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Sharp drop in research output after purge of academics

The short-term effects of the large-scale purge carried out by the Turkish government since the failed coup attempt a year ago include a 28% drop in research output of academics based in Turkey in 2017, according to a new study.

The study is published by Freedom for Academia, a group of Turkish and British academics and researchers dedicated to “bringing injustices to the attention of the public and academic circles”.

The 15 July 2016 coup attempt left more than 200 people dead and more than 2,000 injured, and on 20 July 2016 the government enacted a state of emergency with the stated aim of countering threats to national security arising from the attempt to overthrow the constitutional government.

The main target of the purge was people perceived to be followers of Fethullah Gülen, the head of the Gülen movement, whom the government holds responsible for the coup attempt, referring to them as the ‘Fetullah Terrorist Organization’ or FETÖ.

According to a detailed report by Amnesty International published in May, “it is clear that a much wider group of people have been targeted”.

The introduction to the Freedom for Academia study says that in the aftermath of the coup attempt, the AKP government wasted no time in “using this as an excuse to suppress all dissent”. Within days, more than 9,000 civil servants…, many media outlets but also universities were closed with a single decree (Decree 667).

All those purged lost their right to work in any public institution and had their passports cancelled – thus could not travel abroad to find work. Most were imprisoned and-or detained at least for a short time, and some are still in prison today. Incidents of gross human rights violations were reported by Amnesty International, including physical, psychological and emotional torture in prisons.

In Decree 672 issued on 1 September 2016 more than 2,000 academics were purged in one go. Numerous later decrees brought the total number of academics purged to 8,000, the study says.

In addition to universities being closed down, the purges led to many academic departments having to close, leaving many students without lecturers; and hospitals were left without key personnel because many medical academics were serving part-time in them; and many projects funded by the state came to an abrupt end, the study says.

“Consequently, these changes have had negative psychological, emotional, and social effects on the population, but also had an impact on the research output of Turkey-based academics,” the study says.

To analyse the effect of these large-scale purges on the research output of Turkey-based academics, the Freedom for Academia researchers examined the number of articles published by Turkey-based academics on SCOPUS, the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature.

SCOPUS provides comprehensive data on the authors, journals and the articles, making it feasible to filter according to the authors’ affiliated country, the academic field of the authors, and the type (for example, article, review) and date of published articles.

The study used a date three months after Decree 672 as a starting point, to allow for the time it would have taken for papers submitted before the decree to be published. Therefore, they compared research outputs in the period 1 January to 31 May 2017 with the same period in 2016. They also analysed the trends in 2012 to 2015 for background context.

The researchers identified a fall of 28% on average across subject areas. The most affected fields were the social sciences and medicine, with reductions of 44% and 36% respectively.

Sharp decline in research output

“This sharp decline in the research output in 2017 compared to 2016 becomes more striking when 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 figures are brought into the equation, as a stable upward trend in the research output of Turkey-based academics was observed in this time period – with, on average, 5% more articles being published compared to the previous year, every year, across all fields,” the study says.

The study says around 8,300 academics have been purged out of approximately 150,000, amounting to 6% of the total. The percentage among leading academics may be higher, the study says, because the government has “mainly targeted influential critics among prominent academics”.

These include Professor Öget Öktem-Tanör (neuropsychology), Professor Sedat Laçiner (political sciences), Professor Mehmet Altan (Economics), Professor Ibrahim Kaboglu (constitutional law), Professor A Özdemir Aktan (general surgery), Professor Melek Göregenli (social psychology), Professor Ayse Gül Yilgör (economics and administration), Professor Haluk A Savas; (psychotherapy) and Professor Aysegül Jale Saraç (physiotherapy).

The study says the 28% decrease in output is not totally explained by the proportion of sacked academics and is likely to be due to a combination of factors:

  • The sacked, on average, may have been more productive in publishing articles than the remaining ones;

  • The psychological stresses that the remaining academics are facing (for example, research has become secondary, fear of publishing controversial or critical articles, not being able to concentrate due to frequent ‘breaking news’);

  • Sudden cuts in funding to some departments and-or many projects being cancelled, and

  • A significant number of academics who had the capacity (for example, already established or with promising CVs) may have already left the country and found a job abroad prior to 2017 – although they were not sacked by a decree.

The study said further research was needed.

“As not enough time has passed since these purges to carry out comprehensive longitudinal studies, we can only analyse the short-term effects of the large-scale dismissals,” the study says.

“However, it is conceivable that the long-term effects may be more catastrophic for Turkey-based research and science.”

This is because many academics who have not been sacked still fear for their jobs – and imprisonment – as many of them are being monitored via their personal communications by overzealous university rectors and deans, the study says.

“Carrying out research has therefore become secondary to numerous academics, and many are looking for jobs abroad; and this is bound to lead to a ‘brain drain’, detrimental to the country’s higher education and science systems,” the study says.

Related Links
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Is imprisoned academic a victim of a mass witchhunt?
Decrees threaten university autonomy, sack 1,267 staff
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Growing global opposition to breach of academic freedom
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