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Data Show Arab Scientists Making More Impact

Arab universities are beginning to inch up in an important measure of scientific development—indexes that measure the impact of research papers.

To accelerate the improvement in indexes, some Arab universities are even giving financial rewards to those laboratories whose papers are included in the indexes.

The push to get more global recognition for papers produced by Arab universities has not been easy, since they have a disadvantage: The vast majority of indexed journals are based in the United States and Europe.

The Web of Science citation index, one of the most commonly used indexes of the impact of research, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. If a scientist gets a paper in a journal included in such an index, he or she stands a much higher chance of being cited by future researchers. In the science world, the number of times someone is cited has become the currency of success. A citation, or reference to an earlier work, acknowledges it as an important foundation for other scientists to build on.

Until now, this system has largely prevented scientific research in Arabic countries from catching on internationally, since very few journals included in the Web of Science index hail from the Arab world. “We’re not trying to discriminate against Arab science,” said David Pendlebury, a citations analyst at Thomson Reuters. “Though it’s true that by focusing on internationally renowned journals, we bypass Africa and the Middle East.” Despite this, Pendlebury said the data show that more and more papers, both in absolute and relative terms, from Arab institutions are published in indexed journals. The gap is beginning to close.

Citation indexes have greatly changed since 1964 when the inventor of the precursor of the Web of Science, Eugene Garfield, published a five-volume print edition of indexed papers. For his research, he relied on the academics themselves. He collected the data on who was referencing whom. “Garfield used to call scientists his army of indexers, they did all the work,” said Pendlebury.

What began as a proxy measurement of a paper’s impact assumed a new level of importance in the 1980s. “Institutions in Europe decided to use it as a measure of university performance,” explained Pendlebury. Government agencies in the U.S. then took it a step further and started to use it as a way to decide whom to give money to. If a scientist could boast a high citation statistic, they stood a better chance of getting a grant.

The citation indexes also feed into university rankings, which are getting increasing attention in the Arab region. (See “How Saudi Universities Rose in the Global Rankings.”)

In other parts of the world, including China, university and government officials have become so obsessed about citation indexes that they pay bonuses to researchers for achieving high impact factors. Some Chinese universities pay bonuses of more than $30,000 to researchers who get a paper in the highly prized journals of Science or Nature.

Garfield’s invention has evolved into an online database, a sort of Google for scientists. It is an undeniably useful tool. But scientists in the early days didn’t warm to what they saw as an overly simplistic measurement. “It’s gone from rejection in the academic community to a sometimes scary amount of enthusiasm. Researchers commonly use it to claim status in their field and that means funding,” said Pendlebury.

Gap Between Arab Countries and the U.S.
(Data: Thomson Reuters Web of Science) Click on image to expand

Last year over 375,000 research papers from the United States, the country with the most citations, were included in the index. In the Arab region, Saudi Arabia leads in this statistic with 9,181 papers in the index, Egypt follows with 7,824 and Syria trails with just 314. The average for all the Arab countries included in the graph above is 4,736. The discrepancy between the United States and the Arab world is colossal—there are about 80 times more American papers included in the index than the average Arabic country.

Population can explain away a lot of the discrepancy. The United States has a higher population than all of the Arab countries on the list, and certainly many more universities, so it stands to reason the United States would have more indexed papers. It’s equally important to note that Western universities have more resources and more access to sophisticated research tools. “Arabic countries are not as well developed as the U.K. and U.S. in terms of scientific research,” said Pendlebury.

There could also a language factor at play, be it Arabic or French in many parts of North Africa. Research that focuses on the needs of local concerns tends to be published in the local language. While citation indexes include some non-English language journals, the chances of being cited are drastically improved if a paper is published in English, the de facto language of science.

The underrepresentation of Arab institutions in the indexes is most noticeable in humanities and the social sciences, said the president of Morocco’s Mohammed V University-Agdal, Wail Benjelloun. Much of the production in those fields, he said, may be of high quality, but is geared towards national readership and is published in Arabic and or French, which has less international visibility.

Back in 2007, Malaysia was in a similar predicament. Most of the country’s research was published in local and national journals and did not get much international recognition. That situation triggered a policy change. “The Malaysian government gave financial rewards to academics who published in journals we index instead of Malay ones,” said Pendlebury.

At first the Malaysian government was concerned mainly with quantity. They wanted to get as many research papers indexed as possible—and it worked, said Pendlebury. “That led to exposure in the global community,” he said, “which led to collaboration.” About five years later, after the scientific community of Malaysia had benefited from collaboration with scientists in other countries, the government’s focus turned from quantity and to quality, said Pendlebury.

“This seems to be a transition that developing countries go though and looking at the data I think many Arab countries may have already begun the process,” he added. “All countries have significantly increased their output of cited papers since 2005.”

Arab Countries on the Rise.
(Data: Thomson Reuters Web of Science) Click on image to expand.

In the last ten years, Egypt has increased the number of papers it publishes in indexed journals by over 166 percent and Saudi Arabia by more than 522 percent. Morocco publishes in considerably fewer indexed journals than Egypt and Saudi Arabia, yet it too has seen a promising—if comparably modest—rise of over 60 percent.

Benjelloun runs a program at his university similar to the one the Malaysian government deployed. He awards about $600 to those laboratories that publish in indexed journals. But that money doesn’t go to individual scientists. It has to be spent on sending students to international conferences. “We are convinced this is the principal reason why university indexed publications were multiplied four-fold over a three-year period,” said Benjelloun. Some universities in Tunisia are using similar programs.

If global science has a collegial surface, underneath that is a highly competitive enterprise. Scientists vie to be the first to make even minor discoveries. Scientific journals are the place where those discoveries are recorded and citations are a map of how knowledge has emerged. Arab scientists are beginning to make a mark on that modern map.

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