Perspectives: What unique challenges do researchers face in developing countries and how has the pandemic affected their work?

6th September 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has made existing socio-economic inequalities more obvious and severe. From access to healthcare, education and work, the gaps in disparities are widening. But, at a time when research is playing a pivotal part in combating the pandemic, it has also highlighted the disparities in conducting social sciences research.

In this article, we hear from Rania Sawalhi, Senior Academic Support Specialist and Lecturer in Honors Program at Qatar University, Ritu Srivastava, Professor at MDI India, and Professor Sigmar de Mello Rode from São Paulo State University and President of ABEC Brazil, on what it’s like to be a researcher in a developing country and whether the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges they face.

Rania Sawalhi, Senior Academic Support Specialist & Lecturer in Honors Program at Qatar University 

Qatar is well known for supporting research and researchers in general. We have the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), as well as the Qatar National Library (QNL) that has signed numerous agreements with publishers to provide open access opportunities to any researcher working in Qatar. Despite the funding and open access advantages on offer here, we, like other developing countries, still face economic and social difficulties that can impact research and publishing ambitions. Other barriers we encounter include an expectation that researchers must personally pay to publish in journals, along with a lack of information about publishing processes and requirements. 

The pandemic has made research in Qatar even more difficult due to issues related to job losses, home schooling and health issues. While these issues are not confined to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, they are coupled with the effects of not having funding to hire research assistants to support with tasks such as finding journals and information about grants. These multiple challenges mean that researchers are busier than ever, and their work is affected.  

Many organisations have tried to encourage researchers in the MENA region to conduct research through awards and grants. However, researchers in these countries are not familiar with conducting research and publishing in their native Arabic language and some lack professional researchers’ competencies. In addition, journal requirements in the region are different from those in Western countries, so take up of these awards and grants is probably not as high as it could have been. 

The pandemic has impacted university funding, leading some libraries to cancel agreements and organisations to reduce their grants. On the other hand, many journals have shared their articles during COVID for free and have announced different calls for special issues related to COVID. However, a lack of awareness and information around this has again meant few researchers are aware of these opportunities. 

My advice to researchers in developing countries would be to get out of their bubbles and voice their experiences. They should research topics related to their field in the lens of their cultures and start publishing early in their careers, starting at the postgraduate level. The research community should act too by supporting and connecting researchers, along with sharing knowledge where there are gaps. They should respond through initiatives that encourage networking and knowledge exchange. A good example is buddy systems with researchers from different countries that help equip researchers with the knowledge they need to overcome disparities. Personally, during COVID-19 I was able to connect with researchers from MENA and the West to support each other and work on different projects.

Researchers in developing countries should research topics related to their field in the lens of their cultures and start publishing early in their careers

Ritu Srivastava, Assistant Professor & Area Chairperson, Marketing at MDI Gurgaon 

Researchers in developing countries face challenges such as the take up of research issues and the generalisability of the findings that limit positioning in journals. Often our research methods are different because to generate theory we need more qualitative research and that often leads to issues around reliability and validity. 

The pandemic has made research even more difficult, particularly in reaching participants in local settings. On the plus side, the crisis has brought the academic community in India together and improved communication. Another benefit is greater access to scholarly works and colleagues and are being equipped with the skills to write and present as per journal styles as well. But to take advantage of this, researchers need to have courage to pick up more native topics without working out the publication opportunity as their starting point.  

Looking ahead, I believe that new research methods and presentation styles must be accepted, and funding needs to increase to reach grassroot levels. I would also like the research community (including publishers) to be more open and accepting of emerging market topics, methodologies and writing styles and to present more opportunities to publish in journals that follow the writing styles of developing countries.  

New research methods and presentation styles must be accepted, and funding needs to increase to reach grassroot levels

Professor Sigmar de Mello Rode from São Paulo State University & President of ABEC Brazil 

One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic is that we have fewer interactions in person with other researchers. However, networking between researchers has helped to develop science and preprints have been of fundamental importance, as they are quickly published. This has means we have the opportunity to read many articles and analyse massive amounts of data. However, early in the rush to obtain results on COVID-19, many articles were published in preprint or peer-reviewed and numerous articles of clinical research or systematic reviews had a small number of samples. Despite this, there have been improvements in the rigour of good practices and in peer-review, as seen in changes to the Lancet's editorial policy in September 2020. 

Working from home was challenging for everyone, not least in developing countries. Webinars offered an effective alternative to face-to-face interaction but led to ‘Zoom fatigue’. Additionally, anxiety around digitally engaging with a large amount of information and people made us more selective in where we turned our attention. 

In Brazil, the research situation is particularly worrying, because in addition to the lack of resources, due to cuts in science and technology funds, the federal government practices a negative attitude toward preventive attitudes, such as the use of face masks, social isolation, as well as against vaccines and science in general. The main recommendation to researchers in developing countries is that, despite the difficulties, they must continue to persist and improve their research because the science and the network it provides will prevail and we will learn a lot of lessons from this.

Networking between researchers has helped to develop science and preprints have been of fundamental importance, as they are quickly published


These personal insights reveal the ongoing challenges faced by researchers in developing countries and how the COVID-19 crisis has widened inequalities for some groups. Along with these challenges, the pandemic has led to positive changes for researchers, such as global buddying systems, virtual networks and improvements in the rigour of peer review. 

The hope is that new and more inclusive ways of working will reduce the constraints on researchers around the world. However, the stark reality is that without radical changes within global research norms, disparities will remain. 
 

Coming soon

The next article in the series questions what is preventing diversity on editorial boards.

Introducing 'Perspectives'

Social sciences research can play a huge role in tackling the global socio-economic disparities that have widened because of COVID-19. But to have maximum impact, the research environment must overcome disparities of its own.

In this series, experts discuss the issues around research disparities and how the sector can evolve to enable global, diverse and underrepresented voices to be heard. Join the conversation by sharing your experiences and opinions on how we can create change.

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