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Decolonisation and Anti-Racism

Decolonial research practices

When it comes to research, there are many questions to be asked:

  • How do assumptions about power affect the research questions we choose?
  • Who pays for this research; and what purposes does the research serve? 
  • Who conducts the research? 
  • What relationship does the researcher have with the research ‘subjects’?
  • Are bodies of knowledge biased? 
  • How are research methods informed by a dominant tradition? 

The importance of exploring decolonial practices goes beyond the insight it offers to the research of indigenous groups, although the growing body of literature around decolonising methodologies is extremely valuable. Decolonisation exposes the presence of dominant discourses and the influence of dominant groups in what is researched.

Researchers are encouraged to be critical and reflexive throughout the research process. Decolonial research practice reminds scholars that many assumptions about knowledge, truth and rationality are drawn from literature and practice developed at a particular time and place.

Catalogues, classifications and codes

Pictorial representation of The Library of Congress Classification System

Library collections are organised using metadata including subject headings. Subject headings are a set of controlled terms set by the Library of Congress (other controlled vocabularies exist) that appear on many records on Library Search. They are usually a useful tool for finding specific items or determining the scale of a particular subject in a collection.

These classification systems and subject headings reflect the male, white, western, Christian, heterosexual and non-disabled orientations of their originators, as well as the time and place in which they were constructed. As a result, groups of peoples and ideas that fall outside of what is represented by these classifications are ‘othered’ and marginalized. In terms of library services, this can negatively impact the ability of students and researchers to successfully retrieve information on these topics. On a larger scale, biased classification systems and subject headings reinforce dominant hierarchies of knowledge.

The University of Sussex Library is engaged in a continual effort to practice critical cataloguing which is part of a broader effort in librarianship to make the catalogue and the terms we use within it more inclusive. The work involves removing or amending terms from the Library of Congress Subject Headings that we consider offensive or inappropriate and changing cutter numbers in the classification scheme that are codes for similar outdated or undesirable terms. This work will not decolonise the catalogue or classification schemes, but it is important to change the things we do have the means to change, however small they are.

Researchers can incorporate this approach into their own practice by critically examining the codes and classifications used in secondary research data, and by taking active steps to avoid the replication of exclusionary descriptions in created datasets.  

University of Sussex Library predominately uses the Library of Congress classification system for its collections. Below is a fascinating documentary called Change the Subject (2019), about a group of Dartmouth students in the US who challenged anti-immigrant language in the Library of Congress subject headings. 

The publishing ecosystem

The academic publishing industry is dominated by companies and presses in the global North. The history of academic publishing has its roots in Europe, and while the infrastructure has dramatically changed over time there are undoubtedly systemic inequalities ingrained in the industry. Academic publishers profit from the distribution of knowledge and make decisions about which research to publish, effectively validating some types of knowledge and marginalising others.

Authors from Global South institutions are underrepresented in a great many ‘high profile’ and internationally recognised outlets. This creates a situation that reinforces hierarchies of knowledge, language, research topics and methodologies. The role of academic publishing is rarely at the forefront of decolonial discussion and debate, but it has an impact directly on research careers.

The Open Access movement aims to reduce publication costs, to speed up the dissemination of research, to ensure the visibility of research and, crucially, to remove barriers to access research. The project is broadly supported by researchers and libraries; however, critics observe that some models of Open Access, specifically the pay-to-publish or Gold models, actively reinforce or create new inequalities.

Researchers can make active choices about where to publish. Consider where work will be disseminated or promoted and how accessible it will be. The Library's Open Access team can help researchers identify publication options. 

Citations as a measure of value

Publication metrics can be used to 'measure' the impact of a researcher or their outputs. Some institutions have used them in recruitment, probation, promotion or other processes. They also form part of the calculations used in university rankings. By their nature, research performance metrics can replicate and reinforce inequalities within academic institutions and academic publishing infrastructures. A number of widely used publication metrics rely on citation data, however critical race scholars have demonstrated that inequality is reproduced by racially biased citation patterns. Citation is political.

Metrics cannot provide a complete picture of the impact, or potential impact, of a researcher or their outputs. Quantitative methods alone cannot do justice to the richness of research culture. There is growing consensus that researchers and institutions should use metrics responsibly. The University of Sussex is a signatory to The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which sets out principles for assessing and evaluating research quality in a responsible way. 

Initiatives like DORA can contribute to a shift in research culture but research assessment methods remain contentious. Institutions can critically examine the use of metrics and hold metric tool developers accountable for their products. 

Databases and Open Access Online Resources