Whether you’re an academic or just a regular person who went to college one time, you can likely understand why being credited as simply ‘et al.’ in a study you’ve worked hard on can make someone feel invisible. But what about the cases where people who contribute substantially to a study – to the point that without their guidance and expertise, a study would not be possible – are not properly credited as co-authors?
This trend has been noted in studies conducted by researchers, who are from high-income countries, in middle to low-income countries. Though the studies are conducted in low to middle-income countries and are often made with significant input from local academics and researchers, their authorship only names the researchers from high-income countries.
It’s called parachute science and it ignores the contributions of native researchers from countries where the studies are conducted while non-native researchers take the data and credit before zipping back home.
What Parachute Science Means
Despite its name, parachute science, quite unfortunately, has nothing to do with parachutes and skydiving in the literal sense. But in the figurative sense? You can imagine it as researchers from who-knows-where dropping down on locals and locales to quickly gather up data and leave.
‘But isn’t that what researchers are supposed to do?’ You might ask, and while that’s true, parachute science sticks out for its parasitic approach to gathering that data. Whether it’s a conservation study, a look into local languages, or an exploration of a nation’s biodiversity, parachute science extracts the knowledge of locals and does not give them credit.
According to Beryne Odeny and Raffaella Bosurgi, “This disparity has been reported as far back as 2 decades ago—one study illustrated that only 6.5% of research articles in general medical journals had a coauthor from the country where the study population lived.”
Most of the contributions that go unnoticed are those made by researchers from the Global South or, for us non-academics, third-world countries. Odeny and Bosurgi noted that almost half of the fieldwork done in Indonesia and the Philippines did not even distinguish which data came from which country, lumping them together despite differences in biodiversity between the two mega-diverse nations.
The Statistics On Parachute Science
Of course, just knowing that studies don’t make a distinction between two countries is not enough to say parachute science is real which is why we turn to a recent study published in Current Biology detailing the differences between the rate at which researchers from low to middle-income countries are given co-authorship credit versus that of researchers from high-income nations.
Though most of the studies published in the field of coral reef biodiversity research between 1969 – 2020 were written by authors from countries such as the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom, the majority of coral reef habitats are from the lower-income countries of Indonesia and the Philippines with the exception of Australia. A whopping 20% of Australian researchers were not credited for studies conducted in their country. That number only doubles for Indonesian and Filipino researchers who are given no credit nearly half of the time.
Contributions of local researchers are sidelined elsewhere in the Global South. African researchers found themselves pushed to the side during explorations into the Zika virus back in 2016. According to an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, non-local researchers descended on Africa to study Zika and Ebola…with the primary goal of gaining their laurels.
Instead of collaborating with other researchers present, especially locals who have been dealing with the problem firsthand for longer periods of time, they would simply do their research without them and leave. The article says that there were even rumors that some researchers were actively hiding their virus specimens and findings from other researchers to monopolize credit.
How Parachute Science Hurts Locals and Locales
By monopolizing credit and sidelining local researchers, parachute scientists close the doors for local researchers to receive more opportunities in their field. If you’re not aware, the position where an author’s name appears in a paper signals their contributions and significance in that paper. Surajit Bhattacharya explains authorship order as follows:
- The first author should be that person who contributed most to the work, including writing of the manuscript
- The sequence of authors should be determined by the relative overall contributions to the manuscript.
- It is common practice to have the senior author appear last, sometimes regardless of his or her contribution. The senior author, like all other authors, should meet all criteria for authorship.
As Odeny and Bosurgi explain that these higher authorship positions correlate with future promotions, inclusion in publications, and even academic tenure.
This makes first and second authorship an important component to the career progression of younger researchers. This isn’t to say that all local researchers should receive first authorship, but rather that authorship credit can “make or break” someone’s career making it all the more important for researchers who contributed to studies significantly to be credited, regardless of where they’re from.
Beyond that, there’s another way that parachute science hurts the places where it’s done. Wilfredo Licuanan, a biologist at the Philippines’ De La Salle University and co-author of the aforementioned Current Biology study, says that parachute scientists also harm local reefs.
Going back to Odeny and Bosurgi’s findings that many studies do not distinguish between Indonesia and the Philippines, Licuanan pointed out that ignorance of “localized differences in coral reef ecology between tropical regions” were doing more harm than good.
Surshti Patel, who identifies herself as a “British-born East African-Indian woman”, shared how parachute science also allowed non-local researchers to prey on the expertise of local researchers to advance their own careers by leveraging the power imbalance between Global North and Global South researchers.
She writes, “I have witnessed white colleagues gain comfort from rhetoric that their host country collaborators “do not raise concerns; that they are well-liked.” Or an attitude that their collaborators should appreciate the opportunity despite it being in their backyards”
In short, a subordinate role despite the studies taking place on their home soil with the guidance provided by local experts.
Moving Past Colonial Research: A Parachute That Cushions Everybody’s Fall
Moses John Bockarie, an adjunct professor at Njala University, talked about how he and his colleagues have been putting systems into place for closer, more equal collaboration between African researchers and non-local researchers to create a symbiotic, rather than a parasitic relationship that allows for the exchange of findings and ideas.
The European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) funds clinical research in sub-Saharan African countries by supporting the development of local research facilities. It’s not the first of its kind on that note, its more notable role is its regulatory role and ethical review of studies done in sub-Saharan Africa.
This not only strengthens Africa’s research infrastructure but creates deeper collaboration between local and non-local researchers, opening the doors for greater representation of local authors in studies.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the field of research yet. There remains a strong difference in treatment afforded to researchers from the Global North and the Global South that is experienced by researchers to this day.
Yamina Saheb, whose work largely concerns energy and climate change, shared with The Intercept that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was “A place of glass ceilings for researchers from poorer countries.” The IPPC, according to her, treated its Global South participants like they were “second class”.
Julia Steinberg, an ecological economics professor at Switzerland’s Laussane University, noted that the IPCC invested little into supporting her colleagues to continue their work during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to break travel restrictions to enter offices…or be left out of the loop altogether.
Even if these issues can be addressed in their entirety in the near future, there are bigger imbalances between Global North and Global South countries in the field of conservation, pollution, and climate change, like the fact that Global North countries continue to dump their garbage in poorer southern nations.