How COVID-19 Impacts Scholarly Authors: What We’ve Found Out So Far, What We’re Doing Next

Earlier this year, we found that the pandemic was hitting female researchers especially hard. Is this still the case? And what other factors besides gender might affect academic careers during Covid-19? We want to know!

This article is part of the series “The New Normal: Perspectives on the Impact of Covid-19 on Academia”.

When Coronavirus first swept the globe, the insight team at De Gruyter conducted some research to find out how the pandemic was impacting academic authors. It painted a worrying picture of lockdown frustration, anxiety and stress with female scholars being impacted more than men. Now, with a second wave about to bite, we’re repeating the research to understand whether these problems persist – and more broadly, how the pandemic may be impacting, diversity, opportunity and scholarly careers.

Conducted in April 2020 and answered by over 3,200 journal and book authors, our initial survey showed that the pandemic was hitting many academics hard. Around half said they had less time – or indeed no time – for their research or writing. They identified a range of overlapping factors eating into their research time such as new online teaching processes and the remote supervision of students – all of which was taking longer. They also experienced problems because of working from home. Many had to juggle home-based working with lockdown home-schooling duties and caring for relatives.

Unequal Experiences

However, we found that these challenges weren’t experienced equally – there was a gender divide. Female researchers were being left with much less time for their research – presumably because life still goes on at home and they still take on the bulk of domestic and caring duties. Men’s research time was being impacted, that’s true, but they were being impacted less and in some cases, far less. In fact, a quarter of male academics said they could continue working without any restrictions – 15% of female scholars said the same. 27% of male scholars said lockdown had provided them with more time for their writing and research compared with 18% of women.

The research found that some scholars were thriving because they no longer had to commute or engage in onerous university admin and in times like these, any silver lining should be welcomed. However, as an academic publisher committed to nurturing research talent and encouraging a diversity and plurality of voices – these findings were a cause for concern. Might the pandemic be hitting academics unequally in other areas besides gender? This is something our insight team aims to investigate in our next survey but if it’s an early indication, some senior scholars and journal editors certainly think so.

Essential Networks

One of the senior academics we interviewed to inform the next stage of our insight research was Volker Gast, professor at Friedrich Schiller University and editor-in-chief (EiC) of Linguistics. For him, it’s clear that some academics are better placed to weather the pandemic than others: “The lockdown of schools and child-care facilities means that academics with young families have struggled with the coordination of work and private life. Some have found working from home very difficult and many early career researchers – especially those studying and working abroad without family or friends suffer from loneliness.” Continuing he said: “The reality seems to be that some academics are more protected from the worst impacts of the virus than others and some are more able to continue ‘business as usual’ than others.”

“Now is not the time for us to retreat from the world but rather, to engage with it fully and actively.”

Volker Gast

Whilst Gast is very thankful that some scholars are able to continue their research unimpeded, he’s concerned that others cannot – and what this means to research outcomes. “Good research requires strong, collaborative networks and diverse voices from all generations,” he said. “When academics retreat to their country houses these networks are affected. The academics who are most shielded seem to be those in permanent positions, with many years’ experience and those who already have well-established networks.” Adding: “Now is not the time for us to retreat from the world but rather, to engage with it fully and actively.”

Travel Trouble

Collaboration will also be impacted due to ongoing restrictions on travel according to Emeritus Professor Dennis R. Young, EiC of the Nonprofit Policy Forum. “The pandemic will have a mixed effect on international and national collaborative research,” he says. “The restrictions on travel have forced these collaborations online, but at the same time have reduced the opportunities to form new collaborations. As a result, international research collaboration will continue to expand, but its rate of expansion will depend on in-person travel which is likely to remain limited for the foreseeable future.”

Another area curtailed by travel restrictions and social distancing measures is conferencing. “The pandemic will impact all aspects” says Robert van Krieken, Professor of Sociology and author. “How they’re delivered, how they’re held, where they’re held, and who goes. Clearly, current conferences will have to switch to online formats but what will happen long term? The likelihood is that future conferences will by hybrids of ‘in person’ and online and this in turn will place fresh demands on venues and their cost.”

Whilst online conferencing might work in theory, Yong-Shik Lee, law professor and EiC of Law and Development Review is concerned that time-zone issues will have a dramatic impact on how they work in practice. Very much a live issue for Lee as someone responsible for putting together programmes for large global conferences.

“Before you start even talking about the academic implications of running a conference online, you need to think about how they might run when delegates aren’t in one place,” he said. “The only way to do it is to group people in accordance with time zones – otherwise you’ll be waking people up at 3 am to go to a plenary session. That’s not the best way to organise any conference because they should be organised by topic not by time zone.”

Concluding, he says, “I doubt that online conferencing as we do it now with collaboration, discussion and Q&A will work with events that are global in nature. But what we can do is switch to smaller scale events or ones focused around national or regional time-zones.”

Experience Benefits

But once again, a rapidly changing conferencing landscape may impact some more than others. The academics we spoke to raised concerns about the impact of an online shift may have on more junior scholars and on academics in the global south who might receive restricted access to content due to the time-zone issues Lee raises.

“For well-connected, senior academics, conferences, workshops, and research seminars are a great way to meet up with long-standing colleagues and exchange ideas,” says economics professor Árpád Ábrahám, EiC of The B.E. Journal of Macroeconomics. “However, for researchers at an early stage in their careers, they’re critical for scholarly progress and consequently for success, recognition, and promotion.”

Continuing, he says: “[Conferences] are about so much more than presenting work. There is huge value derived from the interactions that happen outside of the formal programme – the quick chats over coffee, the introductions made over drinks, the in-depth conversations had at dinner. Often, this is where the real work happens and even more importantly, where new collaborations start.”

Like many academics we spoke to, Ábrahám worries about the broader consequences of the shift to online and the demise of face-to-face interaction and collaboration. “Although individual careers may suffer, it is scholarship that suffers more broadly, as well as the circulation of knowledge and the diversity of ideas” says Ábrahám, “and this is something that academics, universities, publishers, and indeed society as a whole should be concerned about.”

Next Steps…

We know that the first wave of the pandemic hit female scholars harder than men – that’s clear. In our next survey, we aim to find out is whether this is still the case, what the long-term damage may be and whether other academics – and particularly those at an early stage of their careers – are also being disadvantaged as the pandemic progresses. The results of our second insight survey are currently being analysed and we shall report back soon.

[Title Image by Janko Ferlič via Unsplash]

Deirdre Watchorn and Chris Smith

Deirdre is Senior Manager of De Gruyter's Insights & Analysis team. Chris is a writer, researcher and communications consultant working with scholarly publishers. He’s also co-founder of Prolifiko which runs coaching programs for academic writers.

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