Decolonizing scholarly data and publishing infrastructures

I was recently invited to write a post for the LSE Citing Africa podcast/blog series and am reposting below the final version of the post that originally appeared here. I want to also point your attention to the fast approaching deadline for ASAA call for individual papers and panels (closes on May 30th and June 15th, respectively)! As I argue in the post, the choice of which conference to attend is in fact a demonstration of ethical orientation and politics. Whose scholarship and institutions are you building through your participation and payment of conference fees? (I would urge you to support the African Studies Association in Africa).


books and laptop research

Where and how is scholarly knowledge produced and circulated, and with what effects? We must be wary of the over-production and representation of work from particular geographies, as well as the relegation of other locales as sites of data collection.

Existing scholarly infrastructures continue to enable and in fact re-entrench what Paulin Hountondji called ‘extroverted scientific activity’, where researchers on the African continent investigate subjects which are of interest first and foremost to a Western audience. Hountondji argued that while academic work can meet the theoretical needs and questions of the Western academy, it does not serve the societies within which the science is conducted.

This paradigm is reinforced by a growing reliance on exposure in conferences and academic journals with high Impact Factors based in the global North. An original signatory of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, critical development scholar Leslie Chan noted that often ‘the implicit message is that research from the South has to mimic that from the North, even if it means abandoning research that would contribute to local well-being, while favouring research with international appeal’. This speaks to the motivations of my own research. I ask fundamental questions about how and to whom researchers are held accountable and what role scholarly work should play in today’s late industrial moment.

I have come to understand that working outside conventional structures requires additional commitment, time, labour and social capital. For example, Abena Busia describes the challenges faced when working on the monumental Women Writing Africa (WWA) project: despite the women involved principally wanting to broadcast African women’s voices throughout the continent, the project being hosted within the US-based Feminist Press distribution network meant it was more readily available to North American and European audiences. In order to redress this issue, the co-founders together with the Feminist Press had to purposefully pursue African regional partners, volume by volume, to publish and distribute the series on the continent.

Nanjala Nyabola faced similar challenges when seeking a public library in Nairobi to launch her recent book on Kenyan politics. She was eventually able to host the event at a branch of the Kenya National Libraries, but doing so required on her part additional labour and effort. In most cases, this additional labour is neither valued nor promoted within academic review systems, and so it falls onto the shoulders of the individual scholar. To move their work outside of well-established, normative systems of scholarly knowledge circulation, these scholars must go beyond what is expected, accounted for and credited, in an already demanding system.

That this ‘double burden’ (also described elsewhere as a ‘second shift’) falls on the same scholars who already have to do more to diffuse their work is revealing of the politics and dynamics of knowledge production on/from the continent. ‘We feel pressure to do it [data and research output sharing] differently but I worry that we will not be able to,’ a Kenyan researcher admitted to me in a discussion about how communities felt exploited by normative practices of research data collection.

The drive for some scholars to work outside of conventional structures is rooted in a desire to combat an unequal representation in academic knowledge production. One proposed solution has been to increase African-authored scholarship. But focusing on the symptoms of extroverted scientific infrastructures, rather than the systems themselves, carries a risk of tokenising individuals. For example, in response to critiques about the lack of representation from the global South in Information and Communication Technologies in Development (ICTD) work, I observed at the 2015 ICTD conference an increase in rates of co-authorship between global North and global South scholars. Nonetheless, Northern scholars still appeared to drive the agenda. Although all of the research from the 24 co-authored papers at the conference took place in field sites located in the ‘global South’, only four had primary authors who hailed from institutions situated in the global South itself. Studies by Lam (2014) and Bai (2018) echo this finding.

Dependency on the Northern primary researcher who determines who they want to cite or bring into the academic system is therefore perpetuated: ‘I met an Ethiopian student in Ethiopia and I just decided to bring him to the US to be my student!’ a tenured professor at an American university mentioned to me. ‘I think my biggest impact to my academic field will be that I helped get more Africans into it.’ These examples illustrate the limit of what we can expect if we only focus on individual-led solutions to structural issues, and continue to rely on, and thus reify, traditional scholarly channels and practices.

