Conversations on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in scholarly publishing vary between the Global North and the Global South. While race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability often dominate DEI discourses in the North, for example, the South spends time on gender equality and early career researchers, skipping other issues as not relevant or uncomfortable. But when we see the scholarly publishing of the world as a single system — by looking beyond our individual countries or regions — ensuring sufficient geographical representation becomes a crucial DEI challenge.
While focusing on authorship, many publishers expressed their commitment to geographical inclusion by making their diversity and inclusion policies public, while some launched new open access (OA) journals to support a specific region. Offering discounts and waivers on article processing charges (APCs) is probably the most widely-practiced geographical inclusion policy adopted by many large and smaller publishers, as well as OA megajournals.
By analyzing the editorial boards of 525 journals, the authors of a recent Learned Publishing article showed that the editors in chief often choose board members from their own geographical regions. This is, however, not true for the newly launched PLOS Climate, which has 99 strong editorial board members representing 38 countries from all major regions. Editorial boards of established journals are increasingly becoming diverse, as seen in different disciplines (e.g., biological sciences, chemistry, agriculture, and scholarly publishing).
As a part of DEI conversations, scholarly publishing events organized by the North often discuss the Global South, how research data defines development there, and how to create a level playing field for the South in an increasing OA world, for example. Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an unprecedented rise of virtual events, positively affecting geographical inclusion. Many from the South could join these sessions — as long as their society membership and registration fees permitted — which were not possible in pre-COVID-19 times due to high travel costs. In addition to such events, the Coalition for Diversity & Inclusion in Scholarly Communications (C4DISC) and the DEI committees of publishing societies (e.g., the Society for Scholarly Publishing) are also playing an important role by keeping the DEI conversation going, spreading best practices, and making a positive impact on the stakeholders through sensitization and advocacy.
The above examples show how the Global North (which is currently leading the scholarly publishing industry) is creating an enabling environment so that the South (which presently is lagging behind in academic publishing) could be a more effective part of the global scholarly system. In almost all cases, the inclusion is achieved by attracting individuals from the South, as authors or editorial board members of the Northern journals, as members of societies’ committees, or as presenters or panelists at global conferences or webinars. But this is not the whole picture of geographical inclusion. I see three other dimensions within it.
First, to achieve the geographical inclusion outlined above, publishers and societies are investing in their DEI strategies, undertaking DEI promotion projects, allocating funds and human resources (e.g., Elsevier supporting Research4Life), and sacrificing profits (e.g., by waiving APCs), for example. But how do such investments reach beyond the participating individuals from the South? Are these individuals translating their acquired skills, experiences, and exposures in their home countries? Are they making any impact there? How do we determine if such impacts are being made?
Let me share a story from my country. I have seen the scholarly leadership of Bangladesh, who have extensive exposure to global scholarly communication, publicly encourage young Bangladeshi researchers to publish ‘only’ in ‘international’ journals. In recent years, this notion has gained strength, since the global university ranking systems consider only those journals indexed by internationally reputed agencies, like Scopus. Although many of these senior Bangladeshi scientists also strongly criticize Bangladeshi journals for their low editorial standards, they have made no effort to raise the standards of these ‘national’ journals to internationally accepted levels. The BanglaJOL, a platform now hosting 154 Bangladeshi journals, represents a disappointing case in this regard. The Bangladesh Academy of Sciences (BAS) — a prestigious organization currently having about 70 eminent scientists as fellows — has been managing the BanglaJOL since 2014. In 2017, the Oxford-based charity INASP, the founder of the BanglaJOL, developed the ‘Journal Publishing Practices and Standards’ (JPPS) to rank Southern journals according to their quality. But, BAS’s own 45-year-old journal has yet to achieve the minimum level of the JPPS, let along supporting the quality improvement of 150 odd journals on the platform. Global exposure motivates Bangladesh’s research leadership to embrace ‘international’ journals, while the country’s academic publishing continues to fall behind.
Scholarly publishers, and concerned societies, networks, and consortia promoting geographical inclusion, therefore, need to look into whether their efforts are positively affecting the Southern scholarly publishing system. Northern journals, for example, need to trace if the Southern scholars who serve on their editorial boards are acting as ‘champions’ by improving the quality of editorial processes of their respective countries’ journals and contributing positively to transforming the whole publishing ecosystem.
Second, besides being a business opportunity or potential client, the South has also been attracting the North from a DEI point of view. Making journal readership inclusive, for example, has long been a challenge, which still continues since majority of the academic journals are still subscription-based or hybrid (offering both subscription and OA options). Established in 2002, Research4Life still remains relevant, effective, and impactful to the hundreds and thousands of Southern researchers by giving them access to 132,000 journals — as a user review revealed earlier this year.
When INASP was established in 1992 by a global consortium, with the full name ‘International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications’, it focused on meeting the demands of the Global South for availability and accessibility of published research. Six years later, it started focusing on increasing the visibility of Southern journals through the Journals Online (JOLs) initiative — a different type of inclusion making the Southern research part of global knowledge. Its AuthorAID Network has been building the capacity of Southern researchers since 2007, through e-resources, mentorship, MOOCs, and online journal clubs. [Disclosure: I have been associated with INASP since 2008 through its BanglaJOL and AuthorAID, and since 2020 as an Associate]. Since 2020, INASP has more strongly been working towards an equitable knowledge ecosystem, with its partners in the South and the North taking ‘influencing’ and ‘gender and diversity’ as two of its core approaches. In July 2021, INASP’s Board of Trustees shifted to the South by appointing a new chair and three new members from the Global South. On 27 August, the organization declared it would make itself more Southern-led by implementing an organizational restructuring over the next few months. These developments show how the concept of geographical inclusion has evolved within an organization working with the Global South’s scholarly system for the last 30 years, long before DEI became a well-recognized concept.
For the third dimension in geographical inclusion, we need to look into South-South cooperation. The simplest area of such collaboration is capacity development, where experts from one Southern country voluntarily support the scholarly communications initiatives of another country. Given the North’s dominance in scholarly publishing, sometimes there is a need to contextualize certain scholarly practices for the South. Earlier this year, four African organizations organized a series of peer-review workshops with African researchers to explore the opportunities for open, equitable, and inclusive practices in research evaluation reflecting the African context. Southern journals publishing Southern articles from beyond the publisher’s country is another example of South-South cooperation. For instance, about 64 percent of the articles Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy (BJPT) published in the last five years were by non-Bangladeshi authors, mostly from the Global South. Since the Government of Bangladesh fully funds the publication of the JCR-indexed BJPT, it is therefore a remarkable example of how public funding by a Southern country is helping other Southern researchers in communicating their research for free. Such aspect of geographical inclusion is overlooked in the DEI discussions.
Geographical inclusion in scholarly publishing shouldn’t only mean how the Global North is bringing the Global South closer. It should also mean how the best practices from the North are contextualized in the South to improve its publishing system, how the South is changing the North, and how the Southern countries are helping each other. Without appreciating these aspects, true ‘inclusion’ won’t be realized in scholarly publishing.