A researcher’s publication record is often considered a measure of their influence in the field and can be crucial for their career progression.
The pressure on researchers to publish high-quality work is so great that it has spawned the phrase “publish or perish”. However, the playing field of scientific publishing is highly unequal and it can be disproportionately challenging for certain groups of people — including women and researchers from the global south — to succeed in this system.
A recent analysis entitled “The Reuters Hot List” ranked the 1,000 “most influential” climate scientists — largely based on their publication record and social media engagement. Scientists from the global south are vastly under-represented in the list, with, for example, only five African scientists included. Meanwhile, only 122 of the 1,000 authors are female.
Biases in authorship make it likely that the existing bank of knowledge around climate change and its impacts is skewed towards the interests of male authors from the global north. This can create blind spots around the needs of some of the most vulnerable people to climate change, particularly women and communities in the global south.
Carbon Brief has analysed the gender and “country of affiliation” of the authors of 100 highly cited climate science papers from the past five years — mapped below — to reveal geographic and gender biases.
The analysis highlights the wide gap in publishing success between the global north and the global south. Less than 1 per cent of authors in the sample are based in Africa, while almost three-quarters are affiliated with European or North American institutions.
Furthermore, the analysis highlights the gender disparity within climate-science publishing. It finds that fewer than one-quarter of the authors are female, while only 12 out of the 100 papers analysed have female lead authors.
Carbon Brief has also spoken to a diverse range of academics about the barriers they have faced in their academic careers, the reasons for the lack of diversity in publishing, and their suggestions on how to “decolonise” academia.
The north-south divide
For this analysis, Carbon Brief recorded the gender and country of affiliation for every author from the 100 most highly cited climate science papers of 2016-20, based on Google scholar metrics data. More than 1,300 authors are included in this analysis. (The methodology is described in full later in the article, with a link to the data.)
The chart below shows the institutional affiliations of all authors in this analysis, broken down by continent — Europe (dark blue), North America (light blue), Oceania (yellow), Asia (red), South America (orange) and Africa (purple).
The analysis shows that nine out of every 10 authors are affiliated with institutions from the global north — defined as North America, Europe and Oceania. Meanwhile, the entire continent of Africa, which is home to around 16 per cent of the world’s population, comprises less than 1 per cent of authors in this analysis.
Further data analysis shows that there are also inequalities within continents. The map below shows the percentage of authors from each country in the analysis, where dark blue indicates a higher percentage. Countries that are not represented by any authors in the analysis are shown in white.
The top-ranking countries on this map are the US, Australia and the UK, which together account for more than half of all authors in this analysis (approximately 30 per cent , 15 per cent and 10 per cent , respectively). Furthermore, nine out of every 10 papers in this analysis include at least one researcher from the UK, the US or Australia.
However, one of the most striking takeaways from this map is the number of countries from Africa and Asia that are not represented in this analysis at all (shown in white). In Africa, a continent with more than 50 countries, only 10 authors are represented in this analysis — eight of whom are from South Africa.
Dr Bellita Chitsamatanga is a researcher at Fort Hare University in South Africa and a postdoctoral fellow of the UNESCO “Oliver Tambo” Chair of Human Rights. She tells Carbon Brief that the high volume of research from South Africa is due to a combination of factors that make the system more “friendly” for academics — such as the country’s “pay to publish” system, whereby academics are offered cash rewards for publishing in top-tier journals.
Furthermore, in South Africa, researchers are “expected to publish in high-impact, accredited journals”, while many other African countries focus on publishing in any journal, regardless of its prestige, Chitsamatanga says.
Meanwhile, almost half of all researchers from the global south are from China — which accounts for around 6 per cent of all researchers in the analysis. In recent years, China has been pouring the equivalent of billions of US dollars into scientific research and, until recently, would pay researchers bonuses for publishing research in “top-tier” papers, in a similar way to the South African system.
