How Latin American researchers are suffering in science

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Mariana Viglino discovers a toothed whale fossil during fieldwork at Estancia La Redonda in Argentina.Credit: Nicolás Farroni

As researchers from Latin American countries (one now works in the United States, the other in Argentina), we are used to career obstacles. These range from limited funding to language barriers and the “tax”, in terms of time and emotional energy, incurred when under-represented groups in science participate in diversity initiatives. These barriers come together to create problems beyond the obvious.

The current focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in science is welcome, but efforts to combat prejudice may lack nuance. Researchers from under-represented communities often face the intersection of sexism, racism and colonialism. In other words, the professional barriers we face have a cumulative effect.

Our academic backgrounds illustrate these obstacles. Many of these multidimensional and intersectional barriers are also encountered by other early career researchers in Latin America, especially women and LGBTQIA + scientists, people of marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities.

Obstacles to funding

Latin American countries invest much less in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than high-income countries, so researchers across the continent have less access to grant opportunities and budgets smaller than they could be elsewhere.1.

This impacts performance in the lab and in the field, not only affecting the scope of research we can do, but also limiting our participation in international conferences, which are important opportunities for networking and creating collaborations. For both of us, the first international meetings we attended, after securing conference funding, became a pivotal step in our academic journey, allowing us to meet people who have become long-term mentors and collaborators.

In addition, we have to face the invisible burden of visa application. For researchers from countries without “passport privileges”, attending international conferences in northern countries means dealing with endless paperwork that can be longer and emotionally overwhelming than overcoming financial constraints.

Visa applications can be particularly difficult as accepting an abstract for an article or poster can be slow. And there is no guarantee that the application will be approved, or that a visa holder will actually be allowed in when they arrive at their destination.

We have both had similar experiences with visa applications. We have been asked embarrassing questions, such as whether we intend to carry out illicit activity, and we have been asked to disclose private information about our family members, our personal health, our social media accounts and our financial situation, to ultimately prove that we are not trying to emigrate from our own countries.

Unwritten rules

Even when you overcome these issues, reduced exposure to meetings outside of Latin America can lead to feelings of unfamiliarity and discomfort when international networking and mentoring opportunities materialize.

These events are full of hidden or unwritten norms, ranging from dress codes (what does “business casual” mean?) These challenges are exacerbated by language differences, which can reduce international conferences to stressful rather than rewarding experiences. They create the feeling that we do not belong, despite the expectation that Latin American researchers must “perform” at the same level as everyone else.

Ana M. Valenzuela-Toro next to the remains of an extinct seal inside.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro examines a fossilized seal at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.Credit: Carolina S. Gutstein

The move to virtual conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic has alleviated some of these problems. More Latin American researchers, including ourselves, have been able to attend and present their work at, and even organize, international conferences. In fact, we co-hosted a Roundtable on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Science at a meeting on Marine Tetrapods (Four-legged Vertebrates) earlier this year.

However, many international conferences remain expensive (the exchange rate from dollar or euro to Latin American currencies is often unfavorable). The combination of costs and all of the previously mentioned obstacles fuels the idea in the academic community that we Latin American researchers are passive spectators rather than active contributors to science.

Access barriers

Access to literature is generally taken for granted, but most academic and research institutions in Latin America cannot meet the exorbitant costs of open access agreements with the largest academic publishers.

The fee-paying walls of journals exacerbate the disparities between Latin American researchers and their colleagues in the North. The links between the north and the south are already weak due to the funding issues highlighted above, and become even weaker when researchers are unable to read other people’s papers.

Often the only way to access published literature is with the help of collaborators from foreign academic institutions or through social media platforms. For example, we are both members of Facebook groups dedicated to sharing articles with Latin American colleagues. Without this international social media community, we may not have been able to complete our research.

Language barrier

Researchers in Latin America and others in non-English speaking countries should publish in English, the standard language of science (even in this article). However, it is generally not taught in many schools in our area. Many Latin American researchers cannot access English courses until they have paid positions, which in turn are difficult to obtain without a solid record of scientific publications in English, creating a situation chicken and egg.

During the peer review process, editors and reviewers often make negative comments about the language and ask for reviews by people whose first language is English. But these requests generally do not take into account the corrections already made by the co-authors of the English-speaking countries before the submission. This compounds the impression that manuscripts with lead authors from non-English speaking countries are somehow less professional. In addition, paying for professional translation and writing services places an additional financial burden on Latin American authors.2.

In our countries, these services can cost the equivalent of a month’s rent, making them inaccessible. Therefore, free online translation tools, combined with the generous help of non-academic friends and colleagues, and countless hours of self-proofreading and editing are essential to overcome this hurdle and publish our work. in English.

Gender bias

Studies show that conscious and unconscious gender biases are still prevalent in peer review3. Manuscripts written by women are more frequently rejected and less likely to be published than those written by men4, perpetuating a cycle of invisibility: a cycle in which articles are discarded, resulting in fewer future scientific opportunities, and therefore fewer articles and perhaps more long-term rejections.

Even when researchers overcome these hurdles and eventually publish in peer-reviewed journals, an additional hurdle exists: lack of peer recognition, including lower citation rates.

More citations means being considered more often for presenting work at conferences and having more networking opportunities, thus cementing the path to academic success. The contributions of women are considered less relevant than those of male scientists, resulting in fewer citations overall, thus reinforcing the “invisibilization” of female researchers.

When we think of the most cited or published authors, frequent guest speakers at conferences, or the most distinguished scientists internationally in our own fields of research, how many Latin American female researchers come to mind? (One) surprisingly, almost none. If we ask you to do the same exercise, you will probably get the same result. This is not explained by a lack of Latin American researchers, but rather by the consequences of the cross barriers mentioned above.

Steps you can take

There is no simple solution to these intersectional problems; however, we suggest a few starting points:

• First, listen with empathy whenever Latin American researchers – especially women and other underserved scientists – talk about the challenges they face.

• Use any platform to amplify and recognize their research.

• Journal editors and reviewers should be more aware of accessibility barriers and that English may not be the author’s first language.

• When writing an article, consider the representativeness of the articles you cite. Include articles edited by colleagues from different gender identities and geographies, thereby increasing the diversity of research cited and discussed. A similar strategy can be applied when suggesting reviewers.

• Make conferences more accessible. Promote virtual presence and funding sources for people who have travel difficulties, and foster equitable networking opportunities between people from various backgrounds and academic levels.

• Ultimately, remember that many Latin American researchers start their academic careers in an unequal position; the only way to level the playing field is for all of us as a community to take steps to break down these barriers.


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