Not enough diverse academic research is being published

As Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit wrote recently, there is a crisis in academic publishing. But the problems are much worse than the authors contend.

In their commentary, they describe the isomorphic challenges of universities trying to become top research universities, publishing expectations for doctoral dissertations, and increasing pressures on academics to publish, all of which have overwhelmed top journals such as The Review of Higher Education causing them to temporarily suspend submissions.

Altbach and De Wit fault the academic system of pushing unnecessary publications and recommend reducing scholarly publishing by encouraging it primarily at designated research universities.

They provide some important recommendations, such as universities and associations addressing the increasing number of predatory journals, rewarding teaching as a core mission, and making access to leading journals more affordable, but their overall recommendation to limit scholarly output is not only unrealistic, it is also elitist because it does not address systemic issues related to global power and control. Rather, this suggestion magnifies them.

In trying to lessen research publications overall, the greater problem of who then legitimises and controls knowledge is left unaddressed, while issues of global dominance are reinforced.

There are three fundamental areas that require critical attention, involving knowledge creation, evaluation and dissemination, all of which are distinct but interrelated. Within each of these domains are unifying issues of power and privilege, all of which are largely controlled by the Global North.

Knowledge creation

Knowledge creation should not be limited to the elite universities, which are concentrated in the Global North. Nor should it be reserved for those at the highest ranks, which tend to lack diversity, including by gender, race, class and more. Reducing research publications leaves these roles and responsibilities to the narrow few at the expense of diversity.

While global university rankings continue to be a worldwide obsession, less research output will not change the positions of those already at the top and will likely further stratify universities. Research scholarship is important, especially from locations and perspectives that are not well represented in top journals.

These marginalised locations may have the most to contribute in regard to producing research with new findings as opposed to replicating old ones. By decreasing academic publications universally, these underrepresented parts of the world then also have the most to lose.

Limiting knowledge creation to top research universities and top researchers diminishes local knowledge production. There are different scales here that need to be addressed. One is global knowledge production that might examine broad global concerns across large datasets, many comparative cases, or within a global superpower, such as the United States. While proposing to make general claims about the world, outlying perspectives and activities can get lost.

On the other side is local knowledge production that not only produces findings applicable to the immediate community but might also challenge dominant frameworks. In short, research should be promoted everywhere, with even more efforts on strengthening as well as legitimising local knowledge, thereby allowing scholars in less studied parts of the world, in every field of study, to become part of the global dialogue.

Knowledge evaluation

Like the knowledge creation process, most of the peer review process is also dominated by the Global North. While there are exceptions to this claim, external reviewer biases that lack appreciation or knowledge about a ’faraway’ context or unfamiliar issue can easily lead to rejecting a manuscript.

Researchers from the Global South that emphasise the local context tend to have the added burden of appealing to anonymous reviewers’ subjective sense of what topics, data, methods and locations are important.

The process of knowledge evaluation must therefore change. For countries with just one or two top research universities, there is tremendous pressure on scholars to produce research that prioritises global over local interests in order to be highly cited. As they are evaluated on publishing in top journals in English (which may not be their home language and thus not read locally), there is less credit for publications that are locally accessible yet do not appeal to international audiences.

Research that might have more relevance in the immediate context might not be measured as having high ‘impact’. This widely accepted but hardly questioned criterion of ‘impact’, based on international citations alone, further advantages core players while marginalising the rest.

Rather than implying that these researchers address the problems dictated by the Global North or leave local research to less qualified experts, locally based research should be recognised for its alternative forms of impact and researchers rewarded accordingly by their institutions and their fields.

Knowledge dissemination

The major publishers need no sympathy for being flooded with manuscripts. As Altbach and De Wit rightly state, commercial publishers have a stronghold on the dissemination process. What is less criticised are ways that academics serve as unpaid labour while publication outlets profit. With the exception of most journal editors receiving modest budgets for their operations, the bulk of journal manuscript peer review is without pay, an embedded expectation of the academic profession that is hardly challenged.

The real knowledge dissemination crises concern the ways that the research function serves commercial publisher interests that limit participation globally. For top journals generally, there are hefty costs for an author to purchase permissions for unlimited ‘open-access’.

Accessing publications in top journals is restricted to the universities, organisations and individuals who can afford it, leaving much of the world without access to this new knowledge, further reducing their ability to influence citation indexes.

According to the OECD (2014), the number of international co-authorships in scientific publications has increased considerably over the past two decades. In 1998, there were 13 countries reporting international co-authorships in top scientific journals. By 2011, there were almost 30 countries reporting international co-authorships. If research had not developed in other countries, many of these collaborations would not be possible today.

More than ever, knowledge is produced globally by top ranked universities, but many regional initiatives and international partnerships also contribute to the production of knowledge.

Promoting diversity

In sum, our message is also a simple one: rather than stopping research publications, we should promote more diverse publications that help to expand the different disciplines, allowing for new inquiries, approaches, interpretations and even discoveries. In doing so, we must re-examine how we determine quality while taking advantage of the new forms of dissemination that technology allows us.

While global rankings have tended to narrow the conception of university quality to favour the few and have changed how universities reward faculty work, particularly with less emphasis on teaching, the publication process does not need to follow suit by similarly stratifying who does research and where the research is published.

Rather, more publication outlets are needed and should be recognised, particularly locally-based research that informs local problems. They should be subject to peer review standards and rewarded accordingly.

Additionally, journal editors and reviewers should consider the added value of research from parts of the world that tend not to be well represented in their respective fields. For example, in the field of higher education, there are many countries where the study of their tertiary education systems is highly anecdotal or unknown to the international higher education field.

Finally, doctoral students must be trained in the research process, whether or not they become academics, in order to discern rigorous research as well as understand how to participate in it. Challenges remain, such as addressing predatory publishers, but halting academic publications would be a grave mistake if we really want to create a global dialogue in the knowledge production system.

Jenny J Lee is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA, and visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Alma Maldonado-Maldonado is a researcher at the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE)-CINVESTAV, Mexico City, Mexico.