Decades of war and international isolation have caused Iraqi scholars to fall behind their peers in other countries in publishing high-quality academic articles, particularly in the often-neglected social sciences and humanities.
A collaborative British-Iraqi project started this year to try to solve this problem, by offering a series of workshop at universities across Iraq in which scholars already holding master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s learn how to publish their work in English-language journals. The workshops are revealing some of the structural problems that exist in academic publishing in many Arab countries, as well as offering the opportunity for important new Arab-relevant research to be communicated internationally.
The Iraq Publishing Workshops were initiated by Mehiyar Kathem, an Iraqi historian affiliated with the Nahrein Network at University College London. The Nahrein Network supports scholarship in cultural heritage and humanities in Iraq and northern Syria.
“Getting Iraqis to write about how their society has changed … can give a more accurate picture of what is actually happening in the country than leaving it to foreign scholars.”Mehiyar Kathem
A London-based Iraqi historian who coordinates the workshops
“Iraqi scholars know the region better than a foreign scholar,” said Sara Camacho Felix, a specialist in international education at the London School of Economics and Political Science who is helping conduct the seminars. “These workshops are about Iraqis being able to own the results that come out of Iraq, and to direct how its history is written and what the perspective is.”
Felix said the workshops aim to answer such questions as “How does one write for international academic journals? What do they want, and how do you write for them so that you will be heard and published?”
“We let the participants in the workshops know,” Felix said, “the unspoken rules that journals based in the United States and Europe follow. They are looking for a clearly stated academic argument, written according to a particular structure.”
“You might have an argument, but if you don’t state it right away, the American or British journal editor or academic reviewer won’t see it,” she said.
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The first workshop was held at Sulaimani Polytechnic University in northern Iraq in May, and was attended by about 100 Iraqi scholars, in disciplines such as media and communications, history, language education, law and cultural heritage.
“The reaction was amazing,” Felix said. “They were hungry. There was deep interest, they were attentive and they asked amazingly good questions. There was a lot of group work, and they were all helping each other. There was always a buzz in the room.
Felix said that some participants thought they were held back from publishing in international journals by shortcomings in their command of English. “It’s not your English,” she told them. “Academic English is nobody’s native language.”
An Iraqi Voice
Scholars at Iraq’s 11 public universities published 4,087 articles in academic journals in 2017 (part of a steep increase beginning in 2005). Of these, Scimago Labs, an independent research group based in Spain, reported that in that year a mere 19 articles were on humanities subjects.
These lopsided numbers reflect a historic preference for the natural and applied sciences by Arab governments and their education ministries. Students with the best results in their secondary school exams are admitted to study sciences at university, while places to study humanities have typically been allocated to students with lower exam results.
This affects publication in journals. “In Iraq,” Kathem said, “the government would fund students to study abroad for their master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s, but mostly in hard sciences.” Study-abroad improved the publication prospects for scientists, an advantage that students in the humanities and social sciences still tend not to have.
But at this point in Iraq’s history, there is an urgent need for respectable scholarship and publications in the humanities and social sciences.
“You might have an argument, but if you don’t state it right away, the American or British journal editor or academic reviewer won’t see it.”-Sara Camacho
Felix A scholar from the London School of Economics and Political Science who is helping conduct the workshops
“Iraq has undergone rapid change in the past 15 years,” Kathem said. “A lot of this hasn’t been recorded or studied. Getting Iraqis to write about how their society has changed, about the changes to the political infrastructure since 2003, can give a more accurate picture of what is actually happening in the country than leaving it to foreign scholars.”
“Strengthening our intellectual and academic infrastructure is a key to the rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq,” he said.
Political Pressure on Scholars
In the decades of dictatorship and the dominance of Ba’ath party ideology, scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences in Iraq was subject to intense political pressure, especially in history.
“Saddam Hussein banned the publication of anything that mentioned the Sassanid Period in Iraq, because that was a Persian dynasty,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a professor of land archaeology at the University of al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, and a participant in the Sulaimani workshop. “We had to either ignore it or pretend it was Islamic. Iraqi history had to be Sunni history, and ignore the Shia.”
Despite the difficulty of present conditions in Iraq, this moment presents opportunities for important work in the humanities, in researching, writing and publishing on Iraqi history and culture. The Iraq Publishing Workshops emphasize the role that Iraqi scholars can play in this work.
Masses of archival material on Iraqi history need to be tracked down and studied, Kathem said. For example, millions of pages of documents produced by the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein were seized by American forces before and after his overthrow in 2003. These archives are located at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, while other collections are held in Qatar and in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Not only do Iraqi scholars need to study such primary sources, Kathem said, they need to overcome their inherent fear of writing about Iraq’s recent history. “People have views and opinions about the past and the present, but they are afraid to express these things. They have not had the chance to find their voice.”
Publishing for Promotion
The Iraq Publishing Workshops encourage Iraqi scholars to publish in English-language journals in order for them to reach an international academic community. This approach contrasts with a tradition of publishing in local journals, which is common not only in Iraq but throughout the Arab region.
In the local model, as described by Adnan Elamine, one of the founders of Shamaa.org, which publishes articles on higher education in the Arab region, scholars publish in journals primarily to improve their status within the institutions in which they work. These journals typically are published by the same university in which they are seeking promotion, Elamine says. Articles published to meet a quota for promotion are hardly read outside the institution in which they originate.
Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research lists 272 academic journals on its website Iraqi Academic Scientific Journals, all published in Iraq by Iraqi universities and research institutions.
Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin, director of the Digital Cultural Heritage Research Group at Sulaimani Polytechnic University, who took part in the first Iraq Publishing Workshop, said that publishing articles in journals is a requirement for promotion. “To qualify for promotion to associate lecturer you need to publish only three papers. It’s OK to publish these papers in local journals. And the local journals are really terrible,” she said.
“People publish in local journals not to solve any problem, but to achieve academic promotion,” she said.
Ideally, Mehiyar Kathem said, workshops of the kind he and his colleagues have begun should be a regular part of master’s degree and Ph.D. courses.
“Three days is not enough,” Sara Camacho Felix said. “We are now beginning to see what the Iraqi scholars need, but we have not been able to offer follow-up support. This kind of course needs to be built into the institution. But you have to start somewhere.”