In a recent column for Project Syndicate, renowned economist Dani Rodrik, wrote:

“Economics is currently going through a period of soul searching with respect to its gender and racial imbalances. Many new initiatives are underway in North America and Western Europe to address these problems. But geographic diversity remains largely absent from the discussion. Economics will not be a truly global discipline until we have addressed this deficit as well…”

Rodrik’s remark here: particularly on the “under-representation of voices in economics from the developing world” merits deeper reflection and introspection, not just say within the context of economics-economists, but for other social sciences too.

It is true to acknowledge how instrumental it was for scholars like Joseph Stiglitz to work in developing nations like Kenya, where he was “struck by various oddities in how its local economy operated”.

Stiglitz’s seminal theories on “asymmetric information”, for which he later won a Nobel was vital in shaping his ideas on the “economics of information”.

In a similar vein, Albert O Hirschman’s experience in Nigeria offered him useful insights which shaped his work in Exit, Voice and, Loyalty. Thomas Piketty has something similar to add about his experience of working/being in India-and his ideas on studying (and understanding) the multi-faceted nature of “inequality”.

One’s lived experience of having worked or spent time in a developing country surely matters. Travel, exposure and collaborative engagements are key in the complex process of “ideation”, knowledge creation, and also, in its subsequent dissemination. However, the underlying spatial politics of power – its asymmetric focus on those residing in the global North-significantly affects/shapes the politics of “knowledge dissemination” too.

I say this because having taught – and researched – in economics while exploring its interdisciplinary boundaries and applications for ten years, with three regular visiting roles and positions in universities across Canada, Cambodia and South Africa, my personal lived experience, has taught a few of us the instrumental value of “building networks”, as a way to bridge the gulf present for developing-country scholars in representing their work, while addressing the biases from the spatial politics of knowledge dissemination.

‘Network effects’

The “value” of creating such academic “network effects” goes beyond the credits of greater representation (or getting heard) as their vitality stretch to many other areas that shape the academic profile and qualifications of a scholar: in receiving academic fellowships, post-doctorate positions, opportunities for grant-based funding.

For a social scientist working in a developing country without the benefit of such “networks” or established contacts with scholars working in North America-Europe-Australia, the chances of having a body of original work – irrespective of the degree of its novelty – published in a journal (much celebrated within a discipline) is beyond difficult.

Worse, as pointed out recently, the degree of a hegemonic-homogeneity prevalent in the prescriptive use of a certain methodological design for “journal submissions” by editorial teams (and its reviewers-also from the Global North) is deeply entrenched in econ-centric journals. In a recent scenario, I discussed how difficult it has become for other experimental designs, or well-grounded “ethnographic-based” research studies to be accepted for review – and publication – in econ-journals.

As Rodrik adds:

“The leading economics journals are populated predominantly by authors based in a handful of rich countries. The gatekeepers of the profession are similarly drawn from academic and research institutions in those same countries. The absence of voices based in the rest of the world is not merely an inequity; it impoverishes the discipline.”

Source: Greenspon and Rodrik (2021)

In a recent paper, Jacob Greenspon and Dani Rodrik have tried to analyse the locational pattern of authorship in leading economics journals. They base their analysis on Fontana et al’s (2019) database, constructed using information from the ISI, Web of Science and JSTOR Digital Library.

Uneven geographic distribution

The database includes 3,22,279 articles, 2,15,203 unique authors, and more than ten thousand journals over the period 1985-2016. Fontana et al’s focus is on the geographical diffusion of frontier knowledge. They provide summary statistics of the geographical distribution of authorship for only the top-seven journals. And since they explore trends in forward citation counts, their analysis focuses on articles published until 2012 only.

They also do not present disaggregated country or regional information beyond the United States, Europe and the rest of the world. Greenspon and Rodrik are able to use their rich data set to generate additional results of interest, with a finer geographical and journal classification and longer (more recent) time coverage.

Source: Greenspon and Rodrik (2021)

The results shown in the figure above point to striking imbalances in the geographic distribution of authorship. Perhaps not surprisingly, developing country authors are greatly under-represented. But what is perhaps more surprising is that their under-representation in economic journals is out of proportion to the weight of their country or region in the global economy.

The share of developing country authors in top-10 journals is significantly lower than the share of their respective regions in global GDP – a discrepancy that is most marked for East Asia and South Asia.

While authors based in China have steadily increased their participation in top journals, their representation still falls far short of the country’s share in the world economy, by an order of magnitude (1.5% versus 16%).

Meanwhile, Western and Northern European authors have made substantial gains, despite the declining relative economic power of Europe. Hence there is only a poor correlation between changes in economic resources and access to top journals.

Financial constraints may not be necessarily the main factor that prevents geographical diversity. While the experience of Northern and Western Europe provides some encouragement, it seems also to be the case that once networks and hierarchies are established, it becomes difficult to break into them.

‘Ranking obsession’

Adding to this, in context to India, private universities, in an increasingly competitive and commodified education market space, are now desperately striving for better/higher “institutional rankings”, where a proliferated expectation to have “research publications in Scopus-like indexed journals” has become the standard norm.

Institutions are happy to design performance incentives (or give tenure to faculties) based on the publication record within these “indexed” spaces alone, which are administered by the rules of the game by those placed in the global North.

Higher educational institutions with greater publications, citations from “impact-factor” based journals surely have a better chance to do in these rankings (check QS World University Rankings or THE World University Rankings metrics for example), which have other metrics of evaluation too, but the performance in categories of “research”, “international reputation”, “grants” take precedence in determining the “credibility” of an institution and its scholars.

All of which, requires compulsive “network-building” with scholars and institutions of the global North as a tool to survive-and-thrive (not just for individual scholars but also for institutions located in the developing world).

The collateral damage of this compulsive “ranking obsession” and “metric fixation” – at least in the higher education landscape in India- can be observed for the lesser regard being put to the other essential functioning in an academic scholar’s life: the time and energy put towards “teaching”, “pedagogy”, “curriculum development”, “mentoring”, and in pursuing real collaborations – driven by a mutual appreciation for catering to a larger public good.

Disproportionate access

Yes, some “benchmarking” or moving towards a (quantified) vision to excel, developing robust research capacity is vital for an educational institution’s growth-evolution (more so for those in countries where national/state-funded endowments are limited).

Still, the personal and professional struggle involved for scholars – living/residing in developing nations – to publish in a certain category of journals, present at a certain group of workshops, be affiliated to a certain category of “institutions” that is part of an attempt to quantify, industrialise a formulaic approach to “academic success”, merits wider discussion and policy-focus. Such an approach, stemming from the asymmetric-spatial politics of power, is counterproductive for an organic promotion of creative, original work in/across social science, and in the process of its knowledge dissemination.

It is somewhere comforting to see scholars of “privileged access” like Dani Rodrik, Greenspon et al recognising some of these complex issues, to speak – and also do something about them in platforms such as the International Economics Association where scholars from outside North America and Europe are particularly encouraged to share-present their work.

Still, a lot more needs to be done to address the economics’ – and social sciences’ – problems of geographical diversity rooted in the “spatial politics of power” in academia.

Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University.