Scholars from the Global South must be helped to make a splash

Editors need to grasp how much intelligence and bravery is needed to produce innovative ideas in certain contexts, says Alfredo González-Ruibal

October 28, 2021
Globe splashing water as a metaphor for Scholars from the Global South must be helped to make a splash
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Throughout my academic career as an archaeologist, I have reviewed an inordinate number of papers in the capacity of referee, editor and teacher. And I have discovered striking – though not surprising – differences between academic traditions.

There are many reasons for such differences, from how scholars are educated (even before university) to how hierarchical the academic environment is in which they are socialised. But we should not neglect the influence of the place scholars believe themselves to occupy in the global academic system.

Those writing from the main centres of epistemic power are more likely to write in a bolder, more assertive style. Those who come from peripheral traditions are more cautious in their expression and produce fewer lofty statements. They are insecure about whether they can contribute to larger debates. And editors and reviewers often undermine the little confidence they might have.

Differences in style start with the title of the paper: those with revolutionary, universal claims and no specific location are more common among scholars from English-speaking countries – and from the most prominent universities within those countries. Such articles are more likely to be read or cited. But while their claims are often justified, parochial research is at times presented as of international interest and well-worn ideas as breakthroughs. This also happens with handbooks and companions: chapters dealing with general themes often cover only literature – and even case studies – from anglophone countries.

This might have been more or less understandable three decades ago. Today, if an author writing a general synthesis on, say, gender archaeology or the emergence of early states fails to cite work produced by scholars from academically peripheral countries, it can only be blamed on academic chauvinism or intellectual laziness.

Indeed, the frequency of these traits is another important difference between authors from more and less advantaged countries. Scholars based at leading universities commonly make fewer citations and confine those they make mostly to work by colleagues and in their own language. Researchers from academically peripheral traditions tend to cite more prolifically, diversely and generously.

This is, of course, good. But it is often a result of insecurity and the unconscious internalisation of an inferior status within the system; I have seen it often among colleagues from Latin America. It is also more likely that such authors’ papers will be rejected for failing to cite somebody from a prominent North American university than vice versa.

Another difference between papers from core and peripheral academic systems has to do with content. Papers from the Global South tend to be more empirical, whereas papers from the Global North are often more theoretical and interpretive. This is related to local traditions – academically disadvantaged countries tend to favour positivism – but people from the periphery also know that they have more chances of publishing in a high-impact journal if they present data, rather than ideas.

This is because in the global economy of knowledge, ideas are produced in the North, data in the South. Of the 100 most-cited papers in the Journal of Roman Studies, for instance, only four are by authors outside northern Europe/North America, and two of those present raw data. It is extremely unlikely that ideas from outside the core academic powers would make it into this journal. And this is bad for Roman history.

Blame for these asymmetries should not be pinned on academically strong countries and universities alone. They ask their students to be bold, creative and critical, which often results in bold, creative and critical thinking. An overcompetitive environment that values innovation above all things might not be the most psychologically healthy one, and it may promote the cloaking of irrelevant science as novelty. But many academically disadvantaged countries are – or have been until recently – more authoritarian, traditional and hierarchical, expecting students to reproduce the insights of their teachers and permitting only very senior researchers to propose a large interpretive synthesis or advance new theories. This blunts original thinking.

How to break the deadlock? I would ask editors and reviewers from leading academic countries to understand how much intelligence and intellectual bravery is required to produce innovative ideas in certain contexts. I would ask them to support those scholars from academically peripheral countries who are trying to develop new thinking and to address an international readership. Focus on their message. Disregard their formal errors, bad writing or outdated references: this can all be improved with editorial assistance. And encourage them to be more assertive when there is good reason: this may start with a bolder, more attractive title.

As for those writing from academically leading countries and universities, I would ask them to revise their bibliographies, think about who they are including and excluding, and be aware that they are always writing from somewhere and about somewhere.

It is praiseworthy to recover forgotten scholars and authors from historically marginalised communities – the silenced voices of the past – as many academics are doing today. But it is even better to enter a dialogue with the silenced voices of the present.

Alfredo González-Ruibal is a staff scientist at the Institute of Heritage Sciences (INCIPIT-CSIC) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

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