A study, published in BMJ Global Health identified African women as an untapped resource for academic editorials and essays, saying that female health researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) face “substantial” challenges in publishing in first or last author places.
Across African health research, papers by male researchers affiliated with institutions in SSA, comprised 61% of first authors and 65%, according to this study.
By comparison, African health research papers written by authors with affiliations in Europe or North America saw women in the majority of first-author positions, 60%, although male scientists dominated last author positions with 59%.
According to the study authors, further research is needed to fully understand obstacles preventing women in this region from publishing health research. However, it proved the need to focus on SSA women when measuring the effects of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity of authorship in academic journals.
Importance of Local Publishing Opportunities
While the study found that men dominated first and last authorship positions, it also showed that journals, based in SSA, showed a much higher proportion of women as first or last authors than journals based elsewhere. For example, the South Africa-based African Journal of Primary Health Care and Family Medicine has more than 50% of women from the region as first authors. Moreover, in sub-Saharan journals where women held a high proportion of first and last authorship positions, the editorial boards were usually overwhelmingly male.
This shows, according to the study’s authors, who hail from North America and Africa, those obstacles “the SSA women researchers face is not necessarily attributable to gender discrepancy in journals’ editorial leadership.” It also identified local African journals as an important outlet for female health researchers in Africa.
The authors said they were surprised to find that in academic articles about health research in SSA, women make up at least 20% of last authors in 25 of SSA countries. “For journal editors seeking editorials on various health research topics, this means that they can invite women in these countries to contribute editorials on issues involving health research, yet this is not happening,” said Erica Di Ruggiero, director at the Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto, Canada and one of the study authors. “We hope our findings will nudge journal editors at international journals and at local, Africa-based journals to turn to these women research leaders when seeking invited or commissioned single author papers such as editorials or essays on health research in sub-Saharan Africa,” she said.
Call for Transparency
Finding out about journals’ leadership makeup or editorial processes was also tricky, she said. “Given the enormous role journals and their editorial leaders play in holding back (or advancing) women in health research, we urge journals to share their own analyses of reviewer and author demographics openly. Currently, the lack of transparency around journal policies and leadership may be shielding journals from valid criticism.”