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Alma Jeftic
Careers and professional development, Crisis, disaster and trauma, Equality, diversity and inclusion, Work and occupational

Being non-WEIRD in WEIRD Academia

Alma Jeftić reflects on how she and other colleagues have been seen throughout their career for coming from a low and middle-income countries.

03 January 2023

‘How did you hear about this conference when you live in Bosnia-Herzegovina? And how did you even come to Amsterdam from Bosnia?

You say that you teach in English in Bosnia? Hmm... That's so weird.’

These are just some of the questions I have encountered at international conferences. Instead of talking about my work, published papers and teaching, the conversation would often take a different course. Here, I will summarise the major obstacles I have been facing as an ECR from a low-to-middle-income country (LMIC). Using personal experiences I attempt to provide better insights into the representation and inclusion of ECRs from LMIC in Western academia. My goal is not only to discuss the stereotypes and prejudices that such researchers encounter during job hunting and publishing, but also to explain possible methods for overcoming these discrepancies.

As a war survivor, I always put a special emphasis on the experiences of psychological researchers from war-torn societies. Hence, this reflection serves as a personal account but also follows up on the experiences of ECRs in similar situations who are trying to find their own non-weird way to remain and survive in WEIRD academia – i.e. an academic landscape that is dominated by people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic countries.

Travel and work permits

Coming from a country that belongs to the low-to-middle-income group, and especially a post-conflict, war-torn country, often puts you in a strange place when attending international academic conferences. But that’s also the case in other situations, such as applying for jobs in academia. All early career researchers, regardless of where they came from, find it difficult to secure a job in academia today. However, when you have a passport from a developing country, you face additional questions and/or comments during the interview:

Do you have a work permit?

It is necessary for the selected candidate to start work in two weeks, so would you be able to get a work permit by then or is it still too short a deadline... Similarly, when needing to travel to an interview or conference, obtaining a visa largely determines whether they will travel at all, and the process of obtaining a visa is lengthy, expensive and time-consuming. Of course, academics and employers from developed (WEIRD) countries do not have the power to directly change the administrative apparatus that governs the state in which they live. But the responsibility and willingness to facilitate moving around those barriers is entirely on them. What can be done?

Firstly, if you want to hire a PhD student or postdoc and you have an expected start date for the project, advertise for the specified position at least six months in advance. This way, you will avoid a situation in which you are forced to reject a candidate from LMIC because they cannot secure a visa and work permit within the stipulated period.

When you organise a conference, workshop or symposium, keep in mind that most participants from LMICs can hardly afford travel and accommodation costs, especially expensive visas and accompanying expenses. Therefore, it is most efficient to rotate the places and venues, in order to enable participation from LMICs. The rotation does not mean only changing the country within one continent, but the rotation of the continents. Also, virtual and/or hybrid participation is extremely encouraged. We want open science for all, don’t we?

Representation and inclusion

There are many barriers that surround psychological researchers from LMICs, and those concerning participation in Big Team Science projects (i.e. large-scale collaborations), editorial boards and peer review for higher ranked psychological journals, as well as publishing in the same journals, are particularly important here.

I was told several times that “the journal does not publish single-case studies”, but the problem really turned out to be that the single-case study was conducted in an LMI country. At a time when psychological science is struggling with a replication crisis, this kind of practice is very dangerous. Furthermore, requirements that “the paper must be proofread by a native English speaker” are common. Written language skills of native speakers are taken for granted rather than professional proofreading being a requirement for all authors.

So, be cognisant of your editorial board: include psychological scientists from LMICs. When planning a Big Team project, be sure to include ECRs from LMICs. This can only improve the replicability and generalisability of your results – and young researchers will have a great experience and opportunity for training and work.

Although English is mostly the official language of the academic community, acknowledge that even native speakers make mistakes. Proofreaders should always be professionals who are trained for the job. The fact that ECRs from LMICs speak at least one other language in addition to English is something that should be appreciated (especially when hiring).

Prejudice and implicit bias

As someone who is involved in researching war trauma and reconciliation, I often faced accusations such as “she is being biased in researching phenomena that she experienced.” The tendency is that ECRs (regardless of where they come from) often receive advice without the other party getting to know their specific activities and/or publications. However, the implicit bias and prejudice are significantly increased when it is known or assumed that the person is from LMICs: “Have you ever heard of this journal in your country?”, “And how is it possible that you use the same textbooks as us?!”, “And how did you learn English so well when you didn't study in an English-speaking area?”

While some of these questions stem from a simple interest and a lack of knowledge about the teaching process outside the WEIRD region, the frequent repetition of the same questions makes communication and collaboration difficult. What can be done?

If you are a Senior Scholar from a developed (WEIRD) country, familiarise yourself with the methods and ways in which psychology is taught and in which research is conducted in one of the non-WEIRD countries. Talk to ECRs from non-WEIRD countries and let them explain the situation. Regardless of whether the ECR you are talking to or interviewing is from a WEIRD or non-WEIRD country, familiarise yourself with their work, read their CV and pay attention to publications. Do not rush to conclusions and make potentially patronising suggestions without first reading their biography. If you are not familiar with their academic work, let them explain.

If in front of you is an ECR that comes from an LMI post-war country, don't rush to conclusions. Often these people are not biased in their research, but individuals who have built themselves up despite the trauma they had survived. For now, application forms do not provide the possibility for the candidate to emphasise that they come from a post-conflict country, so the least that can be done is to respect them as a person who succeeded despite the limitations of the environment and the horrors of war. If they weren't very good at what they do, they would certainly have a hard time succeeding considering the conditions they come from. And that is something that deserves respect.

About the author

Alma Jeftić has a PhD in psychology and works as a Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute, International Christian University in Tokyo. She is co-founder of ABRIR, Consortium of psychological researchers from LMICs and member of SIPS IDEA Committee. Alma works on trauma, memory and peacebuilding.