Knowledge Production in the Arab World

Sari Hanafi and Rigas Arvanitis on regional research playing catch-up

Knowledge Production in the Arab World assesses regional research, posing questions crucial to understand the relevance of this research and its beneficiaries. The book studies the Arab drive to join the increasingly globalized world of research, and in doing so promote “knowledge” economies. Yet – as the provocative subtitle The Impossible Promise suggests – authors Sari Hanafi and Rigas Arvanitis find that this ambition has not, or not yet, been realized. Hanafi and Arvanitis (respectively based at the American University of Beirut and at the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement) argue that research from Arab countries is still struggling to reach its potential.

Using case studies from the region, the book depicts Arab research as involving two potentially opposing strands: local relevance and internationalization. Underlying this dichotomy is one of the more obvious problems in regional research dynamics – underfunding; the financial investment in scientific research in the Arab world being scant compared to other regions. In fact there seems to be little connection between the financial resources of a given Arab country and the amount it invests in knowledge production. Given such underfunding, many researchers turn instead to foreign financing, but this can often be problematic, leading to output potentially unrelated to local issues that has minimal societal impact. A major dilemma in the Arabic academic community then becomes choosing between local and international relevancy.

The book notes that, in general, the number of scientific publications in the Arab world is low, though some recent growth was observed. Furthermore, Arab researchers are underrepresented in terms of citations. Alongside underfunding, the authors give several other reasons for the relatively low production of knowledge and research in the Arab world. One problem is that most universities prioritize teaching and show little interest in research.

Another issue is language and the push by universities and institutions to publish in English in international journals, as opposed to in Arabic for local outlets. This general drive to publish in English in internationally recognized journals means that the wide range of knowledge that is produced in the Arab world, and especially in Arabic, is doomed to become “invisible” –  difficult to find, and thus, rarely referenced or used by other researchers. This is partly because international databases and ranking systems are biased toward publications produced in English, but is also due to the Arab region itself lacking a good functioning scientific database that can connect different areas of knowledge production. For these reasons and others, the number of local Arab scientific journals in international databases is low.

Related to the language issue is the dominance of scholars from the west who are working on Arab topics, such as the uprisings that have taken place since late 2010. Some well-known American authors are referred to as “first-level knowledge producers” who, though often lacking local understanding and experience, are considered the main experts on political issues in the Arab world. On the other hand, local scholars, who do have this knowledge, are often merely used as “informants” for the “first-level experts.” This process is worsened by Arab research usually referencing “first-level” US researchers, while ignoring local ones, thus creating a one-way hierarchical structure whereby foreign sources are legitimized and local ones are not.

In the Arab world, there are also disconnects between research and society. This can be seen in the lack of research in the social sciences, and more generally, in weak connections between academic and public debates. For various reasons, there is reluctance by academics to write for local newspapers, thereby missing a chance to engage with the Arab public. The authors of the book urge broadening the audience for scientific research and connecting it to economic and societal issues.

The upshot of the problems detailed above, and many other issues, is to restrict opportunities for Arab players to emerge onto the global stage from a local base. Although published over a year ago, Knowledge Production in the Arab World still has the freshness of a timely work. As a successful example of Arab research, it will be of interest to students, scholars, and policymakers working on the status of science in contemporary developing countries, in our region and otherwise.

Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH