Geographical bias is a tiny piece of the publishing story

Dr Wagdy Sawahel’s article, “African scholars concerned over biases in review processes”, published in University World News earlier this year, needs critical analysis for three reasons.

One is that it opens up a discussion with implications for the contribution of African scholars to the global scientific literature.

A second reason is that it highlights the perspectives of some prominent African academics on the scanty contribution of African scholars to the global scientific repository.

And third, the article unfortunately only scratches the surface of the problems facing African scholars as it does not go deep enough to discuss the comprehensive set of factors that African scholars are facing in publishing their research works.

Consequently, the article sends the wrong signal to young, nascent African scholars that, regardless of their efforts, geographical bias will render their work unpublishable and invisible.

In the article Sawahel reports two distinctive studies that suggest that African scholars face geographical bias in getting their research works published in Western academic journals. From the article, geographical bias may be broadly referred to as the prejudice that Western academic journal reviewers exhibit toward scientific research works by scholars from low-income countries.

Framing geographical bias

This definition of geographical bias conforms to Professor Marta Kowal and colleagues’ article in Scientometrics journal published earlier this year.

In the article, the professors frame geographical bias as the prejudicial manner in which scientific works originating from economically less developed countries are perceived compared to those from economically developed countries.

This implies that a scholar’s geographical location is what matters most in contrast to their gender, race or ethnicity. This may be counterintuitive to those Africans I know who strongly believe that a scholar’s name or name bias is the greatest influencer in deciding whether the scholar’s work will be published.

Nonetheless, a few African higher education experts commented on geographical bias in Dr Sawahel’s article. Dr Violet Makuku, for instance, a quality assurance expert, was quoted saying: “The biases are such that African scholarly work is not very good.”

Professor Goski Alabi, president of the African Council for Distance Education, also adds: “We need to recognise that who dominates and projects the science of the world, leads and controls the world.”

Both Professor Alabi and Dr Makuku suggest that African higher education should have their own versions of Scopus, Google Scholar and ResearchGate.

As a measure to take against geographical bias, Dr Teboho Moja of New York University and Dr Fabrice Jaumont, an international education expert, suggest that non-Africa based scholars should not be allowed to judge scientific research studies originating from Africa.

This anti-bias measure presupposes that all scientific research works from Africa are progressive and contribute to the development of the continent. But practically this is not the case. For instance, I am an African, but not Africa-based. In my position as a journal reviewer I have, on some occasions, rejected scholarly submissions from Africa on several grounds but not on the basis of geographical location.

A different view

No doubt, geographical bias exists and can influence the manner in which scientific research works from Africa are evaluated by some Western academic journals. However, geographical bias may represent an unconscious bias, as Dr Birgit Schreiber, vice president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services, rightly suggests. It is judgment and behaviour that the perpetrators may not be aware of, let alone tag, as ethically wrong.

Having said that, it is unsettling to assume that all Western academic journals harbour geographical bias against African scholars. I would stand accused of enormous intellectual dishonesty if I subscribed to the belief that all academic journals are biased against scholars of African descent.

During the second year of my doctoral studies, two of my submissions to academic journals were rejected. I discussed the issue with my academic advisor who said it was normal and that I should pay careful attention to the reviewers’ comments and suggestions to learn the culture of academic publishing.

I did not give up on publishing or attribute my rejections to my racialised identity. On the contrary, I worked hard to learn the culture of advanced research skills and academic publishing. Little wonder that during those years I even served as a reviewer for three highly reputable academic journals.

As Dr Schreiber asserts, some academic journals seek and support diverse views on issues in order to enrich discussion. I have been invited by numerous journals to contribute articles to their special and ordinary editions. Many have sought me to serve as a reviewer.

Moreover, every journal follows an anonymised review process whereby the editor (or editorial committee in some cases) initially reviews a submission to see how it meets the goals of the journal and passes a plagiarism test.

After that, the submission is sent out to at least two reviewers without the names of and other identifying information about the author. The reviewers complete the review and send the manuscript back to the editor with comments or suggestions, along with a decision to accept it as it is, to make minor or major changes or to reject it outright.

The editor has the sole authority to make the decision to accept or reject the manuscript.

Comprehensive challenges

The belief among some African higher education experts that geographical bias is solely responsible for the rejection of African scholarly works is affected by their political views or ideological beliefs. It tells only a tiny fraction of the story.

Professor Feyisa Mulisa’s article titled “Challenges for African scholars in the globalisation era: Contexts speak” was published in the Journal of the Knowledge Economy in March 2020. It is an in-depth article that highlights a comprehensive catalogue of challenges that African scholars are facing in contributing to the global scientific enterprise.

These comprehensive factors include but are not limited to low economic status, a difficult socio-political context, a lack of academic freedom and advanced research skills, poor language skills, limited access to scientific resources, the absence of organised research centres and problematic self-efficacy.

Professor Mulisa concludes his article with suggestions on how to improve African scholars’ contribution to the global scientific repository via increased access to intellectual resources and citation indexes, continuous professional development, increasing research grants and advanced research skills training. He also suggests the need to organise local, national and international stakeholders’ forums to address those identified challenges.

Indigenous research methodology

Professor Mulisa makes a significant point that needs a special emphasis and restating. He states that African scholars always conform to Western theoretical frameworks and practices instead of pioneering indigenous research methodologies.

According to Professor Mulisa, this puts an undue and unnecessary pressure on African scholars who are dealing with African contextual phenomena to which Western theories may not be applicable.

What then are African indigenous research methodologies? African indigenous research methodologies are those driven by African worldviews, cultural values and a language associated with the indigenous group with whom the research is linked.

Data from personal reflections, lived experiences, storytelling, proverb and parable narratives and spirituality are some of the African indigenous research data collection forms.

Western-oriented scholarship may dismiss these research data collection forms as poetry and fiction rather than scientific in their orientation. Nonetheless, African scholars would save themselves much trouble by using the indigenous research paradigm rather than trying to mimic Western theoretical frameworks that, in many cases, do not fit their work.

It should be noted that, until recently, the vast majority of African universities were teaching-oriented. Now, most African universities are transitioning to research-based institutions. Consequently, some lecturers and professors will need help in making that transition a success.


Experienced African scholars should assist and mentor inexperienced researchers to get their scholarly works published. Mentoring aside, they should serve as peer reviewers, helping those scholars to learn advanced research skills, and improving their manuscripts through editing, restructuring of the contents and critical questioning.

I have been playing a pivotal role in assisting young African scholars to publish their works in academic journals. In addition, as a reviewer for multiple journals, I have been following the equity principle of making academic publishing accessible to scholars from low-income countries.

I assist in editing their research works, offering suggestions to enhance their research methodologies and providing them with additional intellectual resources to improve the quality of their literature review and the discussion section of their research articles.

If you are an experienced African scholar, instead of engaging in the overpoliticisation and oversimplification of the academic publishing process, you could do something positive to help young African scholars to master the culture of advanced academic research and publishing.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy expert based in Canada.