Graduating from a recognized university is a privilege in a world in which most don’t have the financial means to achieve this. And building a “successful” scientific career is a challenge with added economic, structural, and language barriers.
Lina Pérez-Ángel knows the journey well. Her mother was the first woman in her family to migrate from Caparrapí, a small municipality in Colombia, to the capital city of Bogotá. And although Pérez-Ángel and her siblings were born and raised in the city, she remembers traveling to her mother’s hometown—a place she identifies as her home, too—throughout her childhood. That rootedness in Caparrapí would lead to her interest in researching the paleoclimate of Colombia’s Eastern Cordillera.
“I didn’t grow up in that world of science and curiosity,” said Pérez-Ángel, who originally wanted to become a chef but started her academic career studying engineering because her mother told her to. (She later found her real passion in the geosciences.)
As an undergraduate at Bogotá’s Universidad de Los Andes, Pérez-Ángel began to notice a pattern among the readings required for classes: No matter what subject she was studying, European and North American surnames dominated the literature. Much of the university’s faculty also came from outside Colombia. Even among the Colombian professors, the most recognized had pursued their graduate degrees outside the country.
“You guys have to get out, get out of here to do science” was the most common advice Pérez-Ángel remembered getting from her professors. That advice was informed by two trains of thought. The first was that countries in the Global North have more funding and better infrastructure to do science. The second was the widespread belief that learning about the world outside Colombia would give students new perspectives for their research.
Both ideas made sense to Pérez-Ángel at the time, but the constancy with which she heard them also made her feel pressured. “I came to have the idea that [staying in Colombia] was like a failure,” Pérez-Ángel recalled. “Now I eat my words, but at that time it was something that remained in my subconscious…that if I wanted to become a [recognized] professor or researcher, I needed to leave.”
Becoming more closely involved in the projects of her undergraduate professors allowed Pérez-Ángel to join the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The connections she formed there opened the door to more opportunities. Eventually, she completed her Ph.D. in the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and is now a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University.
Pérez-Ángel’s career path isn’t unusual among students at Latin American universities. Global visibility plays a significant role in establishing scientific careers, not only in terms of recognition but also in the effort to obtain funding, grants, and resources to continue doing science. The search for global visibility creates the pressure to study abroad.
However, this recognition in so-called “global science” implies accommodating the norms, ideas, and people who lead research activity in the world’s hegemonic scientific institutions—those of the Global North.
In 2019, Argentinean researcher Magdalena Martinez, a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Toronto, became interested in the ways that international engagement informs the research activity of highly cited Brazilian scientists. In other words, she analyzed the extent to which connections, academic exchanges, graduate studies, and international collaborations may have enhanced the researchers’ careers.
To identify the most highly cited Brazilian scientists, Martinez and her team used the annual list of the entire world’s most highly cited scientists, published by Clarivate every year since 2015. These lists derive from Web of Science–related databases and metrics, which serve to “identify scientists who have demonstrated significant and broad influence in their chosen field of research.”
Among the 4,058 most cited researchers worldwide in 2018, 65% were from the United States, 13% were from the United Kingdom, and 13% were from China. “Unsurprisingly,” authors pointed out, scientists affiliated with Brazilian universities occupied a more marginal position than their Western and Chinese peers—just nine of the 4,058, or less than one half of 1%.
Martinez and her team looked at more than 1,500 papers to analyze the publications’ year, citations, type of authorship and collaboration, and countries of collaborating authors. Authors’ curricula vitae were also analyzed.
Martinez and her team found that of the nine highly cited Brazilian authors, almost all were involved in global research networks. Eight of the nine had international experiences of between 1 and 10 years, mainly in the United States and Europe. Those experiences and connections (mostly established early in the scientists’ careers), Martinez said, were crucial to the researchers’ success.
Other studies have analyzed the citation patterns of researchers from Latin America who don’t copublish with peers from developed countries in recognized journals. The general trend reflects a phenomenon of under-citation when authors publish without global visibility. The researchers readily acknowledged that scientific research visibility benefits from collaboration. However, they wrote, it remains a concern whether under-citation is due to a “psycho-social bias or real differences in scientific relevance of these articles.”
Collaboration and Visibility
The degree of global visibility often depends on the study area in question, said atmospheric physicist Paulo Artaxo, one of the most cited Brazilian authors of 2018. For instance, he explained, environmental science combines different research areas and benefits from multiple partnerships. “Without collaboration,” Artaxo said, “forget about it…you cannot do much.”
