The blog of the Urban Institute
June 9, 2021

Three Ways Gatekeepers Can Further Racial Equity Awareness in Research

Conducting in-depth research entails much more than asking questions, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting the results. Editors, peer reviewers, government agencies, and funders also influence the research process. Researchers rely on these outside actors for publication, professional development, data frameworks and collection, and financial support.

At each step of the research process, these people and agencies act as gatekeepers, and their feedback can be rooted in systems that reflect structural and institutional racism and bias. In our recent report, Do No Harm Guide: Applying Equity Awareness in Data Visualization, we describe how researchers and data communicators can improve how they represent and talk about diversity across groups and communities. In this blog post, we focus on gatekeepers’ roles in the data communication ecosystem and how they can help promote more diverse, equitable, and inclusive research.

Editors and peer reviewers

Publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals is a critical part of many researchers’ careers. The process usually entails a researcher submitting work to be reviewed by a journal editor. If it passes, the research is shared with peer experts, who provide comments and potentially approve publishing the work. If the peer reviewers do not approve the submission, the researcher may need to refine their work and try another outlet, where the process repeats.  

Although this process effectively reviews the quality and rigor of the research methods, editors and reviewers often do not consider whether authors have sufficiently examined the role of structural racism. In numerous fields, researchers fail to attribute findings to structural racism in their scholarly writing, and editors fail to push researchers to further interrogate their findings. In a July 2020 blog post in Health Affairs, Rhea Boyd and coauthors wrote that “despite racism’s alarming impact on health and the wealth of scholarship that outlines its ill effects, preeminent scholars and the journals that publish them, including Health Affairs, routinely fail to interrogate racism as a critical driver of racial health inequities.” 

Researchers and scholars need to do a better job of examining how racism affects their findings, and journal editors and reviewers can facilitate this practice by revisiting editorial and publication guidelines, rejecting articles that fail to rigorously examine racism, and reviewing citations to ensure authors have explored racism’s effect in their field of study.

Government agencies, regulations, and directives

In addition to funding large amounts of research, the federal government has significant power and influence on how surveys are designed and how data are collected. In turn, this influence affects how research is conducted. Agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the US Census Bureau collect widely used datasets, and if they were to change how they collect or categorize data on race and ethnicity, many other agencies, firms, and organizations would follow. 

Data collection and communication guidelines should evolve and change as society, platforms, and technologies evolve and change. The last OMB directive on how federal statistical agencies should collect and report data on race and ethnicity was published more than 20 years ago, when it defined five minimum categories for race and changed the ethnic label designation from “Hispanic” to “Hispanic or Latino.” Despite changes in language and advancements in scholarship on race and ethnicity since the 1997 directive, the OMB has not kept up with updates.

Funders

Just as researchers should be responsible for taking a racial equity lens to their work, funders should be held a similar standard. Together, the research community and those potentially affected by research can track how they disburse funds and requests for analysis and which organizations and individuals predominately receive these resources. This accountability is perhaps best enforced by the research community, because of their direct connections to funders, but there are also avenues for other stakeholders to raise awareness. 

In some cases, funders may not recognize the need for overarching changes. In early summer 2020, the Rockefeller, W.K. Kellogg, and Walmart Foundations issued a request for proposals (RFP) to assess COVID-19 responses across food systems. In response to the quick-turnaround RFP, 17 groups led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) working in the food and agriculture sectors called for the RFP to be canceled, arguing that it reinforced food and agricultural justice inequalities by offering funding to “white-led organizations to do service work in BIPOC communities, or to fund a white-led organization with an established funder relationship to subgrant to an under-resourced BIPOC-led organization.”

The RFP allowed less than a month to submit project proposals, a deadline that would require large amounts of money and work, effectively cutting out smaller, BIPOC-led organizations. The BIPOC-led organizations suggested several steps the funders could take to be more inclusive, including cultivating real partnerships with BIPOC communities and BIPOC-led organizations, targeting funding to smaller, BIPOC-led organizations, and investing in multiyear grants using a participatory grantmaking model.

Individual researchers and data analysts are not the only people in the research pipeline who can help make research more equitable and inclusive. All kinds of gatekeepers—from journal editors and peer reviewers to government agencies and funders—can help build a system that treats researchers and participants and communities more equitably.


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