REF demands militate against global academic equality

Roger Jeffery on the difficulties of achieving equity in authorship in multinational teams

January 23, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

One panel says that work eligible to be double-weighted should be single-authored, creating a clear incentive for UK authors to omit Southern colleagues on their more substantial outputs

UK social scientists who work with scholars from the global South are encouraged by the Department for International Development to include them as authors – ideally first authors – in any subsequent papers. But the focus of the research excellence framework on outputs attributable to UK individuals can seriously threaten attempts to be equitable in writing and allocating authorship, especially when the teams are multidisciplinary.

In recent projects, my colleagues and I have agreed a policy on multi-authored papers aimed at ensuring equity. One of its provisions is that the principal investigators involved do not have a right to be authors if they have not made significant contributions. Another is that all who have contributed to the research – including those who collected and managed data in the global South – are entitled to authorship. But following these guidelines is problematic, partly because of disparities in capacity to engage with the requirements of international peer-reviewed journals or book chapters and differing priorities for research careers.

Friction is often the result. In one example I know, a UK researcher relied on a local assistant for data collection in a Southern country. The first output (in a Southern open-access journal) was co-authored with the assistant, but the UK researcher then signed a solo contract for a book, which included the article as a chapter. Another UK researcher conceptualised a sub-project, trained local assistants and developed a guide for interviewing subjects. A Southern academic helped to train the assistants, but rarely answered emails and failed to discuss analysis and writing. The UK academic reluctantly included the Southern scholar as an author, but protested that this was inequitable. In a third case, a UK and two Southern researchers jointly drafted a paper whose publication was delayed. Meanwhile, one of the Southern researchers published a slightly edited version as a sole author in a local journal without telling either of the original co-authors.

Disciplinary variations in norms for articles and conference papers to be multi- or single-authored cut across these concerns and only add to the complexity. Then there is the REF. Publications from multidisciplinary, multinational projects are unlikely to be marked highly unless they are published in international peer-reviewed journals with few co-authors. Main Panel C (roughly covering the social sciences) says it welcomes multidisciplinary work and insists that the order of authors will not be taken into account “as conventions in this regard vary between subject areas”. But it adds that work eligible to be double-weighted should be single-authored, creating a clear incentive for UK authors to omit Southern colleagues on their more substantial outputs.

There is also the frequent problem of varying and temporary engagement with projects. Southern academics are often in very weak employment situations. Some move into consultancy work with donor agencies, commercial firms or international non-governmental organisations. Junior researchers may take up PhD studentships or leave academic work altogether. This results in a rapid turnover of staff, which makes the project more difficult to complete and also poses problems for maintaining the esprit de corps needed to define and see a collective output through to conclusion. This only adds to the likelihood that the UK researchers – who are typically the ones still engaged in producing outputs after the end of direct funding – take over the writing, which raises the number and quality of outputs but results in the exclusion of “sleeping” Southern partners.

The alternative is that quality gets sacrificed in the interests of collegiality. In reality, when the authorship guidelines stipulate that the paper should be authored or co-authored by the Southern academic, a UK researcher may delay or abandon it because Southern researchers often lack the cultural capital and familiarity with academic English to author papers to the standards of top international journals. The temptation for the UK academic is to prioritise other work where such complications do not arise.

Add post-colonial sensitivities into the mix and you have a truly complicated problem, to which there is probably no simple solution. But unless disciplinary bodies such as the British Sociological Association or the Development Studies Association make explicit what they would like to see happen, they may find an unholy cabal of journal editors and funding bodies making the decisions for them, with the former’s obsession with impact factors militating against the involvement of Southern authors and the latter’s capacity-building goals squeezing the UK researcher for publications. And unless scholars can resist the further arm-twisting the REF legitimises, collegiality, capacity-building and research ethics will continue to fall by the wayside.

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