Senior Director's Column

How do we know ourselves?

A discussion on the gap between geographical distribution of psychologists around the world and the scope of psychology literature, and ways to bridge this gap.
By Merry Bullock, Senior Director, APA Office of International Affairs

Merry Bullock, PhDWhat is the status of psychology around the world? Who are psychologists? Where do they work and do research? How has psychology developed around the world? Are there regional differences? Are there country differences? One way we can try to answer these questions is to find ways to describe the scope and distribution of psychologists and psychology around the world. Anyone who spends time reading the “international psychology literature” knows that there are many descriptions of psychology within countries or regions in a variety of edited volumes and handbooks. They also know that comprehensive quantitative measures to describe the state of psychology are spotty at best. But without some measure of psychology’s scope and output, it is difficult to articulate a global description of the discipline.


Metrics for describing psychology

Are there metrics we can use to describe the scope of psychology today or to understand its development? We can try to estimate the demography of psychology — its size and distribution — in various ways. This includes the number of psychologists in each country; the founding dates of departments or organizations of psychology in each country; publication output per country; the number of psychology programs or number of students graduated in psychology per country; and the growth of regional organizations. Each tells a piece of the story about who psychologists are, where they work, and how their numbers and distribution have changed over time. We can try to describe the scope, content and emphasis of psychology by yet other metrics. These include bibliometric analyses, citation and impact measures, and metrics to assess current “hot topics” or thought leaders.

What do these measures tell us?

First, they show that the geographical distribution of psychologists around the world has changed. In the 1980s, most of the estimated 200,000 psychologists worldwide were in the United States. Today, it is estimated that there are close to 1.5 million psychologists worldwide — more in Latin America than in the United States, more in Europe than in the United States, and increasing numbers in Asia and Africa. The broader distribution of psychologists is also reflected in the number of countries in which there is a national psychology organization — today in more than 100 countries.

Second, changes in the demographics of psychology are changing the face of psychology. Most generally, psychology is increasingly an applied discipline. As far as it’s possible to tell from the information available, growth in the number of psychologists has been much faster in applied areas than in basic research areas. This is not surprising when one considers that this growth has also taken place in countries with massive challenges appropriate to behavioral intervention — in areas such as education, child development, violence prevention, poverty eradication, and the like. As a result, those studying psychology and those hiring psychologists are looking for expertise relevant to addressing community and individual social challenges. In addition to a shift in its focus toward applied areas, psychology has also become more self-aware of its cultural limitations, and of the need to explore phenomena outside the laboratory and outside of western, educated populations. It has also become more aware of the need expand the toolkit to include methods more familiar to other social sciences such as qualitative analysis and participatory research.

Third, there continues to be a difference between the distribution of psychologists around the world and the global scope of the world’s psychology literature, at least as reported by common metrics. Articles addressing U.S. domination of mainstream psychology journals have made a sobering claim that our science cannot claim to be representative of the general world’s population because the data and perspectives reported come from a small section of that population.

Bibliometric studies have shown that about half of the publications in “mainstream” journals are from U.S. authors. Many such studies could be criticized for polling only journals based in the United States or based in the United States and Europe. However, analogous studies on the content of international congresses (see work by John Adair and colleagues) and studies based on a comprehensive review of a worldwide sample of articles have similar findings. For example, in a recent issue of Universitas Psicologica (Panamerican Journal of Psychology — an open access, online journal), a study by Martinez, Guerrero-Bote and Moya-Anegon analyzed the world’s scienific output in psychology using the 17,000 journals indexed by Scopus for the years 2003-2008. This study shows similar findings: U.S. authors produced close to half the world’s output (and European authors produced another 35 percent). However, they also showed that the output from Latin America and Asia has been increasing, and that low output countries can have a high impact in some areas. Similar analyses looking at output from a country, regional or institutional level can be made using the Scimago Institution Ranking system , which provides open-access data on research output from over 3,200 institutions around the world.

Overcoming the geographical gap

A gap in the geographical distribution of psychologists (which is becoming more equal around the world) and the visibility of those psychologists’ research and applied work (which is still heavily skewed to North American and European authors) impoverishes our knowledge base and prevents a global understanding of human behavior. How can this gap be overcome?

A first step is to help identify the nature of the gap. Is there a worldwide literature that is not represented in the “mainstream”? To some degree, this is certainly the case. The mainstream literature is an English literature, by and large. Local language journals from most countries in the world are not as extensively indexed (an exception are the 68 Spanish language journals indexed in Psicoredalyc, representing some 21,000 articles). Thus, one step is to find ways to increase access to those journals that are not in English, or that are not indexed in the large-scale databases. One example might be to encourage all journals to include English language abstracts or keywords.

A second step is to document the provenance of journal authors and to facilitate successful submissions from authors in those regions of the world that are least represented. Although many journals have reported increasing non-U.S. authorship, the increase is generally of European authors (in the article referenced above, about 45 percent of all psychology papers indexed in Scopus over a 5-year period were from North America, and an additional 35 percent from Europe). It is Latin America, Asia, and Africa that are the least represented. It would also help to document the provenance of subject populations. Except for sex and age, geographic variables are rarely reported, and are not part of the regular indexing terms.

These first steps require institutional changes in journal contents and emphasis. Another step is an individual one. It is for authors to explicitly seek to include broad geographical representation in their own reading, and to incorporate this in the articles they reference and cite. In a recent Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology article, Juri Allik (Estonia) reports that U.S. authors are at the top of the list for citing others from their own country (what he labels a “self-citation bias”). A simple step of searching out and using and citing researchers from elsewhere would help to overcome this bias.

Let me end with a proposal for international psychology: may we each make a new year’s pledge to seek out research reports from those countries or regions with low representation in the literature. In doing this, we will enrich our own understanding, and we will take an important step toward developing a discipline in which reported expertise better reflects the geographical distribution of individual psychologists.