Rachel Strohm and Edwin Adjei critiqued the establishment of the Centre for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID), which is hosted at the LSE Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa in partnership with African universities, funded by a £5 million, five-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. While the CPAID centre works with local researchers, they noted that funders continue to invest in centres of knowledge about Africa hosted outside of Africa, rather than primarily support institutions and scholarly infrastructures based on the continent and focused on African audiences. Strohm asked: ‘Why are Northern academics so good at studying inequality and uneven post-colonial power dynamics in the South, and so bad at recognizing their own role in perpetuating inequality within the international scholarly community?’ She concluded: ‘We must be missing so many interesting voices, so many valuable contributions to knowledge, because we’re systematically underinvesting in African academics. Spending £5 million to set up a research centre in the UK rather than somewhere like Accra or Nairobi (or Tamale or Eldoret or Kisangani) only perpetuates the problem.’

Responses to Strohm’s post highlight that initiatives attempting to rectify such inequalities in investments in African research already exist. Adjei points to CODESRIA’s long-standing work since its founding in 1973 towards remedying the unequal circulation of African scholarship, as well as more recent work from the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA), an Africa-based association which promotes Africa’s specific contributions to knowledge about the peoples and cultures of Africa and the Diaspora. The association’s third biennial conference will take place in Nairobi in October 2019; the choice of which conference to attend is in fact a demonstration of ethical orientation and politics. Whose scholarship and institutions are you building through your participation and payment of conference fees? (Note the ASAA call for panels closes on June 15th!)

Figure of the academic knowledge research production process

There is also a neglected commercial layer to these discussions. Emerging studies have shed light on the expansion of commercial publishers into all parts of the scholarly research life cycle, including data analytics for ‘impact factors’, university rankings and management of research data. The diagram above illustrates the extent of Elsevier’s expansion through its acquisitions (illustrated by logos) of companies across the research process. The growing consolidation of research infrastructure by private industry actors such as Elsevier make working outside of mainstream forms of knowledge production even more challenging. Given the high costs of non-participation in the system, many researchers, especially those in contexts with little government or funder support, have few options but to entrust their knowledge to these corporations. Given the already uneven landscape of publishing power, what are the implications for the diversity of knowledge production in such moves towards consolidation?

The map below illustrates the high imbalance in regional representation in published academic work in the Web of Science and demonstrates how existing academic publishing infrastructures privilege certain regions and types of knowledge. Scholars concerned with decolonising knowledge need to turn a critical gaze on the structures through which academic knowledge circulates and who owns and makes decisions about these structures.

World scaled by number of documents with authors from each country in Web of Science.

The ‘replication crisis’ highlighted by Laura Mann in her Citing Africa blog post has led many concerned scholars towards Open Science – the movement to make scientific research open access and accessible across society. The increasing push for pre-analysis plans, publishing of research instruments and datasets, among other demands, is viewed as a way to increase transparency and ‘better science’. As growing critiques of Open Science have argued, however, such practices and tools do not necessarily challenge the powerful actors governing the Science industry and may in fact be re-entrenching power by creating new technical boundaries and requirements. Who is able to publish ‘openly’? And if barriers to ‘openness’ remain, will we merely deepen the over-representation of some groups over others?

Working with the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet) over the last five years, I have observed that a ‘crisis of replication’ has indeed contributed towards a growing normative push for Open Science, with a focus on tools and technologies. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, it appears that much of the mainstream Open Science movement continues to operate under the same values and structures of the pre-crisis era, albeit with new tools and norms to revitalise its credibility.

Furthermore, the frame of what ‘counts’ as valid knowledge should reach beyond the confines of the scientific academic journal article. During the last ASAA conference, Dr. Wangui wa Goro highlighted that the university should not be considered the only site of knowledge production, and forms of knowledge like hip-hop and jazz, which fall outside of normative scholarly frames, should also be valourised given that African scholars have long worked outside these frameworks. Groups like Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) have also highlighted poetry, photography, dance and other visual work as important when speaking of alternative forms of knowledge and remind us that the politics of language must also be part of these considerations. While writing this blog post, outside of the university Virtual Private Network, an article on decolonising knowledge would have cost $42 USD or 4,200 Kenyan Shillings. For whom are we ultimately creating such knowledge and for what purpose? To get towards a ‘pluriverse’, more multimodal ways of doing, acknowledging accessing and credentialing scholarship are needed.

