality-assurance specialist and the project officer for the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation Initiative at Ghana-based Association of African Universities, told University World News that geographical biases do exist.

“The biases are such that African scholarly work is not very good,” she said.

She said Africans have come up with inventions and scientific breakthroughs that the developed world is not always aware of.

Makuku is also a facilitator and workshops coordinator at the AAU with a focus including scientific writing, journal establishment and management-workshops.

Other experts also remain concerned over geographical biases.

Professor Goski Alabi, the president of the African Council for Distance Education, the chair of the International Network for Internationalisation of Education, and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Business Research, told University World News that biases contribute to keeping Africa and other weaker economies out of the scholarship world.

“We need to recognise that who dominates and projects the science of the world, leads and controls the world,” Alabi emphasised.

Teboho Moja, a professor of higher education at New York University and an extraordinary professor at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, and Fabrice Jaumont, an international education expert and a research fellow at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, in a joint message to University World News, echoed some of the concerns of Makuku and Alabi.

“The fact that this geographic bias in academic research assessment is still occurring on a large scale is, in itself, an indicator of the struggles with unequal power relations between the North and South as far as knowledge production is concerned,” they said.

Studies have indicated that there is more cited work of African scholars’ work if they publish jointly with a scholar from the northern hemisphere,” they added.

Moja is the founder member of the accredited Journal of Student Affairs in Africa and serves on advisory boards of various journals internationally. Fabrice Jaumont serves on the editorial board of NORRAG, or the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training, and is the author of several books, including Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa.

The impact of geographic bias

Makuku said geographical biases have a negative impact on academic endeavours.

“African universities are then perceived as unable and that they do inferior research work that is not really helpful to the world, yet a lot of meaningful research is also going on,” she said.

Alabi added: “The evidence of the impact of geographic bias in ranking on African universities is clear. How many African universities are listed in the top 1,000 universities in the world?

“There are only a handful of African universities located in a few African countries out of 1,225 officially recognised higher-education institutions in 54 countries on the continent,” she pointed out.

“Africa does not seem to have powerful and deliberate strategies to mitigate the deepening effects of the calculated geographic bias of ranking through research impact,” Alabi said.

Tackling geographic bias

Moja and Jaumont said there is a need for anti-bias fairness measures in peer reviewing and evaluation, including that non-African based scholars should not judge research studies in Africa.

According to Alabi, geographic bias in African research assessment and citations could be tackled by enhancing African journals’ research impact.

“They [African journals] must either enhance their research impact and value to find their way into indexed repositories like Scopus, ScienceDirect and Web of Science or create a strong, high research quality publication presence through repositories like the African Journals OnLine, which requires aggressive capacity-building,” she said.

Expanding further, Makuku encouraged African universities to also have their own robust ranking systems to encourage the growth and positioning of African universities well in the global village.

“There should be the home-grown African higher education and research versions of the Scopus, Google Scholar and ResearchGate,” Makuku said.


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