Archives, libraries, picture agencies, and publishers must do a better job of accurately reflecting science’s history and present.
Last month, Nature published a comment piece on how researchers and people in Flint, Michigan, collaborated to support each other during a water crisis. Nature‘s photo editor noticed that there are few shots of the people engaged, many of whom are Black, while obtaining photos for the piece. Nature is a research publication dedicated to serving the scientific community by publishing the most important discoveries—findings that expand knowledge and solve some of society’s most pressing issues. Their publications offer reviews, critical commentary, news, and analysis in addition to original research.
The Case of Elmer Imes
The publication also recently required a photo of physicist Elmer Imes, who was just the second African American to receive a PhD in physics in the United States in 1918. His PhD research was the first to demonstrate the quantum behavior of molecules. Nature sought university archives, but none of them had a copy of his picture. There was also nothing available from commercial photographic agencies. Although low-resolution, grainy photographs exist, even the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which houses images of many notable scientists throughout the country’s history, lacks a photograph. However, photographs of a number of famous white scientists from Imes’ period are accessible.
This isn’t a unique case either. Despite being one of the leading science communication outlets, Nature frequently uses generic photos to illustrate stories about under-represented communities and countries in science, in part because universities, national libraries, and commercial photo agencies have very few images of people from such groups.
Although the publication aims to try their best to work with generic photos in these instances, they are still undeniably less engaging than images of real scientists conducting meaningful research. When publications can add photos of the researchers themselves, they can really increase the effect of the piece — for example, by garnering more social media attention — which benefits the researcher themselves, their work and their community.
The Bigger Problem
Much of the issue stems from the fact that racial biases are not just present in individuals, but also in institutions—a phenomenon sociologists refer to as “structural” or “systemic” racism. Systemic racism refers to the well-documented fact that the majority of institutions, including politics, law, education, and health care, to mention a few, are essentially organized around beliefs and practices that operate against communities of color, particularly Black people.
For example, in technology, face recognition systems will commonly misidentify Black individuals, which are one example of systemic racism within the industry. These structural barriers are also present in the legal system, as evidenced by frequently cited racial disparities in mandatory minimum sentencing rules for drug use, as well as the targeting of predominantly Black, low-income communities for nonviolent drug crimes that can result in the loss of voting rights and other freedoms.
Although none of these principles are necessarily the product of malicious intent, overt prejudice, or contempt on the part of an individual. Individuals, on the other hand, are the ones who construct social institutions in the end. When the majority of these individuals are white, it’s all too easy for them to overlook the unique realities faced by minority groups, especially Black people.
Systemic racism and the diversity deficit in science extend to pictures, resulting in a skewed and discriminatory view across the breadth of science, both past and present. This is a problem that has to be addressed, and thankfully there are numerous possible solutions to rectify this issue.
Overcoming The Issue
When it comes to images of current scientists from under-represented cultures, obtaining high-resolution images of a level that international publishers need can be surprisingly challenging. The picture resolution on institutional webpages is frequently inadequate. However, there is a very simple answer, at least for certain institutions: when resources allow, universities should guarantee that proper access to high-resolution pictures of their researchers is provided, assuming people have given their approval.
Another issue is the scarcity of high-quality historical photos, particularly of people of color. Yet this too is not an insurmountable problem. For example, such photos may be found in university records or archives, and if they aren’t, these institutions will frequently know where to look for them or how to improve the quality of the ones they do have. National libraries should collaborate with universities to find and disseminate photographs of famous scholars.
Bringing about change in commercial photography companies would be arguably the most challenging, but no less essential, challenge. For media companies, these agencies are a vital supply of photographs. International scientific publications use them all the time and attribute them right next to the photos. However, if these research outlets want to search for photographs of specific Black scientists and scientists from other disadvantaged ethnic groups, this frequently produces negative results, forcing them to rely on generic images of individuals modeling a generic setting rather than photos of the scientists themselves. In other situations, images exist but are described improperly or are not tagged with relevant keywords, making them unfindable.
In an attempt to get a deeper understanding of the situation, Nature recently reached out to six big organizations to see if they had a dedicated staff member — or a systematic procedure — for increasing diversity in their science-related pictures. Three agencies replied with representatives. Shockingly, none has such a person. One photo archive admitted that Black individuals are underrepresented in its clinical medical photos and that it is attempting to rectify the situation. These organizations must make tracking and improving diversity a top concern.
Nature, as well as other science publishers and media sources, has a responsibility to do more to guarantee that they are publishing photographs of the individuals covered in their news stories. They also have a responsibility to commission more photographers from the communities they cover. This is something Nature is currently attempting to rectify in their weekly piece, ‘Where I Work’.
Universities, libraries, publishers, and picture agencies — the institutions that control so much of the world’s images — must all work to diversify their images. While photographs of people who have contributed to the latest discovery or innovation are missing from science’s historical record, it will stay incomplete. Such measures are also necessary to make research more accessible to persons from under-represented groups, as well as to guarantee future generations of researchers reflect those who science has historically failed to recruit.