Opinion

Middle East Academics and Journalists Criticise Science Coverage in Arabic Media

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

Academics and journalists who gathered at a pan-Arab forum to review the coverage of science in the Middle East have voiced concern over how scientific research is communicated to the public and the status of scholarly publishing in the Arab world.

The three-day Arab Forum of Science and Media Communication, held May 29 to 31, was organised by SciComm.X, a science, sustainability and communication consultancy based in the United Arab Emirates. More than 500 Arab science reporters participated in the hybrid event, both physically and virtually.

Hosted by the University of Sharjah, the forum also saw heated debates on how to tell the story of science to Arab audiences and the utility of peer-reviewed publishing at Arab universities.

‘Publish or Perish’

Most universities in the Gulf states give priority to scholarly publishing. Academics are expected to publish one or two papers per year in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals.

Faculty promotions and contract renewals may depend on meeting this requirement, a state of affairs known as “publish or perish.”

Strict adherence to the “publish or perish” principle has helped many Arab universities climb in global university rankings.

However, both faculty and science practitioners at the conference criticised the pressure it puts on academics, as well as the coverage of science in mainstream Arabic media.

Rise in Arab Research Output

The forum’s third edition, focusing on communicating about sustainability, also debated the rise of scientific publishing by Arab scholars and how to relay their findings to Arab audiences.

There has been a steep rise in scientific output in the Arab world. Figures from SCImago Journal Rank (SJR), an indicator measuring and assessing articles published in scientific journals, show a 120 percent increase in peer-reviewed articles published by scientists at Arab universities in 2022 when compared with 2019.

The SJR data reveal that Arab universities published 211,000 research papers in 2022, while the figure was about 96,000 papers in 2019.

This surge in the number of scientific papers raises both scholars’ and practitioners’ eyebrows. They note that almost all scientific research in the Arab world is published in English in journals originating in the West. The likelihood of Arab countries, the Arab public or Arab industry making use of it is almost nil, they say.

Some Arab scholars, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, complained that attempting to publish in Arabic is futile because there are no peer-reviewed Arabic journals that can compete with their Western counterparts.

The Arabic academic journals that exist are mostly not recognised by Arab universities for consideration in decisions about promotions or contract renewals, the scientists said.

Low Levels of Research Spending

The 2021 UNESCO Science report acknowledges that some Arab countries have come to recognize the necessity of boosting their expenditure on research and development, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates among the world’s top 50 countries with the most research spending as a share of GDP.

Taken together, however, the Arab world’s R&D expenditure is estimated at 0.3 percent of GDP, far below the global average of 1.79 percent.

  • لهذه الأسباب لا تصل فوائد البحوث العلمية إلى المجتمع العربي
  • لهذه الأسباب لا تصل فوائد البحوث العلمية إلى المجتمع العربي
  • Middle East Academics and Journalists Criticise Science Coverage in Arabic Media
  • Middle East Academics and Journalists Criticise Science Coverage in Arabic Media

Furthermore, there are more than 20 countries for which Arabic is the first and official language, with a combined population of nearly half a billion people. However, the language of instruction for science, technology, and medicine at most Arab universities is still English.

By comparison, in the tiny Nordic nation of Iceland with a population of 370,000, science instruction at the undergraduate level is mainly in Icelandic, with English programmes mostly reserved to cater to overseas students.

Rich Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, have become a magnet for major U.S., Canadian and European universities to set up franchises in which all study programmes are in English.

Some countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have built state-of-the-art hubs specifically to attract foreign universities. In Qatar’s Education City, where some of the most prestigious U.S. universities have branches, these institutions, despite collecting exorbitant fees, are highly subsidized by the government.

Communicating Research to the Public

Some 1,500 Arab journalists, according to SciComm.X, are involved in covering science in the 22 Arab countries.

The forum focused on whether Arab media coverage of science is satisfactory and accurate. It also highlighted issues related to the relationship between science and society.

Despite the fact that most Arab universities connect the rate of academic publishing to success, they put less emphasis on communicating their research to non-peer audiences.

“When communicating research, big results are not a sign of success if they are not strategically part of a target and relevant context,” Saad Lotfey, chief executive officer of SciComm.X, said in his opening remarks.

Lotfey’s words resonated with academics attending the forum and spurred discussions on how to communicate science to Arab audiences.

Communication and journalism scholars have extensively researched media coverage of science, but their findings have yet to make their way to newsrooms—and may never do so as practitioners do not hide their resentment of academic writing.

A Wide ‘Science-Society Chasm’

In the Arab world, Lotfey said, there is a “wide science-society chasm” which SciComm.X is striving to bridge.

The forum panelists and speakers agreed. Most Arab universities, they said, usually assign the role of communicating their science to the public to their own professors rather than specialised practitioners.

“There is a massive need for dedicated research communicators in institutions with high research output,” Lotfey added.

Visits to the websites of major Arab universities suggest that their main interest in relaying information to society focuses disproportionately on numbers, particularly those related to their position in international league tables and among counterparts in the Arab region.

There is overdue emphasis on the ranking and indexing of journals in which faculty members have published, with little context provided to make these numbers relevant.

And the Arab public are the ones sorely missing this context, as the research is of little use for them and is rarely communicated to them accurately and impartially.

Pseudo-Science on Social Media

Scientists and practitioners at the forum argued over whether what is being communicated to Arabs, especially over social media, is real science or pseudo-science.

Professor Ilias Fernini, director of the space sciences department at the Sharjah Academy for Astronomy, Space Sciences and Technology, mentioned that he still has women coming to him for advice on whether they could have their hair cut when the full moon is visible.

Pregnant women, he said, have approached him for advice whether it was fine to leave the house during a solar eclipse. “I tell them there is no danger at all so long as you protect your eyes.”

The penetration of social media outlets in many Arab countries is among the highest in the world. The science stories that go viral on social media often are more fiction than fact, forum speakers and attendees said.

The coverage of science in the Arab world “is in need of professional reporters,” said Bothina Osama, MENA Regional Coordinator at SciDev.Net, a leading source of science development and technology

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