Trying to Measure Arab Research Quality in a Western-Dominated System

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

A metric known as the “journal impact factor” has become hugely important in international scientific publishing. But when it comes to measuring Arab research quality, the metric comes up lacking.

The impact factor attempts to measure the importance of refereed scientific journals in their research fields. A journal’s perceived importance increases with its impact factor.

For years, however, there was no way to measure the impact of journals that publish new research in Arabic. Given the lack of global interest in calculating Arab journals’ impact factors, new impact factors had to be created.

The History of the Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield’s Institute for Scientific Information introduced the first science citation index in the 1960s. Twenty years later, the institute began using the citation index to determine the journal impact factor (JIF). That criterion was then used to classify scientific journals, and direct researchers’ interest to publishing in the most highly ranked ones.

The impact factor of a journal is calculated as the ratio between the number of citations of articles published during a specific year, compared to the total number of citable articles published in that journal during the previous two years.

The online version of the index is part of a set of databases known as the “Web of Science”, which is now owned by the American analytics company Clarivate. It included more than 10,000 journals by the 1990s.

This effort was followed by a number of other databases. They include Elsevier’s Scopus index, which by 2004 included more than 15,000 journals, and Google Scholar, which seeks to provide an index of information on every scholarly publication.

The Arab Impact Factor

Mahmoud Abdel-Aty, vice president of the African Academy of Sciences and a professor at Egypt’s University of Sohag and Zewail City of Science and Technology, tried to highlight Arab academic production by starting the “Arab Impact Factor” project in 2007.

He launched the project four years later with a team pecialized in programming in Arabic. Its database of 1,250 journals was updated every two weeks. The project issued its first report in October 2015, and the second a year later. Four reports have now been released.

The project recently took another step forward by starting to evaluate Arabic publications according to international standards. The first phase includes 100 journals to be evaluated for classification in the Scopus ranking after Elsevier signed an agreement with the Association of Arab Universities in 2018.

Arcif: The Arab Citation and Impact Factor

As interest in the impact factor increased, another project, the Arab Citation and Impact Factor (Arcif), based in Amman, was launched in December 2018. Sami Al-Khazendar, founder and head of Arcif, said it was the first step toward a reassessment of Arab scientific and knowledge production, which had become an urgent necessity because of the decline of Arab visibility in the global academic scene.

Al-Khazendar believes that Arcif provides a scientific-based solution to Arab academia’s marginalisation by the dominant Western institutions that set standards for international classification and published scientific research indexes.

The Future of the Impact Factor

The two-year journal impact factor produced by Clarivate is the most popular scientometric index. For a given journal, this metric is calculated as the ratio between the number of citations of articles published during a specific year, compared to the total number of citable articles published in that journal during the previous two years.

This impact factor is an important criterion for scientists in selecting a journal to publish their research. However, the validity of the impact factor faces much criticism.

Sami Al-Khazendar launched the Arab Citation and Impact Factor (Arcif) as the first step toward a reassessment of Arab knowledge production. He believes that Arcif provides a scientific-based solution to Arab academia’s marginalisation by the dominant Western institutions.

Many research papers, especially those published in journals with a low impact factor, can have many citations in research written by the same author, the so-called self-citation. There is much debate about how this affects the validity of the impact factor.

Journals can adopt some policies that raise their impact factor without actually raising the academic standard of the journal. A journal can also publish more survey-based research papers, which categorise research in a particular field without presenting new scientific knowledge. This type of research is usually cited more than research which provides new scientific knowledge, raising the journal’s impact factor and ranking.

A journal can also increase its impact factor by citing previously published papers. Therefore, the European Association of Science Editors advised in 2007 that the impact factor should be used cautiously to measure and compare peer-reviewed scientific journals, and should not be used to evaluate specific research or researchers.

Pressure on Publishers

It seems impossible to rely on the impact factor in future to measure the quality of scientific journals, especially with the recent growth of free publications. The lack of quality standards for scientific journals, other than the impact factor, puts pressure on subscription-based journals that users have to pay for and may force them to become free. Publishing houses will then have to rethink how to get economic returns from academic journals.

Many bodies are striving to find a new research quality index on which everyone agrees. They are trying to find standards for scientific articles which reduce the weight of the impact factor, the number of citations, the number of participating researchers and their majors, and the language and style of research, but this work is still ongoing.

Establishing an Arab journals’ impact factor is an attempt to keep pace with the rapid development in the world of scientific publishing, and to benefit from the success of free online journals. It might also be the beginning of establishing many free online scientific journals at Arab universities and research centres. Such journals may achieve widespread reach in the world’s scientific publishing outlets.

Tarek Kapiel is an academic, writer, translator, and science editor. He is an assistant professor of botany and microbiology at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science. He is also a member of the Culture and Knowledge Committee and a fellow of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology at Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education.

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