When I used the Google Scholar research database for the first time, I realized that Arabic research was discriminated against.
I noticed that while the site notes the number of times research written in English is cited by other researchers, it does not do the same for scholarly work published in Arabic.
I have to wonder what the linguistic and technical barriers were that prevented a big corporation like Google from offering this service for Arabic research.
The dominance of English in prestigious international journals is one of the main reasons—but this presents a problem that will always unfairly suppress Arabic research. As a result, papers published in Arabic are not used by industry, and their findings are not available to other scientists.
This has also created a system in which, for young Arabic researchers, scientific theft and plagiarism are easy. They can get access to other papers easily and copy the ideas or the text but their supervisors often don’t have the means or the skills to check to see if the research is unique. To guard against that, many universities have a policy of restricting access to research produced by their academics, hoping such restrictions will protect researchers from copycats.
However, it is possible to grant full access to research papers without the authors having to fear the theft of their work. Plagiarism detection software is now available for the Arabic language. For example, the E-MAREFA online database makes is possible to search 223,000 files, including research papers, essays and theses.
In addition to this, new research recently provided another way to detect plagiarism using what is called “rhetorical structure theory.” Because this theory also introduces a new way to analyze the coherence of a text, the development of software using this method is likely to speed the adoption of a way to measure the importance of Arabic research using what is called an “impact factor.”
An impact factor is the average number of times within the last two years that a paper has been cited by other researchers in their papers’ footnotes. A high impact factor shows that a piece of research or a journal has been much discussed or referred to by specialists in that field.
Unfortunately, there has been no international interest in creating an impact factor specifically for Arabic journals. Such an impact factor would, I hope, address the imbalance that our mother language suffers, and place current Arabic journals in the spotlight.
If an Arabic impact factor were to be widely adopted, it would rescue forgotten research papers currently buried in filing cabinets. If important older papers got high impact factors, scholars might look at them in a new light. The revival of older papers might also expose those who have tried to build careers by reproducing old research.
An Arabic impact factor would encourage scientists and scholars to undertake local and regional research, which rarely appeals to the English journals that rule the world now. This lack of interest from English journals has caused many Arab scientists to neglect their countries’ research needs.
When adopting an Arabic impact factor, we should be careful to ensure that it measures the quality of the scientific journals in which papers are published. We should not count when a paper is mentioned in editorials or bibliographic surveys. The purpose of journals is not just to mention and rehash a previous paper, but to continue and advance the discussion.
The classification of journals is perhaps one of the most important issues to ponder when designing an Arabic impact factor. That classification will influence a journal’s “credibility” and also the promotion of faculty members at Arab universities, based on which papers the professors publish in.
An Arabic measure of impact factor would also avoid being taken in by self-citation, when an author cites from one of his or her former works, or when the author makes irrelevant citations from the work of supervisors.
An Arabic impact factor could help to create links between scientific research centers and decision-making centers, since it would help all to see the important work of their fellow researchers at other institutions.
We may wonder if research institutions in Arab countries really care about research papers, and whether they aim to influence policymaking, planning, and decision-making. The UNESCO Science Report 2010 included discouraging reports from Arab countries saying that whenever they have science and technology strategies, “they usually lack the concept of innovation, primarily due to the weak links between research and development activities in the public and private sectors.” So, are we going to see a different report this year, or even in 2020?
I hope we will soon create an Arabic impact factor that is capable of competing with the international impact factors. It is needed to put each successful Arabic journal in the place it deserves, and to give policymakers a better context to decide how important a piece of research is. That would represent the beginnings of an Arabic scientific-research renaissance.
*Saleh Al-Shair holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Linguistics from Cairo University and has worked in university teaching. He has published a number of refereed papers in his specialty. His biography was included in the Al-Babtain Dictionary of Contemporary Arab Poets.