Artaxo ventured into global science 40 years ago when he studied the effects of biomass burning in the Amazon with the late Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Jozef Crutzen. Later on, Crutzen invited him to the Max Planck Institute, where Artaxo began networking with renowned scientists from around the world.
“I was lucky to be in the right area in the right moment,” said Artaxo, now affiliated with the University of São Paulo. “The number of citations of my papers reflects that.”
While emphasizing that citation is by no means the determining factor of the quality of research, Artaxo noted that global visibility is the main reward of publishing in high-ranked journals. As of 2022, no journal published in Latin America appears in lists of the world’s publications with the highest impact factors; these journals are more vulnerable to economic conditions, and even closure. Spending years of work on research only to publish in a journal that will “die quickly” because it has no readership, Artaxo said, is a “waste of time, money, and everything.”
Latin America’s Struggle for Visibility
Western science has established itself as the world’s epistemic authority. It determines which science is the “best” through its evaluation model, and it determines who are the right people to evaluate. Thus, “Global North journals are the gatekeepers of…research ‘quality,’” said Hebe Vessuri, an Argentinean social anthropologist at the Environmental Geography Research Centre (CIGA) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Latin American institutions have largely adopted the same citation-based evaluation parameters as the Global North: If researchers want a high score, they need to publish in journals with a high impact factor—as determined by traditional standards of the Global North. Publishing in these journals involves developing research within the limits of the Global North’s interests. In most cases, local science is not part of that scope.
The prevailing citation-based evaluation model has been criticized for years. In 2012, during the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, editors of academic journals from around the world drafted a series of recommendations to improve evaluation practices at funding agencies, institutions, and other organizations. The so-called San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment pointed out the need to eliminate the use of journal impact factors as the basis of funding and consideration for professional advancement. Signatories stressed the necessity to assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research was published.
Still, finding an effective way to solve the problem is much more complex than a thoughtful declaration.
Concentrating such power in publications in the Global North has caused scientists to lose interest in publishing in national or regional journals in Latin America. (Sometimes, countries lose researchers themselves as the region grapples with brain drain to the Global North.) The professional standing of these journals, where most regional scientific research is published, has also worsened due to economic and political crises. Latin America has one of the lowest investment rates in research and development, and that investment is not evenly distributed: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico account for 85% of total scientific investment across Latin America.
For Vessuri, there is a fine line between the importance of international training for young scientists and losing necessary scientists to develop national research. Those who leave often do not return, and those who stay often prioritize producing research valuable to the Global North, Vessuri said. “It is an intellectual crisis of nation-states…they become mere appendages of the international system.”
The lack of economic resources for research, coupled with the need to publish in international journals, pushes scientists from the Global South into a vicious circle of production to obtain resources to maintain their positions, economic incentives, and other opportunities within the system.
This problem has existed for decades and “continues practically unchanged,” said Claudio Amescua, head of the editorial section of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Change.
For Amescua, the issue originates not only in the domination of the evaluation model of the Global North but also in the earliest stages of Latin American researchers’ education. “It is the vision of how the scientist should be, the importance of prestige, the importance of where to publish,” he said. This is the stage at which Pérez-Ángel felt the pressure to leave Colombia.
Following this vision, researchers can isolate themselves from Latin America because they are in “another world,” Amescua said. Until the region’s science policy encourages national research and publication, however, little or nothing will change, he admitted. “That’s not to say that each world should function independently,” he said, “but that they should function intertwined.”
Unlike the private, high-impact journals of the Global North, most Latin American journals have historically been produced by public universities. Their financing doesn’t depend on authors or subscriptions, but on the resources that federal governments provide to educational institutions. The “Latin American model,” as Amescua described it, had an open access operation even before the concept was formalized 20 years ago.
In the beginning, Latin American journals functioned as a way to disseminate the research of scientists at individual schools. Adopting evaluation parameters led journals to formalize their structures and become internationally competitive.
Fed up with the fact that Latin American publications remained “gray literature” compared with journals from the Global North, physicist Ana María Cetto oversaw the entry of Revista Mexicana de Física, a physical science journal, into the Science Citation Index Expanded.
