Academic dependency and the publication of journals

NARUMI SHITARA

 

IN 2000, Syed Hussein Alatas called for an emancipation from intellectual imperialism and the development of creative and autonomous social sciences in developing societies.1 Twenty years later, this call remains central in debates around western-centred systems of scholarly communication and academic evaluation, including the use of English as the lingua franca of the research world, university rankings, and publish-or-perish regimes that more highly value English-language journals. As scholarly communication continues to expand and become more complex, so does the need to examine academic dependency in the publication of journals. To that end, I offer findings and reflections from Japan, a country that despite its economic power, remains on the periphery in terms of knowledge production.

 

 

Academic journals are a primary media of scholarly communication, or the series of systems through which research is produced, evaluated, distributed, and stored.2 The explosive proliferation in the number of academic papers since the latter half of the 20th century has brought about two major changes in scholarly communication: (i) the commercialization of academic journal publishing and the growing oligopoly of major publishers mainly based in Europe and the U.S., and (ii) the development of citation indexes and the increasing evaluation of research performances through bibliometrics based on the data of these indexes.

As Fujii points out, ‘the majority of journals in citation indexes are from English-speaking countries and, furthermore, published by major academic publishers such as Elsevier and Springer,’3 which are based in Europe. Thus, to put it very simply, in today’s academics, the West dominates in both the publication and evaluation of research results, putting the process of knowledge production in the hands of the West. This has caused an academic dependency among researchers in the non-western world and in non-English speaking countries. However, as Syed Farid Alatas notes in the introduction of this special issue, in our age of academic globalization, it is difficult for academics to break free from the existing western based system of knowledge production.

 

 

I have been working at a university in Japan for the past 10 years as the managing editor of both English and Japanese language journals. During that time, I have witnessed first-hand both the imbalance of today’s knowledge production system and the challenges of emancipating from this system. In this essay, I discuss three major obstacles facing academic journals today, how Japan is attempting to overcome these obstacles, and potential ways forward.

Here it is useful to review what the citation index is and how it works. A citation index, as the name implies, is an index of citations of academic writings. The citation index allows us to know the works that a given work refers to as well as the works by which a given work is referred. In other words, a citation index ostensibly shows, with objective figures, the process of research development and the impact of individual studies. Web of Science or WoS (by Clarivate Analytics) and Scopus (by Elsevier) are currently the two leading citation indexes in the world.

The citation index was originally developed as a tool for libraries to assess which journals to purchase at a time when research communities were overwhelmed by the afore-mentioned explosion of scholarly articles. Since its inception, however, use of the citation index has gone beyond its original purpose and it is now commonly employed by research institutions and individual researchers to evaluate and analyze research outputs based on data extracted from the citation index. In this regard, use of the citation index to generate an ‘impact factor’ has had far reaching ramifications in academia.4 

 

 

According to Pendlebury, the National Science Foundation’s report of 1972 was the first to use publication counts and citation data to measure the research activities and relative positions of national units in the global competition of knowledge production. In the 1980s, the use of citation data to measure the impact and influence of research spread to European academic research groups, and with the adoption of New Public Management by universities in the 1990s, publication counts and citation data became widespread in the analysis and evaluation of academic departments, research groups, and even individuals.5 Today, citation index data are used as a main indicator in determining the World University Rankings.

For example, one of these rankings, Times Higher Education (THE), evaluates the performance of each university based on five points: Teaching (the learning environment); Research (volume, income, and reputation); Citations (research influence); International outlook (staff, students, and research); and Industry income (knowledge transfer). In evaluating performances in the categories of Research and Citations, THE uses Scopus data. Thus, the citation index is now used globally to evaluate the research performances of researchers, institutions, and even nations.6 This creates pressures not only for researchers, but also university administrators and academic policy makers to increase the number of journal articles, if possible, in journals included in these indexes that have higher impact factors.

 

 

Amid this pressurized situation, financial means loom large. As is well known, the commercialization of academic journal publishing and the oligopoly of major global publishers have caused the price of journals to rise, straining the budgets of university libraries. The resulting ‘serials crisis’, or inability of researchers to access journals, compelled each country to promote negotiations with publishers. Publishers responded by offering institutions ‘big deals’, or increasing the number of accessible journals by adding a small amount to the conventional price of e-journals. In effect, the cost of purchasing journals was not curbed, and widening a disparity in the research environment in which access to journals is dependent on the financial resources of each university or researcher.

