BEIRUT—Arab researchers have long complained about the lack of public interest in and support for their research, which leaves their work forgotten in the filing cabinets of academic institutions and research centers. But a new project based in the Lebanese capital seeks to change that.
The online tool, known as the Portal for Social Impact of Scientific Research Targeting Research in/on the Arab World, or PSISR, was launched last month by the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.
The portal’s goal is to build an online archive of both completed and ongoing research projects by teams that include researchers in the Arab world or that study problems of the region. The projects can be in any discipline, and they may be described in Arabic, English, or French. It’s primarily an Arabic portal, however, as its founders believe it’s important to enrich access to research in Arabic.
The project is now inviting researchers to enter their projects on PSISR and describe what the expected social impact of their research will be. “Social,” the project’s website explains, is “meant in a broad sense, which includes economic, political, cultural and conceptual aspects.”
The archive is open to the public—anyone can use its search engine. Thus researchers gain a way of conveying knowledge and information about their research activities to the public.
“The portal is a tool to link researchers, policy makers, international organizations, donors, civil society, finance agencies and the public to access and benefit from scientific research,” said Sari Hanafi, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and founder and director of the portal. He explained that it is possible, for example, for “decision makers in the Ministry of Education to get benefit from educational research conducted in the Lebanese universities and invest their results in the implementation and correction of educational projects.”
“Knowledge is produced, but is not productive, in the Arab world,” said Hanafi. The Arab world produces knowledge and many research studies, but the findings of those studies often are not used by decision-makers. (See a related article, “Arab Science Needs More Respect.”)
During the garbage crisis in Lebanon, for example, many researchers presented technical and scientific solutions for dealing with the problem, but the government did not take any of those ideas into consideration. (See a related article, “A University Wades Into the Lebanese Garbage Crisis.”)
“There is a deep misunderstanding by decision-makers for the importance of scientific research,” said Hanafi. “Decision-makers do not care about the results of scientific research, researchers’ views and their work, and there is little correlation between scientific research and society.”
The reasons for the gap between knowledge producers and society in the Arab world are not based solely on the lack of interest in science among political elites, Hanafi believes. The infrastructure for scientific research in Arab countries does not provide for widespread dissemination of projects through open platforms, since Arab databases are still expensive and restricted to specialists. And unlike other countries that provide information banks in their national language rather than English, Arab countries still lack platforms in Arabic, says Hanafi.
These are problems that PSISR seeks to resolve.
“The portal is an easy and fast mechanism to access a database linked to research programs, and anyone interested in research can explore their area of interest through the portal,” said Kamel Doraï, director of contemporary studies at the French Institute of the Near East, in Beirut.
Doraï believes that by strengthening the relationship between researchers and civil society, PSISR will allow the research community to expand beyond universities and research centers. “This would also help researchers to better respond to society’s questions and expectations,” he said.
In a 2015 commentary in Singapore’s The Straits Times entitled “Prof, No One Is Reading You,” two scholars estimated that the average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read in its entirety by no more than 10 people.
That’s where advocates of open platforms like PSISR hope to make a difference, by helping the public to get free and open access to scientific research, and by encouraging researchers to publish to society at large rather than to a handful of readers in specialized scientific journals.
“Publishing through this online portal will link the research work to the community in a timely manner,” said Hanafi. And that, he hopes, will contribute to increasing public support for and use of research in society.