As Laura Mann prompts in her Citing Africa post: why are we all doing this work? And how do we ensure that the socio-technical infrastructures that facilitate the work are in line with those values? I argue that no matter who we cite in our academic work, as long as we continue to publish and write within existing academic systems and genres, and follow established ethical standards and protocols to keep research data locked in university office filing cabinets, the contradictions and ironies will only become more glaring and apparent. We must take real steps to reassess the values inherent in scholarly processes and publishing.

Chan has recently written that Open Science requires us:

‘[T]o think beyond the confines of the genre of the academic journal and the narrow set of standards and quality markers designed and controlled by profit driven entities … there is a need to think about enabling infrastructure for data and diverse forms of outputs and processes … there needs to be more thought given to keeping infrastructure open and public.’

The academy is increasingly becoming a space where commercial publishers are leveraging ‘platform capitalism’. Legacy multinational publishers and new players from the global North have been able to concentrate and consolidate their control of the sites of knowledge validation and distribution.

A key component missing from conversations about Open Science is that ethics are not only articulated in institutional review boards and project proposals; ethics are demonstrated in data practices, in publication venues and in decisions about whether we support the companies involved in scholarly production. The challenges are clear. We are constrained by time, funding, deadlines and hierarchies of power within the academy and the scholarly publishing world. Yet scholars concerned with the global practices of science — those interested in articulating why we are here — must get involved in rethinking how scholarly infrastructures can be decolonised and decentralised for greater equity in knowledge production. As a small step towards these aims, I have drafted a set of reflective questions as part of a self-review of my own citational practice available under a Creative Commons license to reuse and remix. My ongoing research project also more deeply engages with these questions, looking at public qualitative research data infrastructures and their making in Nairobi.

Unless we critically assess what counts as ‘high quality’ scholarly knowledge and who determines what counts, we run the risk of reproducing the ‘savage slot’ and tokenism. Using a framework of cognitive justice to describe how decolonising knowledge systems might transpire, Maja van der Velden highlights that giving ‘voice’ to knowers, or being ‘tolerant’ of alternative knowledge, is not enough: ‘cognitive justice requires resisting the hegemony of the dominant knowledge system in the struggle for survival, peace and social justice’.

To radically reshape the way scholarship and scholarly knowledge is produced and communicated requires questioning who makes the decisions about it and why. Focusing our attention on the sociotechnical knowledge infrastructures can help spark these important conversations: what might decentralised, non-hierarchical and locally controlled forms of scholarly communications and knowledge look like? From that vision we can help pluralise forms of knowledge and bring its stewardship and care closer to the communities it most concerns.

I would like to thank Titilope Ajayi, Cecelia Lynch, Leslie Chan, Laura Mann, Laurence Radford and Leah Horgan for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Reflections from the African Studies Association (ASA) 2017

I was very excited to attend the African Studies Association (ASA) in Chicago from Nov. 16 – 18 in part because I recently attended the African Studies Association in Africa (ASAA) in Accra in October 2017. I was keen to observe the differences and possible similarities. Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed was the range of ages; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference that had such a wide spectrum of generations. I wish we had taken a group photo to illustrate the point! I came across a huge range of white-haired elderly men and women (largely white) (65+), “middle aged” black and white men and women (40s – 60), and young scholars of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds in their late 20s to late 30s.

I noted that while the conversations at ASAA were quite radical in their calls for decolonizing knowledge and bringing about a more African centered-ness in research and praxis, I did not feel the same sort of fervor and calls for radical disruption of the academy at the ASA. (Though it is hard to also be able to speak about ASA as a whole, because there were so many more people in attendance, approximately 1,300? and so hard to attend many of the sessions and even to get a sense of the hallway conversations simply given the scale of conversations.)