According to one study, China is now rivalling the US in “Earth and environmental sciences research in Nature portfolio journals”. However, this is not representative of academic publishing in many other Asian countries —most of whom are not represented at all in the analysis. After China, which has 67 authors, the next highest Asian country in terms of authorship from this analysis is Japan, with 8 authors.
Dr Quan-Hoang Vuong — a researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Social Research in Phenikaa University in Vietnam — tells Carbon Brief that he is “not surprised” that no Vietnamese authors are represented in this study of highly cited climate papers. However, he finds it “unfortunate”, and adds: “Vietnam is one of the countries that have been facing severe consequences of climate change. I feel that we have many things to share and we should be able to contribute more.
Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of all European countries are included in the analysis. While the UK has the highest proportion of authors in Europe, countries including the Netherlands and Germany also have notable representation.
The trends highlighted above are even more pronounced when looking at the lead authors (first listed authors) on the papers. The plot below shows the number of lead authors from each continent — Europe (dark blue), North America (light blue), Oceania (yellow), Asia (red), South America (orange) and Africa (purple) — out of 100 papers in total.
No papers in this analysis are led by a researcher from either Africa or South America. Furthermore, only seven papers are led by Asian authors — five of whom are from China.
Dr Tuyeni Mwampamba is a research professor at the Institute of Ecosystems and Sustainability Research in Mexico, where she specialises in charcoal research. She has been living and working in Mexico for over 10 years, but did her undergraduate degree and PhD in the US. Between her undergraduate and PhD degrees, she spent four years working in her home country of Tanzania.
She tells Carbon Brief that while most of the results are “completely expected”, she finds the total lack of lead authors from Africa and South America “really shocking and sad”.
Barriers to publishing in the global south
There are multiple barriers to conducting research in developing countries — where funding is often low, English may not be an official language, and collaborations with richer nations are generally built on an unequal power dynamic.
Conducting scientific research is expensive — and, arguably, the most obvious issue with running climate studies from countries in the global south is the lack of funding. While the US dedicates more than 2.5 per cent of its annual GDP to “research and development”, no country in sub-saharan Africa — even the comparably rich South Africa —spends more than 1 per cent.
This funding discrepancy means that the bulk of research concerning developing countries is often not performed by local scientists, but instead by groups from the global north. One study found that European and North American institutions received 78 per cent of all funding for climate research regarding Africa over 1990-2020, while African institutions received only 14.5 per cent.
Dr Dolors Armenteras is a professor of landscape ecology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. She tells Carbon Brief that it is “really hard” to work with such limited funding, adding that it is also difficult for students, who “don’t have funds, don’t have grants and don’t have scholarships”.
Money is also needed for infrastructure. Climate-modelling studies require extensive computing power, which is often costly to build and maintain. The UK Met Office recently announced upgrades to its supercomputer, which it expects to be “the world’s most advanced dedicated to weather and climate” — made possible by £1.2bn of investment from the UK government.
Mwampamba tells Carbon Brief that “ground-breaking research” often needs a level of technical expertise and capacity that countries in the global south do not have: “Groundbreaking research is the research that tends to get funded. But groundbreaking research usually requires more savvy tools, different kinds of data, all types of equipment and abilities that might not exist in a study site in the global south. That creates a huge divide.”
One way for scientists from the global south to overcome issues of funding and technology is to collaborate with researchers from the global north. Academic collaborations between countries are becoming increasingly common. Over the period of 2000-13, the percentage of total publications across all disciplines, not just climate science, with authors from multiple countries rose from 13 per cent to 19 per cent.
Dr Lisa Schipper is a research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. She tells Carbon Brief that collaborations between the global north and south usually involve scientists from developed countries collecting data “because field staff is really cheap” and those from richer nations with computing power running the numbers.
However, this type of collaboration is often unequal. Dr Minal Pathak — a climate researcher at Ahmedabad University in India — tells Carbon Brief that providing data is rarely enough to get your name high up on the author list. She adds that the lead author is almost always a researcher from a richer country who uses the data to conduct analysis.
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