How international scientific collaborators sideline African researchers

Scientists from sub-Saharan Africa writing research papers on health in their own countries are often not named first or senior author, finds a study

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 22 October 2019
African researchers sidelined. Photo: Getty Images

African researchers are less recognised for their studies on global health, when they work in partnership with the international scientific community, according to a study.

While international collaborations are crucial for global health research, researchers from the sub-Saharan Africa writing scientific papers on health in their own countries are often not named first or senior author, according to the study published in the BMJ Global Health.  

Scarcity of researchers, laboratory facilities, funding and infrastructure are some of the reasons why the local researchers partner scientists working in top international universities, it showed. 

“These disparities make local collaborators vulnerable to intense power dynamics and puts them at risk for oversight in the hierarchy of authorship,” found a team of researchers led by Bethany Hedt-Gauthier, associate professor of global health and social medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

Moreover, “this dynamic incentivises researchers from high-profile universities to push for first and senior authorship in order to advance their careers,” Hedt-Gauthier said.

For the study, the team analysed 7,100 articles published on health in sub-Saharan Africa from 2014-2016. Of these, 68 per cent included collaborators from the United States, Canada, Europe and/or another African country.

The overall representation of local authors on papers was higher than earlier reported.

Yet, more than half (54 per cent) of all 43,429 authors and 53 per cent of 7,100 first authors were from the country of the study’s focus.

The local authors were least represented, if the collaborators were from the US, Canada, or Europe. The lowest representation was from top US universities — 41 per cent of all authors and 23 per cent of first authors were from the country of the paper’s focus, the study showed.

On the other hand, collaborations from another African country had the highest local author representation — nearly 14 per cent of all papers had no local co-authors.

An editorial published in the journal Lancet Global Health had, last year, condemned such researchers who overlook the work of local scientists. 

“We look extremely unfavourably on papers submitted by authors who have done primary research in another country (particularly a low-income or middle-income country) but not included any author from that nation,” read the editorial.

While there is a need to change the power dynamics in research collaborations, researchers from low-resource countries should collaborating more with one another to maintain visibility on the work they produce, the new study suggested.

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