Climate researchers from the global south struggle to make their voices heard

Academics from some of the regions most affected by the climate crisis are having a difficult time getting their papers published, as seen in a new study by the website Carbon Brief. Of the 1,000 “most influential” climate scientists, less than 1% were based in Africa, and three-quarters are affiliated institutions in the northern hemisphere. 

Image credit: Flickr / NASA

The researchers looked at the backgrounds of about 1,000 authors ranked by Reuters as most influential based on their publication record and social media engagement. They analyzed the gender and the country of affiliation of the authors to reveal geographic and gender biases — and they found a lot of biases.

Nine out of every 10 authors were found to be affiliated with institutions from North America, Europe, and Oceania, while the entire continent of Africa contains less than 1% of the authors in the analysis (Africa has 15% of the global population). The main countries represented were the English-speaking US, Australia, and the UK, accounting for more than half of the authors in the study. 

Almost half of the researchers from the global south are from China, which accounts for 6% of all researchers. This is explained by the Chinese government spending billions every year on scientific research and paying researchers bonuses for publishing in leading journals, something that’s also happening in South Africa, according to Carbon Brief. 

After China, the next highest Asian country in authorship in the analysis was Japan. Almost two-thirds of all European countries are included, with the UK having the highest proportion of authors in Europe.  Meanwhile, there were no papers led by a researcher from Africa or South America and only seven led by Asian authors.

As well as a north-south gap, the researchers at Carbon Brief found a gender bias, with only 22% of female authors. They also account for less than half of the total authors in all continents analyzed in the study. This becomes more evident when focusing on lead authors, with women making up for just 12 of the 100 lead authors in the analysis. 

“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,” Ayesha Tandon from Carbon Brief wrote. 

Barriers to overcome

The researchers from Carbon Brief argued that there are many barriers in place that explain these numbers. First, there’s funding. Doing research is expensive, which means a lot of the research regarding developing countries is actually done by groups from the global north. Money is also needed for infrastructure, as doing climate models requires computing power. 

Once the research is done, there are other problems ahead. Writing and publishing papers is arduous, highly competitive, and can take years. Academics have to choose a journal and submit a manuscript to the editors, who can reject it or send it to be peer-reviewed. This can mean several rounds of editing before the paper is finally published.  

The language can still act as a big barrier for researchers from the global south. When doing the introduction to a paper, researchers have to do an extensive review of the literature and explain how their research builds on this. A lack of access or understanding of English language papers, which account for most scientific literature, can make things tricky. 

Looking ahead, Carbon Brief mentioned a comment piece published by Dolors Armenteras from Colombia, in which she goes through guidelines for “healthy global scientific collaborations.” Academics from the global north can collaborate with those from the global south in a constructive way by focusing on capacity building and collaborations, she argued. 

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