May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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International Perspectives

Publish Globally and Perish Locally:
Rating System in the Elite Universities
in the Arab East

Sari Hanafi, American University in Beirut


Since the seminal work of Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, many authors have been interested in the role of higher education and university systems on elite formation. Since its inception, the modern higher education system has been a major site of struggle over culture and inequalities. In the Arab East (Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian territory, Jordan, and Lebanon), there are different types of universities (public, élite, and commercial) that produce different types of elite with weak or strong links to the societies that surround them. Here I focus on elite universities that are often American-style universities in the Arab East.

This article suggests that the understanding of a field’s scientific practices is connected to the analysis of the interrelations between its contextual modalities of institutionalization and the characteristics of the knowledge it produces. Donor agencies and universities tame the social science. The State either promotes the loyalists or criminalizes the opponents. Being institutionalized to all these frames, social scientists do self-censorship.

It is well known that the university orients research through funding research or favoring a certain type of research output for the promotion of faculty. Research output is the most important criterion for promotion. For instance, according to the regulations of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the American University of Beirut (AUB), "The research output should reflect an international standard in fields that are deemed timely and contributing to knowledge in a well-defined area of research. Above all, it should be published in recognized academic journals that are refereed internationally. In the case of books, the quality of the publisher, the process of refereeing, and the reviews the book receives will be taken into account."

A Loss of Local Debate

There is no mention by the AUB regulations about the importance of publishing in regional or local publications. The regional or local journals cannot compete with the "international recognized journals," but they can generate better debate locally and regionally. This regulation ignores the importance of language. In discussing their promotion, some faculty reported that "Arabic articles cannot be counted" or are labeled pejoratively as a "local." The 2008 annual report of Faculty of Arts and Sciences at AUB clearly demonstrates how few social science publications are published in Arabic (only 3 of 245 articles and 2 out of 27 books). American University of Sharja does request in the research criteria that some of the research activities should "apply specialized research to the needs of the UAE." However, there is no encouragement to publish in local or regional outlets.

How have we reached this point? Academia is defined by the control mechanisms for accepting new faculty members into the university ranks. The selection and molding of these new faculty members are a core exercise of power in the ongoing creation of academia. I blame the academic corps more than institutional regulation. According to many interviewed faculty, some of the practice of discouraging dissemination of research beyond referred journals is related to snobbery and not at all to the regulation. There are also other factors like the deficiency in number of refereed journals in the Arab World.

While this problem is acute in the elite universities in the Arab World, a similar problem can be found in a large part of the southern world as well. In South Africa, for instance, Tina Uys noticed that the rating system of their scholarly output, while designed to promote international competitiveness, raises major problems for embeddedness of the research in the local context.


The entire promotion system has an objective of institutional isomorphism with American universities, but this objective should not stand alone. Accommodating the local context is also very important. Isomorphism is a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions. I am not against borrowing of institutional forms from North America, but rather the uncritical imitation of American institutions, especially when the Arab region has a very different set of environmental conditions from those of North America.

Ratings based on publications in international journals and relying on international reviewers draws research away from issues and problems of local and national importance. Faculty members have complained of reviewer reports rejecting their manuscript as "being not relevant to American audience," "mixing academia with advocacy," or "important American literature is not cited." One researcher found that 90% of the articles contained in the Social Science Citation Index originate in 10% of the world’s countries.

The idea of simple internationalization yields to a modernist imperative of producing (objective) knowledge of "who, what, when, where, why" with a "view from nowhere," while attention should be drawn to a knowledge that considers the (situated) questions of "for whom, for what, for when, for where" and "from whose viewpoint" as an inseparable part of the analytic framework. Public social science is a way of writing and a form of intellectual engagement that can be accommodated in an international refereed journals.

The result is the demise of fieldwork and textual analysis in favor of theoretical and statistical analysis. That researchers are exclusively required to publish globally has led them to perish locally. The difference between social sciences and natural sciences is crucial. Scientific research is undergoing an internationalization process. Internationalization is favored by large scientific programs—European or American—that set up international teams and often relies on researchers from non-hegemonic countries. However, social research is often local even if it rely on international funders. Consequently, it is problematic to completely internationalize the publication of the local research. Refereed journals jargon and does not make social science accessable to the general public, contrary to what some journals have declared.

Refereed journals should be one outlet of the social science production, important for the dialogue inside of the discipline, but should not be the unique publication outlet. Japanese and German social scientists reach a certain balance in this effort but not the Arab scholars from elite universities.

A Loss of Narrative

Becoming a globalized researcher does not happen without cost in terms of content or narrative. For instance, it is often difficult to publish articles critical of mainstream Western thought in the "core" journals of the field (i.e., the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Review, Social Problems, Social Forces, and Rural Sociology). Topics like social stratification, based on social class analysis and economic inequality, will hardly be published. In terms of narrative, the ratings system disregards publication in non-orthodox "scientific" journals, such as literary journals. Writing for an international standard indeed imposes a certain stylistic model and structure of argument.

Ratings systems also have not yet adapted to the new media technology. The proliferation of publications and resources on the Internet has dramatically changed the way information is transmitted. For academic journals, the internet provides an opportunity to make articles available to subscribers and the public while eliminating the delay that is inevitable with print publication. However, the promotion criterion discourages scholars from publishing in such journals.

In brief, in elite and private universities, instead of assessing research, international benchmarking of research output and rating system should count the product. An article based on two-year fieldwork is equal to a literature review.

While elite universities are often globally oriented, the national universities are only locally oriented. Faculty publish very little in international journals and in languages other than Arabic. The conditions for carrying out research are very difficult, with poor libraries and low salaries compared to elite universities. This leads to lack of interest, but also to difficulty in satisfying international journal criteria. A glance at the CVs of social science faculty at public universities shows that the faculty who published in English or French journals are those who graduated from Northern or Atlantic universities.

This marginality of the Arab production in the global arena is accompanied by invisibility in the international scientific community. Few scholars from the Arab world attend international conferences. National universities rarely provide scholarship to attend international conferences. There were only 5, 7, and 10 participants respectively in the World Congress of the International Sociology Association in Madrid (1990), Bielefeld (1994), and Montreal (1998). However, if Arabic social research is somehow peripheral to global knowledge circuits it is due to the non-hegemonic language (Arabic) not to the issues, perspectives, or paradigms that are used.

Finally, some local universities are aware of the importance of evaluating local and international publications. For instance, Birzeit University (Ramallah, the West Bank) distinguishes between research output and scientific output. To evaluate scientific output, applicants for promotion were invited to cite the titles of all their publications and talks addressed to large public audiences, while their research output concerns production in academic journals, books, and academic workshop attendance.

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, "International Perspectives." Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Lee Herring( or Johanna Olexy (

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