To overcome the serials crisis, open access initiatives have been launched. These fall into two main categories: (i) Green Open Access, in which authors themselves make their papers available online through institutional repositories, and (ii) Gold Open Access, in which authors pay an article submission charge (APC) to make their papers accessible online for free. The latter system, in which authors bear the cost of publication instead of readers, is becoming more common, especially in the field of natural sciences, and its use is accelerating in Europe, supported by policies like OA2020.7

However, while Gold Open Access has attracted attention as a solution to the serials crisis, Bonaccoroso et al. sum up the problem that Gold OA creates: while readers can now read for free, authors cannot publish for free, and under this system the economic power of the authors or their institutions determines their evaluation.8 The problem of APCs is a global one, but it is more acute in countries at the margins of knowledge production and where research funding is limited.

 

 

In addition to financial disparity, the language bias of the oligopoly of western publishers presents another obstacle. Tennant documents ‘the linguistic and geographic biases’ of citation indexes, arguing that although ‘Scopus is larger and geographically broader than WoS… Scopus covers only a fraction of journal publishing outside of Europe and North America.’9 A 2019 study by Angel Vera-Baceta et al. found that English-language research represented 92.64% and 95.37% of all that indexed in Scopus and WoS respectively.10 Given these percentages and the pressures to get published in journals indexed in the major citation indexes, we can surmise a declining interest on the part of researchers to publish research in their native language. Certainly, the language of publication differs from field to field. In the natural sciences, English has already become the lingua franca and in the social sciences, English is becoming a main language of communication, especially in economics, while in the humanities, many papers are still published in native languages. However, the use of WoS and Scopus indicators by various evaluation regimes may urge researchers to publish in English in any discipline.

In May 2021, the publication of a controversial article (in Japanese) entitled ‘How long should we continue with Japanese journals?’ by the journal of the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence (JSAI)11 sparked a heated debate across disciplines on SNS. Those in favour of keeping such journals stressed their educational significance for young researchers and for preserving cultural diversity, while opposed argued that writing in Japanese was only a means to increase one’s number of achievements and that researchers could no longer survive as researchers if they did not present their work in English.

 

 

Writing academic papers in one’s native language is useful as a training ground for young researchers. What is more, I would like to stress the significance of publishing in native languages in returning research results to the wider society, including the general public, which supports researchers by paying taxes. The reduction of incentives to publish in native languages will result in a loss of these significant opportunities. In addition, we should mind the danger that some researchers may no longer focus on ‘local’ topics, which are not preferred in international journals, as Tennant discussed.12 The obstacle of language bias cannot be overcome simply by publishing in two journals, one in a native language and another in English, as this can be considered a double submission – a major ethical breach.

 

 

Finally, western-centred journal publishing and citation indexes are threatening the diversity of research. Sato rightly points out that ‘journal-driven research’ is spreading as a side effect of research evaluations based on citation indexes.13 Some researchers no longer seek an outlet to publish their results after conducting research, but instead choose their target journal before deciding what to research, and then proceed with their research so that the results will be more likely to be published in the targeted journal. Such a reckless approach to research carries a high risk of limiting not only the theoretical framework of the research, but also the breadth and depth of research topics, as well as the geographical areas covered and the perspectives included in the study.

The problem of research diversity should also be viewed from the dimension of referred works. Drivasa and Kremmydas argue that as a journal’s ranking rises, so do citations to the papers it publishes, due to ‘(i) more authors learning about and viewing these outlets and their publications and (ii) researchers signalling their paper’s own impact by citing highly ranked journals.’14 This fuels the so-called Matthew effect, or early success increasing future success chances, in journal publishing. I consider this is a very serious threat to journals in the periphery because without change to the current system, journals from all regions outside the West, which are currently dis-advantaged in journal rankings and do not have ‘high impact’, cannot expect future success.

 

 

Here I would like to refer to my own citation analysis of four journals of Southeast Asian studies (two in social sciences and two in humanities) published in Japan during 1987-2016.15 Among the English and Japanese articles published in these four journals, I selected only the Japanese-language articles and analyzed the various journal articles cited in them (excluding self-ciations). During the 30-year period, English and Japanese language articles accounted for the majority of citations, while Southeast Asian articles were cited to some extent. As for the country of publication, while Japan accounted for around 40% of citations, English-native countries (the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia) and Southeast Asian countries accounted for about 25% respectively, but since the 2000s, there has been a striking increase in the percentage of citations coming from journals published in English-native countries.

