We Will Be Published in Russian… but What and Where?

May 6, 2022
By Irina Busygina
Irina Busygina on why the Russian government has suspended the indexing of Russian scientists’ publications in international databases and what it means for Russian social sciences.
Our profession makes no sense without sharing scientific results

Our path has been a long and hard one. For more than two decades, Russian scholars in the social sciences have been learning how to get published in foreign (mostly English-language) peer-reviewed journals. It is not easy to write a good academic manuscript with not only general rhetoric but also tangible results. It is not easy to write a manuscript in professional English (no money has ever been provided for proofreading; I always did it at my own expense). It is hard to receive rejections from journals, then rewrite a text, send it again and wait – wait for a long time.

It was not money that provided the incentive to overcome these difficulties, but the understanding that without sharing results, without constant discussion thereof with colleagues (regardless of their place of residence), our profession makes no sense.

A real challenge was faced by the generation whose educational background focused on subject-matter issues that hardly related to how to write a good publication. The situation has changed for the modern generation of scholars, but even for them it has been a long learning process.

Reputation as capital

We gradually accumulated what I would call “capital”, building up a reputation. Yes, it was the reputation of a minority, because most scholars from Russia never published articles outside the country, but it was valuable nevertheless.

At universities (for example, at the Higher School of Economics), a system was created to support the accumulation of this “capital”, encouraging professors to publish their articles in high-ranking journals, since the existence and citation of such publications were the most important criteria for assessing the efficacy of an academic institution.

Language of “national interest”

What will happen to this hard-won capital? On March 21, the Russian government gave a nod to the proposal of the Ministry of Education and Science to suspend for a year the indexing of Russian scientists’ publications in international databases and their participation in foreign academic conferences. However, the minister clarified that this decision does not mean a ban or restriction on publications:
"We do not encourage scholars to abstain from publishing their papers in journals indexed in] Web of Science and Scopus. Russia must remain on the cutting edge of world science. But we have to consider our national interests."
For me, the rhetoric speaks for itself: it seems that being on the cutting edge of world science is not compatible with Russia’s national interests (moreover, Russia was never on the cutting edge, even the most well-known social scientists).

Specifically, the position of the Ministry of Education and Science means the following: a national – that is, sovereign – system for assessing the results of research and development will be created. The first discussions about the system are already under way. In fact, the old one, which helped to accumulate “capital”, has been left unprotected.

This is an excerpt from the speech of Alexey Gromyko, director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Science, at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Commission on Protecting State Sovereignty and Preventing Interference in the Domestic Affairs of the Russian Federation:

“The situation raises questions about overemphasis on scientometrics. The system should be corrected… we all agree that science is international by nature, but we cannot use the [current] mechanisms for its evaluation, which make science dependent on countries listed as unfriendly…"

Commission Chairman Andrei Klimov explains (for those who did not understand Gromyko):

“… in our country, many educational institutions are evaluated by the number of articles published in certain journals, and these journals do not belong to our friends now. We find ourselves in an idiotic situation where to please a journal’s editorial board, authors must write content that in general cannot be considered useful for our country or else write nothing. Did I interpret it correctly?”
“Yes, you did,” Gromyko responded.

It is hard to believe that directors of institutes and rectors of universities do not understand that the usefulness of foreign publications “for our country” is not determined by journals’ belonging to “enemies” or “friends”. This is not a language of science at all. Indeed, it is quite a different language – that of national interests. Therefore, I tell myself: it is our choice. These people have taken it upon themselves to destroy – and very quickly – the modest but valuable things created in previous decades.

“We will need new journals”

I suppose that the new sovereign system will require new journals.

In today’s Russia there are extremely few journals that publish academic articles in the fields of comparative political science and international relations, especially when taking into account how big the country is.

There are national journals, such as Polis and Political Science; there are also bulletins of different universities, which mainly publish their “own manuscripts”, i.e. papers written by scholars at these universities.

I would assume that the paths of political science and international relations will diverge: political science is unlikely to need new journals, but international relations will become fashionable, since “correct” explanations of the world and the place of Russia should be fully aligned with “national interests”. Taking all this into account, new journals will be needed.

Meanwhile, creating a good (or merely decent) academic journal is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task. Even if the government gives the “green light” for new journals, there are things that cannot be accelerated.

Among such things is finding a pool of reviewers – experts who, in a normal system, read submitted manuscripts and write substantive reviews. Traditionally, they do it for free, guided by the desire to maintain the quality of the journal.

In Russia’s sovereign system, such motivation is not effective. More likely, reviewers will check manuscripts for compliance with the “national interest” and assess how “useful” they are.

Impact on postgraduates

Such a system would have an immediate impact on postgraduate education, not so much because postgraduates cannot publish their articles abroad, but because they have expended significant time and effort preparing for interacting with global peers. I have always told my PhD students: first write in Russian (because it is your native language and it is easier to use it when you are just learning to write); then practice the skill of writing, following the rules of academic style and the structure of presenting research findings (hypotheses-theory-methods-empirics-discussion of results); only after can you submit a manuscript to an English-language journal.

Who needs this now? In fact, the situation will not become easier, but scarier. I see PhD students as one of the primary groups that will be disadvantaged if the new system is implemented.

Who are the winners? The majority will win – they always do. Among them are Russian teachers and researchers who, for various reasons, have not trodden this difficult path; those who published “absence of research” papers or nothing at all. This is their time.

And I would like to repeat: this situation has been consciously chosen by academic functionaries and administrators who readily abandoned international criteria for assessing scientific activity and in so doing sent a disastrous signal to postgraduates and young scholars.

Russia’s limited “capital” will quickly disappear. It is evaporating every day as talented people leave the country. Within the country, there is no one to support it.

Irina Busygina is a professor in the Department of Applied Political Science at National Research University-Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg. The full text can be found here. Republished with the author’s permission.

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