Another notable difference was that in contrast to rhetoric revolving about binaries of “African” / “non-African” at the ASAA, at the ASA, I felt much more of the disciplinary divides. While, my identity as an anthropologist is newly formed given that I only took my first class in anthropology two years ago (when I first entered UCI Anthropology department), the disciplinary differences, even within just the social sciences, appeared very stark. For example, during the last panel sessions on the last day of the conference, I listened to a roundtable that unbeknownst to me at the time, was entirely comprised of political scientists from one American university. I was particularly intrigued in the panel given the title: “The Forest and the Trees: Reflexivity on the African Research Industry.” However, instead of a discussion about the structural powers of development funding, institutions, historical legacy of colonialism, and the types of knowledges produced and favored (topics widely discussed at ASAA), the conversation focused much more on whether or not “insider” or “outsider” research work was insightful.

While I appreciated the intentions behind the questions (“the rationale for putting this panel together was to discuss how we are trying to navigate the constraints of the research environment”), given their supposed interest in the stated topic, I was floored by the seeming lack of awareness or acknowledgement about the long-standing nuanced discussions within feminist literature and anthropological work on similar questions of positionality, intersectionality, and implications for epistemology and methodology.

A white American man on the panel who works within a development institution in Nairobi stated:

“When you are living there [Kenya?] for a time, you learn to see things through a different lens. This moves you into a weird sort of zone… I flew in to Nebraska last week and was sitting across from my parents and asked – How did this happen? I don’t even know who you are… that doesn’t mean that I’ve become African…But I just felt that I don’t know this place [Nebraska]… I get annoyed in this country [USA]. But when I can work closely with Africans… work closely with Kenyans and wrestle with deep things. Empower them. When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together.”

This quote seemed to reveal someone grappling with their own identity (as we all do/are!) through a cultural experience abroad, but the problematic aspect of it was the idealizing of the working relationships “with Africans” that I heard. “When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together” sounds like exactly what a researcher promoting a participatory approach would advocate for… but especially given that this man was the supervisor for the Kenyan students that he saw as “collaborators” with the power to pass or fail them, how did they view their relationship with him? “Empowering”? I think we have an incomplete picture until we can hear their take on it and unfortunately, given that the conference was in Chicago and not Nairobi, his take on their relationship was the only one we heard…

After listening for over 30 minutes, I interjected that it sounded like panelists were collapsing citizenship and race to be the main frames for “insider” and “outsider.” To me, it appeared that they assumed that a Black African was the ultimate “insider” and a White American, the ultimate “outsider.” I brought up that subjectivity is relational and also performative (which they laughed because they took to mean conscious performance – a gap in understandings of the concept was revealed here). Flattening one’s identity into one aspect – whether it be gender, race, occupation, age, citizenship, etc. misses on the whole range of subjectivities and positions. To assume that shared “race” and citizenship for example means that someone understands (or can speak for) the country seems simplistic. For example, simply hiring a Kenyan to work with you does not mean that they have the “truth” that you [Westerner] do not… But they will likely have a different and helpful insight into the research work. Moving away from idealizing or romanticizing towards open discussions what each person brings to the table (and doesn’t!) fosters a research relationship that I think can lay the foundation for collaborative generative ideas across diverse backgrounds. Acknowledging the power asymmetries and structures in place that constraining, restrict and limit contributions is also important to think about and discuss. While historical privilege and asymmetries of power do not cease to exist simply through discussion (if they did, all the academic discussion about them would have solved them by now!! :), recognizing and grappling with them may in time lead to better ideas about how to begin to imagine, shift, reshape a more liberatory future.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, it was obvious that the ASA has come far from its original founding as an outside, Western center of knowledge on Africa. Members and leaders have incorporated critiques about Western production of knowledge about Africa and have attempted to broaden the range of perspectives in its decision making and power. I was very pleased to see the wide range of representation from many different parts of the continent. However, the lingua franca of the conference was still solely English (one of my suggestions for future iterations of the ASAA to improve on as well) and at the end of the day, the ASA is still a US-based event and organization. In this way, simply by the fact of being sited on the continent, the ASAA is a conference that both the ASA and scholars of Africa should support. @halimahima notes: “Delocalising an African Studies conference back to the continent is in itself a revolutionary act.” I look forward to attending both the ASAA and ASA in future years and observing changes over time in organizational goals and dynamics.

