We Barely Know These Researchers from the South! Reflections on Problematic Assumptions about Local Research Collaborators
translated by Mary Bradley
Numerous assumptions influence the way in which research assistants from the Global South are involved in the knowledge production cycle. These assumptions, consciously or unconsciously developed by researchers who are most often from Global North, frame the way in which collaborators are treated. They reinforce the exclusion and invisibility of the local researchers in the knowledge production process by delegitimising the right to co-ownership of the knowledge produced in the collaboration process. I argue that the way in which we define others in the research process determines how we treat, think about, and pay them, and envision their rights. Calling into question our assumptions of others is the first step toward change.
My conversation with one of our research assistants was revealing. She came into my office one day and said, “What do you [managers of projects and research centres] think of us? Do you have a real plan for our development? Personally, I’d like to continue my education. I wonder whether you take up such concerns in your meetings in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere with the research partners … Since I’ve noticed that you don’t often talk about it, I thought I should ask you not to forget to plead in our favour and look for study grant opportunities for us.” Based on the thoughts she shared with me – and on the numerous contributions in the Bukavu Series – I’d like to reflect on three main assumptions that are circulating concerning research assistants and collaborators from the South.
According to a first assumption, research assistants are only interested in money. Not only is this assumption false. It adopts a simplistic and reductionist understanding of what research assistants actually aspire to. Certainly, income is necessary and provides compensation for the work. But to reduce research assistants’ motivation for seeking employment to the money they earn reveals a misunderstanding of their true ambitions. My discussion with our assistant, as with many others, illustrates how to conceive participating in research projects as an opportunity to move ahead in life. Research represents an opportunity to build or extend their networks; enhance their legitimacy in their field of interest; and improve their capacities in their profession. As a result, the money they earn, which in fact often arrives sporadically, is – for many of them – not the ultimate reason for collaboration. They, like many senior researchers, are driven by their passion and career ambitions.
A second assumption: research assistants aren’t sufficiently proficient in academic writing. This is often raised by senior researchers to justify why they don’t involve their collaborators and research assistants in co-authoring. However, even if this may be true to a certain extent, collaborative research should consider all stages of the research process essential. And research assistants often do participate in several stages of the research process: preparatory workshops, designing data collection tools, contacting and mobilising actors in the field, gathering data, producing research reports, and – sometimes – sending additional information after the work is completed. One specific stage of the process – writing the publication – should not stand above all others. All roles in the academic process should be considered complementary. The assistant shouldn’t be considered a liability in the knowledge production process.
In fact, a collaborative scientific process could be oriented toward strengthening the skills of each person. As the research assistant helps the senior researcher access the research field, the senior researcher could, in return, invest in supporting the research assistant’s writing skills. Indeed, writing skills improve through a learning trajectory, through a process of trial and error, which applies to both the North and the South. We aren’t born excellent writers, we become them.
A third assumption supposes that research assistants don’t need to publish – and that, in fact, their participation in publications could even place them in danger. Taking such assumption as a starting point implies that the decision is made for them, without giving them the right to speak for themselves about their ambitions, interests, and needs. In this way, senior researchers risk instrumentalising collaborative research processes – including collaborator talent – merely to extract information, thereby ignoring the opportunity for exchanging information and mentoring.
Involving research assistants in the full research cycle isn’t only a process that can help them improve their capacities. It’s a matter of fairness and acknowledgement of their role in the research cycle. Being able to contribute to the publication phase allows assistants, like senior researchers, to gain visibility, enhance their professional legitimacy, and improve their professional profile. And as for the idea that participating in publications places research assistants in unsafe conditions: many of them contradict this. As one of our research assistants in Bukavu said, “Publishing improves our security and reduces the suspicions that our research profession raises in the community, particularly for us who work in environments characterised by a long history of conflict.” Publishing opens up new opportunities for researchers. Being acknowledged in a publication can result in requests from media and NGOs to talk about their research; or in invitations to new collaborations. For example, one of our collaborators in northern Uganda saw his salary increase after co-publishing a blog in 2018 concerning the questionable treatment of research collaborators by senior researchers.
Despite these arguments, some senior researchers remain reluctant to co-author with their assistants and collaborators. They claim that collective publications don’t allow for evaluating individual contributions and assessing researchers’ autonomy in academic writing. Such an argument is possibly not entirely irrelevant, particularly in a highly problematic knowledge production system that tends to reinforce individualism. Indeed, overall, it’s clear that there are still major power imbalances and counterproductive rationales within the academic enterprise. Because of unfounded assumptions, the work of research assistants in the production of knowledge often remains entirely invisible. It’s time to revolt against a system of individual production that has long held researchers hostage. What ultimately matters – beyond the praise attributed to individual researchers – is what we collectively contribute in order to change our societies in a positive way.
Dr Emery Mudinga is Professor at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural (ISDR-Bukavu)) and Director of the Angaza Institute