Illustration by Neema Iyer
A few weeks ago, I was reviewing research proposals and noticed something problematic in the references provided in the background and context sections. I could roughly put the reference types into two buckets: 1) Western scholars or institutions, 2) referencing the self. This research topic is one that I have worked on for several years. I'm keenly aware of the researchers, both academic and civil society in this space, and yet, could hardly find these names cited within these proposals. This is not new news. I’ve come across papers where our work at Pollicy is not cited or incorrectly cited or attributed to the donors or partners involved rather than the authors.
A few days after my proposal review process, someone sent a message requesting for resources on another topic in a feminist Whatsapp group that I am a member of. This request is made regularly, either every other month or once a quarter, sparking a brief discussion about why these crucial resources seem to fail in reaching their intended audiences. Some of the questions raised were:
What are the barriers preventing African women from accessing important resources when they are most needed, considering the significant financial and emotional investment made into these topics?
Why do contemporary works often fail to reference previous scholars and knowledge, particularly those contributions made by African women?
How effective are the existing platforms and channels in promoting and disseminating the work of African women scholars to a wider, pan-African or global audience?
Finally, where do we go from here?
The work on the politics of citation and the erasure of women’s voices within academia has already been articulately discussed by several brilliant minds such as Sara Ahmed in their blog Making Feminist Points or by Christen A. Smith in their article “We are not named” and podcast titled Cite Black Women.
In this blog, I want to list out some of the reasons for this erasure and look at why there may be an additional technological reason that needs to be addressed. I hope that this writing can add to and move us forward in terms of how we credit, appreciate and grow our scholarship.
Why are citations important?
Citations are important because they acknowledge and credit. Citations first of all let us know who the original creators of an idea or research findings are, ensure that they receive the recognition for the piece of knowledge and show appreciation for the work done. In a world where women’s contributions are very, very, very often ignored, unnoticed or unacknowledged, especially for women from underrepresented groups, this is a basic show of support and respect. This allows other or contemporary researchers to build upon previous work. Lastly, citations allow readers to easily verify the sources of information within a knowledge product adding to the credibility of the work.
Furthermore, in Western Institutions, such as in the US, students may go through 4 years of university without ever coming across a Black professor in a course, and in the UK, just 1% of all professors in academic institutions of higher learning are Black. It’s possible to go through all their coursework without ever coming across the work of an African woman or citing one. That’s why syllabi and reading lists such as this one by Dr. Awino Okech are so important, to as she put it, “privilege African feminist scholarship” in academia.
What are some reasons why African women are not cited?
Unawareness: Writers and researchers may simply be unaware about how to appropriately cite scholars’ work or the importance of citations. We could apply Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, and just assume, “they didn’t know better.” A number of people enter the work of civil society, such as knowledge production or dissemination, through different paths which may not have included a university education or from institutions or fields of learning that did not teach appropriate citation methodologies.
Intellectual Laziness: In this case, the reason could be that they do not seek or read the works of African women. Researchers may opt for articles and other knowledge products that are most easily accessible, which could imply relying on well-known or widely cited works or whatever shows up on the first Google page.
Malicious Erasure: With this type of erasure, there may be a deliberate attempt to downplay or ignore the contributions of African women, either to maintain certain narratives or to falsely present oneself as a pioneer in a field. There could also be the flawed thinking that it’s better to cite someone from a Western organisation, with an Anglo sounding name, rather than a woman down the street at a local tertiary institution or community-based organisation.
Inadvertent Erasure: Sometimes I come across pieces of work by civil society or governmental organisations and they do not have an author name. There are several reasons why this might be the case such as collective contributions of an entire department, standard practice that emphasises institutional authorship and views over individual recognition such as on white papers, or confidentiality or anonymity to protect the author. In some cases, the organisation might have hired an external consultant but wants the final output to be perceived as an internal product.
Technological Impediments: Given that I call myself a “technologist”, it feels fitting to expound further on this point. It’s one that I’ve given much thought over the past few years, especially as I tried to effectively disseminate the research findings of Pollicy and increase our digital footprint as well as research authority and credibility.
Note: I have intentionally listed the reasons in this order because I find all the above reasons to hold more weight than this one, but it is nonetheless an important one to consider as our lives become more digitally intertwined.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Issues: SEO is what ensures your website ranks highly on Google and in 2022, the global market for SEO was estimated to be valued at US$68 Billion rising to US$130 Billion in 2030. SEO involves using certain keywords, metadata, website structure, page load speeds, mobile optimisation, SSL certificate, image optimisation and other techniques to improve the visibility and ranking of online content. Most importantly, larger/Western organisations usually tend to rank higher due to larger budgets for more robust digital infrastructure, more resources dedicated to website development and SEO, and greater international recognition. Their content is thus more visible, and is as such more cited, and the cycle continues. Many African university and civil society websites are still slow, sluggish and have a poor mobile experience.