The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge

This past week, I participated in the second biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) on “African Studies and Global Politics.” The ASAA seeks to promote the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective, and as such, much of the discourse at the conference was related to pan-Africanism, decolonizing the mind/knowledge, and promoting an African-centered epistemologies and education.

One of the key things I realized from the conference is a continued underlying question about what it means to be African. Is it a blood-based / phenotypical notion or is it based on culture/nationality/level of understanding of a place/history? Or something else entirely? How does the question of identity intersect with claims for authoritative knowledge?

The ASAA conference made this question particularly apparent because those in attendance did not just easily fit into normative categories of Black Africans and White Americans. Conference participants included Black African Americans from the US, Black African Americans who have immigrated to Ghana (some who have become Ghanaian citizens); White Africans; White Americans; Asians who live in America; White Europeans, White Brazilians, White Ghanaian residents, Black Africans who reside in African countries that they do not call “home”, etc. etc. I’m obviously tacking here between different scales of nationality and flattening identity into race, but I use this to simply point out the very obvious diverse racial positionalities embodied at the conference (not to even mention the other subject positions). Walking around you couldn’t “place” someone – Black Ghanaian citizen with American accent; white women with South African accent; Ugandan living in South Africa; Swedish woman married to Ghanaian; Kenyan studying in UK; the list goes on. The rich diversity of backgrounds, colors, histories, situations, made it very hard to say who was “local” and who was not – complicated further by a question of which categories are to determine that. If you have lived in a place for a long (define long?) time, does that make you “African”? If you know the histories and key historical figures, does that make you “African”? If you have citizenship, does that make you “African”? If you are Black, does that make you “African”? Given that several members of the diaspora Africans have recently been granted citizenship in Ghana, what appears to be a clear-cut question of who is African, is in fact more complicated than face-value.

In one ASAA panel I attended, a question was raised about the growing mantra of “Africans [are the only ones who should] produce solutions to Africa problems.” You can see this mantra similarly echoed in a picture I took during my fieldwork this summer of the entrance to a Kenyan technology enterprise:


What is the significance of scaling from “African” to “Kenyan”? What is the significance of moving from “Black Lives Matter” to “Afrikan Lives Matter” to “Luo Lives Matter (a recent hashtag used by Kenyan on Twitter to denounce state violence against a particular ethnic group in Kenya)”?

In response, a panelist asserted that the perspective that it is only “Africans” who can solve “African problems” was a naïve one since African problems are in fact global:

“We are not buying into the nativist perspective. There is no one who is ‘true blooded’ African, whatever that means. What we must be concerned with is an issue of democratization. Will it be fine if everyone else in the world could put their view-point on the table and Africans are absent? No! So, it has nothing to do with us being the most innovative people or us knowing something more than others because we are ‘pure blooded’ or anything. Rather, it is a question of equality and democratization.”

This question of the intersection between global politics of race and knowledge is extremely important as more and more decolonizing movements across the continent gain momentum and simultaneously, countries like the US increasingly take an isolationist stance. How do our biosocial bodies and socially constructed ideas of racial belonging (mis/)align/clash with nation states and boundaries? How do these claims align with idea of epistemology and claims to authoritative knowledge?


More info on ASAA:

The conference (held at the University of Ghana, Legon from October 12th – 14th) included keynote presentations by Elizabeth Ohene, Ghanaian; Nana Kobina Nketsia V; Professor Jacob Gordon; Professor Seth Asumah; Professor Takyiwaa Manuh; Professor Jean Allman; Dr. Yao Graham; and Dr. Wangui wa Goro. For those interested in learning more about the conference, you can find a summary that I wrote here. You can also find the final program here and more about the ASAA here.