‘These Phantom Researchers’ : What of their visibility in academic publications ?

‘These Phantom Researchers’: What of their visibility in academic publications ?

September 18th 2019
By Bienvenu Mukungilwa

Translation by Sara Weschler


The author, Bienvenu Mukungilwa 

Many studies in Africa are conducted by researchers from the Global North working with research assistants based in the regions that form the focus of the research. Nevertheless, when one checks the names of the authors of the academic works that come out of these studies, the names of the research assistants are rarely anywhere to be found – and all the less so, when such academic work is oriented toward an international audience. Indeed, the conditions the academic community sets for recognition as an author or co-author are not very likely to facilitate the visibility of research assistants. As a result, these assistants are like little ghosts in the research machine: they are there, but nobody sees them. This causes the work of researchers from the Global South to go unvalued. Their work gets less consideration, and they themselves end up getting less recognition. All this forms an obstacle to their visibility and, more importantly, their career advancement. But beyond all that, one might ask why local researchers so rarely appear in academic publications despite their significant contributions in the production of knowledge.


The reasons for this invisibility are manifold. First of all, as already discussed in other blog posts in the Bukavu Series, the academic world is marked by enormous power imbalances. A North-South divide can be observed in the domains of both teaching and research. The bulk of funding for research comes from the Global North. It is there that the participants and terms of participation for a study are decided upon. Thus, to be a co-author, one must satisfy a series of conditions. For example, at Sherbrooke University in Quebec,[1] to be considered an author, one must make significant contributions to a study during at least two of the three following stages: “i) design and implementation of a project plan; ii) data collection; and iii) Analysis and interpretation of results.” Not only are these conditions set by the academic community of the Global North, they also correspond only to Northern realities. As a result, research assistants often find themselves unable to fulfill them. It should be noted that two of these three stages – that is, the first and third – generally take place in the North and research assistants are rarely involved in them. Research assistants only participate in data collection, a stage of the research process that many perceive as a purely technical phase, without considering all the contextual complexity that it can entail. All of this leads to the work of local researchers being underappreciated, reducing the researchers themselves to mere field agents.

And even if there were some sort of opening for them to be involved, it is not necessarily obvious to research assistants how to participate in the analysis and writing stages of a study. Many of these researchers face challenges that put them at a disadvantage in this area. To begin with, there is the problem of access to literature. Local researchers lack access to adequately stocked libraries or online publications, which tend to require payment. Then also, they are often in a daily battle for survival, and publications are not remunerated. In addition, they may be a plus on a researcher’s CV, but often during the allocation of positions these receive little consideration.

In light of the above, it is clear that so long as the role of research assistants remains limited to the data collection stage of projects, their visibility – and therefore, their career advancement – will never be assured. In addition, it should also be noted that failing to include research assistants in the publication phase of a study constitutes a lost opportunity on several levels. For researchers themselves, it is a loss in terms of their input, their visibility, and the acknowledgement of their value. It is also a loss in terms of learning and networking possibilities. For the research project, it is a loss in terms of the intersection of various points of view. By ignoring a key actor who knows the data better than anybody, one ends up missing out on valuable insights and original analytical perspectives. Research assistants ought to avail themselves of other means of publication, such as blog posts or briefs, which are at any rate gaining ground and attracting increasingly large numbers of readers. Less demanding and restrictive than classical publications such as journal articles and monographs, these new forms of writing may constitute a gateway for research assistants to make themselves visible and thus make their work known to the world.

[1] Être ou ne pas être auteure, auteur de publications scientifiques (articles, livres, communications, affiches…) : https: www.usherbrooke.ca/ssf/…/je-dirige-PI-depliant-auteur-2014-V-WEB.pdf


Bienvenu Mukungilwa is a research assistant at the CERUKI (ISP, Bukavu) and researcher at GEC-SH


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