 

 

Though the trend is not yet clear in the humanities, in the social sciences, researchers are increasingly citing research (a) published in the English language and (b) approved by gate-keepers in English-native countries, while citations from journals published in Southeast Asian countries have also been decreasing since the 2000s and overall citations to articles in Southeast Asian languages declined during the 2010s. Although my research is a preliminary case study based on only four journals, which needs to be carefully examined and compared with other countries, it is important to consider carefully whether and how the spread of the citation index can endanger the diversity of research.

What measures does Japan have in mind to deal with these challenges? Statistically, Japan is an economic powerhouse, and the number of academic papers produced by Japanese researchers is high globally. However, in terms of knowledge production, Japan is on the periphery and is therefore a country concerned about intellectual imperialism.

Since last year, two proposals have been put forth vis-ą-vis the publication of journals, one by the Science Council of Japan16 and one by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.17 The former, concerned about Japan’s declining global status in research, suggests publishing its own international journals, without depending on large foreign publishers, and innovating a system of simultaneous multilingual publication through machine translation based on AI technology.

The latter, concerned about expenses including subscription fees and APCs, suggests evaluating the potential for publishing research results in media other than journals by major publishers. It emphasizes that Japan should recognize that research cannot be evaluated by quantitative indicators alone, and institutions should use indicators such as the number of papers or citations with caution.

 

 

Here we see two conflicting directions in these suggestions. The first assumes a world in which citation indexes are supremely significant and puzzles how to survive in such a world, while the second aims to create a new evaluation system independent of the current one. In other words, the first directs to accept academic dependency and to try to survive within it, while the second directs to break free from such dependency. These suggestions reveal the dilemma facing peripheral countries and how difficult it is to solve problems surrounding today’s knowledge production system.

In this essay, I have introduced, from the standpoint of a researcher and an editor on the periphery of today’s knowledge production system, some of the obstacles confronting academic journals in the face of academic dependency. As seen in Japan’s ambivalent strategy, overcoming these obstacles is complicated and difficult. To do so, there is a growing call for the revival of bibliodiversity – diversity in the distribution of academic information in various languages, through various media, and assessed by various evaluation regimes. Originating in Latin America in the twentieth century, bibliodiversity is now back in the spotlight among researchers, librarians, research administrators, and others considering intellectual imperialism in scholarly communications. In Japan, a 2020 declaration for the revival of bibliodiversity18 was translated and published and a seminar on this theme was held by a national research institute. However, discussions on what specific measures are necessary to recover bibliodiversity are still lacking and should be considered by each individual and organization involved in the various dimensions of knowledge production.

 

 

Here the role of journals published in the periphery and the revitalization of regional journals are critical. As a person involved in journal publishing in such a region, I would therefore like to conclude this essay by considering what we can do to restore bibliodiversity, or, in other words, to free ourselves from academic dependency.

While improving the quality of regional journals is paramount, improving their visibility is also vital. To that end, linking databases being developed in each country will increase the visibility and accessibility of research published in non-western and minor journals, which is often not included in global databases such as WoS and Scopus. Fortunately, many countries have developed their own databases of local journals (for example, J-Stage and CiNiiArticles in Japan, the ASEAN Citation Index in ASEAN countries, and country-specific databases in Thailand, Korea, India, and so on). Linking such databases will expand the reach of individual databases and the journals included in them. Furthermore, it will be useful to make the citation data on the linked databases freely available.

 

 

Recently, a new initiative called Open Citation, which makes all citation data available in an analyzable and open-access format, has been launched to compete with the fee-based citation data. The development of local journal citation data and its inclusion in the linked databases will lead to increased visibility and legitimate evaluation of such journals.

It is difficult to deny the trust that major academic publishers have elicited in their brands, and the convenience and excellence of the platforms they operate. For their part, the major citation indexes provide clear indicators and are convenient tools to use when evaluating research performances and making decisions. Therefore, even though we may understand the problems of today’s western-centred knowledge production system, it is difficult to break free from our academic dependency on it. A positive way forward will be for those in the periphery to cooperate and create a new knowledge production system, rather than criticizing or avoiding – the realities of the current system.