Academic Self-Censorship Is a ‘Brain Drag’ on Arab Universities and Societies

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.

Have you ever had a question that you refrained from asking, because of what someone might think? Or had an idea that you were afraid to share, because of what someone might say?

These are very common human impulses, sometimes even healthy. If you refrain from sharing because you realize what you say could hurt someone’s feelings, restraint may simply be good manners. If you refrain because you realize you don’t know as much about the topic as others present, restraint might just be mature judgment.

But if you are an academic professional or higher education student, and you refrain from sharing your work and ideas not because of these healthy impulses but out of fear, then you may be engaged in academic self-censorship.

What Is Academic Self-Censorship?

Academic self-censorship is refraining from examining specific research questions, teaching specific topics, or sharing specific theories, evidence or ideas within one’s professional expertise or discipline because of threats or fear of professional, legal or physical retaliation.

It is not about fear of being wrong. Academic freedom—when it is respected—protects scholars’ and students’ right to be wrong, to explore theories and evidence which may not pan out.

Academic self-censorship is about fear of losing one’s job or position. It is about fear of harassment and threats of violence—whether in-person or remote (such as by phone or online)—including racist, sexist, and homophobic threats; “doxing,” or the malicious publication of personal details online; and conscious efforts to destroy reputations and livelihoods. Fear of actual violence, including beatings, rape, and killings. Fear of actions by the state, including wrongful arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Fear of non-state actors, including mob violence without adequate protection from public authorities. Fear not only of actions against yourself, but against family members or colleagues, including intimidation of children and parents and judicial hostage taking—the prosecution or imprisonment of a loved one to punish the expression of another.

Academic self-censorship is common, and for good reason. Attacks on higher education occur around the world with alarming frequency. In the report “Free to Think 2020,” Scholars at Risk documented 341 attacks on higher education communities in 58 countries in one year, while noting that these are only the overt, visible attacks, and only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of attacks on higher education each year go unreported. (See a related article, “Attacks on Yemeni Higher Education Are Highlighted in ‘Free to Think’ Report.”)

Academic self-censorship is common, and for good reason. Attacks on higher education occur around the world with alarming frequency.

But even a few attacks are enough to do grave damage, because violent attacks not only aim to silence particular individuals. They create climate of intimidation which shuts down inquiry, creativity, and expression. They have a ‘chilling’ effect, often intentional, such that attacks on scholars, students, and universities are efficient ways to maintain control over a society by force. Most rational actors, witnessing what happens to the outspoken few, begin to filter their work, expression, even their thoughts. They shut up, and in some cases shut down entire areas of work. They self-censor.

Trying to Measure the Problem

Academic self-censorship is extremely difficult to measure. If individuals are afraid to share their thoughts with even close colleagues, they are naturally reticent from sharing the fact of their fears with unfamiliar researchers. But we have to try. If we cannot measure the problem, we cannot see it, and cannot fix it.

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In the past few months, Scholars at Risk and Al-Fanar Media partnered on a survey measuring experience with academic self-censorship in higher education communities in the Arab region. The survey consisted of an anonymous, web-accessible, self-reported public survey assessing both personal experiences with academic self-censorship over the last year (e.g., “have you self-censored?”) and awareness of the experience of others (e.g., “are you aware of others who have self-censored?”). (Expression not related to one’s area of professional expertise, discipline, or institution was excluded).

Although more rigorous research methodologies would be desirable, the sensitivity of the topic and consistency of results to other recent research on academic freedom, including those reports cited here, suggest that the findings offer valuable data on a subject that warrants further study and discussion.

The results show that over 75 percent of respondents self-censor their professional expression, with 35 percent indicating they do so at least “sometimes” and 40 percent “frequently” or “almost always.” Similarly, 76 percent believe their colleagues self-censor, with 43 percent saying “at least a few” of their colleagues self-censor, and 34 percent saying “a majority” or “almost all” of their colleagues do the same. Perhaps most alarming, 25 percent say they have experienced retaliation in the past year, and 47 are aware of colleagues who have suffered retaliation.

Over 75 percent of professors in the survey said they self-censor their professional expression, with 35 percent of them indicating they do so at least “sometimes” and 40 percent responding “frequently” or “almost always.”

Of those reporting fear of retaliation, most common fears include arrest and prosecution (60%), loss of position (54%), travel restrictions (46%), harassment, including online trolling (41%), and violence (25%). The most commonly feared sources of retaliation include the home government (58%), their university or employer (51%) and, sadly, colleagues and peers (40%). Overall, 30 percent of respondents said they were more likely to self-censor today versus the year before. (Only 22 percent said things were getting better and they were less likely to self-censor today, with 47 percent saying things were about the same.)

These results align with other research. The recently release of Academic Freedom Index data for 2020 shows a downward trend in respect for academic freedom in much of the world, and particular that “scholars and students in the Arab region enjoy less academic freedom than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.” (See a related article, “Arab Region Scores Lowest in the World for Academic Freedom.”)

While there are some brighter spots—the report specifically credits Tunisia, the only Arab country in the index’s Category A, the highest level, for strong constitutional protections for academic freedom thanks to reforms put in place after the Arab Spring—overall the data suggests a blanket of fear that is holding Arab education, economies, and societies back. No wonder that an earlier study showed that 91 percent of researchers want to leave, and among these 43 percent specifically cited lack of academic freedom as a major reason to move abroad. (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)

A Matter of Public Costs—or Benefits

Why do we care? For one thing, these restrictions on free inquiry and expression cost Arab economies money. Recent estimates say brain drain costs Arab economies $1.5 billion annually. And among those leaving, academic professionals and students are among the most costly, due to the societal and personal investment in getting them to university and the profession in the first place, and to the multiplier return on those investments that would have been incurred over the course of a 30- or 40-year career.

Restrictions on free inquiry and expression cost Arab economies money. Recent estimates say brain drain costs Arab economies $1.5 billion annually.

Not included in these loss estimates are the perhaps equal or greater losses attributable to academic self-censorship by those who never leave. The 76 percent of researchers who report self-censoring their work represent a direct tax on intellectual output and creativity. If not brain drain, consider this “brain drag”—the lost personal, professional, and creative productivity that would have been, but for the rational fear of retaliation; fear that does not exist in places where academic freedom is well protected.

Beyond these considerable economic costs, academic self-censorship erodes the quality of research and teaching in Arab universities. This is because academic freedom—the freedom of teaching faculty and researchers to set the research agenda based on evidence, truth and reason and to communicate findings to colleagues, students and the public—is a guarantor of quality. Without academic freedom, teaching curricula and research agendas are subject to narrow interests, often political, sometimes commercial or communal.

Most broadly, academic freedom empowers the higher education community to serve the public good. When researchers and teaching faculty are free to share their knowledge and expertise, the public benefits. When they are free to ask questions about major challenges, wherever those questions lead, they can help to understand and address major issues like climate change, public health, economic development and disparity, legacies of discrimination, and more.

Asking such questions may be painful, but it can be good for society, if not for those in power who may benefit from the status quo.

Academic self-censorship is a brain drag on expertise, creativity and innovation within Arab higher education, and Arab societies generally. We must remove this drag by combatting the isolation and fear that fuels it, and by insisting that Arab states, higher education leaders and the public demand greater protection for academic freedom not just on paper, but in practice, and not just for the benefit of academics, but for the benefit of everyone.

Robert Quinn is the founding executive director of Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions and individuals dedicated to protecting the freedom to think, question and share ideas. All views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of Scholars at Risk, its member institutions, staff or others.


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