Even after taking this “big step,” Cetto sought to strengthen the visibility and exchange of knowledge among the nations of Latin America as well as with those outside it. Cetto started discussing the issue with people from the International Council for Science and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), with whom she worked at the time. “Stop complaining and do something about it,” Cetto remembered getting as a response. And so she did.
Cetto and a group of Latin American scientists and editors launched the Regional Online Information System for Scientific Journals of Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain, and Portugal (LATINDEX), a bibliographic information system that seeks to address Latin America’s underrepresentation in indexes and databases produced in the Global North.
Today scientists in 23 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries gather and disseminate information in LATINDEX, as well as in other regional databases for scientific publishing such as Redalyc and SciELO.
The creation of these initiatives is crucial to strengthening regional science and the progress of science education, Cetto said. “The [national] journals are a communication vehicle for a community of younger scientists. It’s where they can have access to knowledge without having to pay or without having to belong to an institution. It’s where they can learn to publish, train as referees, and establish contacts with other members of the community.”
Although these projects have undoubtedly helped increase the visibility of regional journals, the relative lack of resources affects even already well-positioned publications. For instance, the Mexican journal Revista Internacional de Contaminación Ambiental, where Amescua has served as managing editor for 15 years, has had to negotiate collaboration agreements with other Mexican universities to address this lack of resources. “We work with teams of just a few people…the luckiest ones don’t reach four people hired full-time,” said Amescua.
In recent years, public universities throughout Latin America have invested in subscription packages so their scientists can access and publish in high-impact journals from the Global North. Amescua believes financial resources should also be invested in regional journals.
“We ran out of funding,” said Karenia Córdova, who helped lead the Terra geography journal at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Terra achieved important visibility among Venezuelan and foreign scientists. However, in 2021 it published its final issue due to a lack of resources.
Córdova said the problems facing Terra were shared by other regional publications. They started with not being able to afford and maintain the DOI (digital object identifier) system necessary to remain in academic databases and included not having web editors or other necessary staff to consistently publish the journal. (When the magazine folded, Córdova was Terra’s only full-time employee.) These infrastructure challenges result in a fall in a journal’s impact rankings, Córdova said, which perpetuates the inequitable system by discouraging scientists’ interest in publishing there.
Terra was part of a boom of Venezuelan journals in the late 1990s, a time when the nation experienced renewed investment in regional science and art. However, political and economic conflict compounded, and this effort gradually lost strength and funding. The crisis at Terra was part of larger budget cuts to universities in the country. Over the past 8 years, the number of registered journals in Venezuela decreased from 41 to 31 in the citation database Scopus.
The decline of investment in regional journals also meant a loss of national scientific production, said Córdova. Researchers in Venezuela have consistently published fewer articles every year since 2009, she said, and as of late 2022, the country had dropped from 50 to 70 among those ranked in Scopus.
For Córdova, internationalization is necessary to maintain the interest of researchers. But to make national and regional scientific production grow in parallel, it is essential to strengthen those journals’ accreditation.
Low quartile indicators—which serve to evaluate the relative importance of a journal within the total number of journals in its field—also have repercussions for regional collaborations. “Each article published in a Q4 journal plays against my certification of adviser of doctoral programs and grant competitions,” said José Arumí, a researcher at the Center for Water Resources for Agriculture and Mining at the University of Concepción, in Chile. “Therefore, I stop[ped] sending articles to Tecnología y Ciencias del Agua, which is a Mexican journal that publishes in Spanish, with which I have a long history and [for which I have] great affection,” he said.
Even before Terra ceased publication, the journal was forced to cut its Spanish-to-English translator. Córdova herself began to translate at least the titles and abstracts of the papers in Terra to expand its reach. “A title in Spanish has a third of the visibility that it has if you publish in English in any journal,” she said.
English is the lingua franca of science. Of course, having a common language to share knowledge and create networks is an advantage in scientific progress and communication. However, the prevalence of English in a context already dominated by the Global North further perpetuates a cultural hegemony.
Latin American scientists have pointed out that this hegemony has manifested a dangerous idea among communities both inside and outside the Global North: What is written in English is of higher quality than that which is written in Spanish or Portuguese. “Publishing in English is not the problem,” however, explained Pedro Urquijo, a researcher in Latin American historical geography at CIGA. Instead, he said, belonging to a system that forces researchers to produce for English-speaking journals just to earn points and obtain high ratings no matter if their community can read them: “That’s the problem.”