For easy demonstration, I’ve used GTMetrix to obtain an overall assessment of page performance for a few random institutions. The Structure Score is a proprietary measure meant to indicate how well a page is built for optimal performance. Of course, there may be some Western institutions with poor scores and some African ones with much higher scores. This is simply the sample I picked before GTMetrix informed me I’d have to upgrade my account to test any further websites.
Top African University
Well-known African Women’s Civil Society Organisation
Renowned UK-based University
This website ;)
Publishing Primarily in PDF Format: While PDFs are a common format for academic papers and reports from civil society, they are not as easily indexed by search engines as HTML pages, especially if they contain complex layouts, large text-based images, or non-standard text formats. This can make it harder for search engines to discover and rank these documents, reducing their visibility.
PDFs are not always mobile-friendly, particularly if they are designed for print or have a fixed layout. With an increasing number of users accessing content via mobile devices, a PDF's lack of responsiveness can lead to poor user experience and readability. HTML pages also offer better options for engagement and interaction, such as comments, likes, and shares. This interactive aspect can enhance visibility and dissemination. PDFs, being more static, do not typically offer these interactive features.
Broken Links: This is one that I encounter often while researching, whereby a link to a resource on an existing website is broken and does not lead to the intended page or file. This can occur when the linked content is moved or deleted. It can also happen when a website undergoes a redesign or updates its content management system and the URL structures change. If these changes aren't managed with proper redirects, it results in broken links. These outdated or incorrect links then fail to direct users to the intended pages.
This issue is particularly problematic if external websites have linked to these pages, as those links will lead to error pages, impacting the user's ability to find important resources and information. For some, these websites may be the only repository where their knowledge products are housed safely and when the links are broken, well, it’s just sad and frustrating, both to the author and to the community.
Expired Websites or Domains: If the research is hosted on websites or domains that have expired or are not well-maintained, due to non-payment of fees to the domain registrar such as Godaddy or 101 Domains, or a website builder where the website is hosted such as Wix or Squarespace, it becomes inaccessible over time.
This is particularly a problem for individual researchers or smaller institutions that may not have the resources to maintain an online presence indefinitely. For example, some websites may be created for a specific donor-funded project. When a project concludes, which they always do, there may no longer be budgeted financial support for website hosting and maintenance. As a result, over time, the website may become inaccessible, de-indexed and will no longer appear on search engines. Some of these resources may be retrieved from the Wayback Machine, but it would not appear on a Google search, for example.
Suspended Social Media Accounts: When social media accounts are suspended, all the content and knowledge shared on them can be lost. For African women researchers and academics, who use platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook to share insights, findings, or engage with the wider community, a suspension can mean the erasure of ALL their valuable contributions. This is particularly impactful if social media is a primary means of disseminating their work or engaging with the public. The reasons for suspension could be platform policy violations which can be erroneously applied or which are openly racist or colonial in nature or targeted reporting by groups opposing the author’s views, especially when addressing topics such as misogyny, racism, colonialism, capitalism etc.
Deletion of Inactive Accounts: Many social media platforms have policies where inactive accounts may be deleted after a certain period. If an African woman academic or researcher has an account that becomes inactive, either due to a shift in focus, lack of mental or financial resources to maintain a digital presence, death or other reasons, the content on these accounts could be lost. This includes posts, discussions, and any shared articles or research findings. The deletion of these accounts not only erases their digital footprint but also removes a potential resource for citations and historical reference. There are many beautiful moments in African feminism that lasted for a brief time and whose Facebook pages are an archive of these movements, which could eventually be lost forever.
When it comes to citing African women, there are significant systemic issues around power, visibility and respect. However, all these seemingly minor technological issues can compound and impact the discoverability as well as perceived credibility of African women’s knowledge production. There is also an urgent need for more robust and enduring methods of disseminating and preserving our intellectual contributions. The topic of digital archiving is outside the scope of this blog, but I promise I’ll come back to it in 2024.
As always, I eagerly wait for your thoughts on this framing and where we go from here.
Note: Many thanks to Mardiya Siba Yahya for reviewing this blog and sharing wonderful resources and thoughts before I published it.