Of the 1.5 billion people in the world who speak English, just over a third have it as their native tongue. In Latin America, it is no secret that learning English is a privilege, and many renowned public universities promote teaching English. The proficiency level obtained, however, could be not enough to face the English-speaking world, researchers said, especially in scientific careers.
“When I came to the U.S., I thought I knew English, but I didn’t,” remembered Pérez-Ángel. In fact, language was one of the biggest barriers she had while doing her Ph.D. Living through that experience made Pérez-Ángel much more conscious of the limits brought about by placing a priority on English. At one point, she attended a conference in which the speakers discussed the lack of data on a Colombia-specific paleoclimate issue, and her patience reached its limit. “[The information] does exist, but it is written in Spanish and not published in a Northern journal,” Pérez-Ángel thought.
The Science of the Future
Scientific knowledge is obviously not universally accessible, said Pérez-Ángel. According to the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture, only 1% of the total number of articles published in scientific journals in 2020 were written in Spanish or Portuguese, compared with 95% in English.
But Pérez-Ángel, along with other Colombian geoscientists, is trying to change that.
While chatting on the bus ride home from a field internship in 2014, Pérez-Ángel and Carolina Ortíz, a geologist at the University of Florida, decided to start a project to share what they were learning with their friends, colleagues, and family. What began as an Instagram account where they shared photos eventually transformed into a science communication initiative that aimed to spread geoscience research in Spanish to the public as well as their scientific peers.
After their experiences abroad, Pérez-Ángel, Ortíz, and Daniela Muñoz-Granados (now a geologist at the Colombian Geological Survey) realized that the project could generate more outreach and be more useful if they took advantage of their bilingual capabilities. Thus, GeoLchat (a name chosen to be understood in both English and Spanish) was formalized across a website and social media platforms. GeoLchat allowed the scientists to create a community that could share and learn by breaking down the language barrier. “You have to create bridges where there are none,” Pérez-Ángel said.
Through creating and translating interactive content, as well as by fostering discussion spaces, GeoLchat has begun to grow a diverse community interested in the Earth sciences. One of GeoLchat’s most popular spaces, the YouTube series La Pola Geológica (The Geological Beer), has brought together researchers from Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela to share their research and generate discussions with Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. While such opportunities strengthen the Latin American community, they also provide peers from the Global North with an open platform to get to know the science that is being produced in Spanish.
“It’s a way to show that many other things are going on that they [scientists and institutions of the Global North] do not realize because it isn’t within their comfortable reach due to the language,” Pérez-Ángel said. “Science is done with the same quality in many other places, but they don’t see it because they are on the side of privilege, not on the side of those of us who have had to learn another language to be able to communicate.”
GeoLchat is just part of a much larger community supporting the idea that it’s crucial to maintain Spanish-written research. LATINDEX, for instance, considers multilingualism a “matter of principle.” Its databases accept journals from all over Latin America, but one of the quality criteria that gives the best scores is including an abstract of the articles in Spanish or Portuguese and another language. “There are magazines in Latin America that have decided to no longer include even that [the abstract] in their mother tongues,” said Cetto. “We want to induce them to adopt good practices that are favorable for the region…. It would be very unfair that a language that is spoken by almost 500 million people [such as Spanish] does not have its own spaces for publication.”
Keeping Spanish and Portuguese as living scientific languages is also one of the goals sought by many academic journals throughout the region, said Amescua. However, the entire Latin American publishing and communication model must be strengthened, Amescua contended, “making it grow based on its own characteristics, being congruent with its history, with its social development, and with its needs to remain as a valid peer of the North, and not as a favors requestor.”
Global visibility ultimately manifests in different ways. Looking back on how she developed her career, for instance, Pérez-Ángel has realized that being outside Colombia helped her to be more confident that she will use everything she has learned to continue studying the place where she grew up. Working on Colombia-focused research with her peers in Colorado, Pérez-Ángel said, has given her new insights, learning, and perspectives. But it also made her aware that the deep knowledge she has about Colombia’s climate, geography, and people is irreplaceable.
For Pérez-Ángel and many Latin American scientists, there is only one way forward: to engage all parties in an equitable, inclusive, and diverse manner. “That is the real science of the future.”
—Humberto Basilio (@HumbertoBasilio), Science Writer