Mundane and Basic, But Existential – On the Everyday Challenges of Building International Scholarly Collaborative Networks
Author: Katja Rieck
20 November 2020
In my previous blog post in July (https://www.oiist.org/building-sustainable-scholarly-collaboration-with-iran-and-beyond-of-covid-19-and-other-challenges/) I wrote about the various challenges, not least those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, in building networks of scholarly collaboration with colleagues in Iran and the wider region. In that contribution I also highlighted the importance of developing and carrying out shared projects. In today’s post, I would like to reflect on what that means in a very concrete way and then to also provide some insight into the various hurdles and challenges that present themselves. Because the substance of my reflection is still very much in the works and requires some degree of confidentiality, I will slightly anonymize my account.
Finding the starting point of collaboration: Shared existential pressures of academia
Given that the most obvious (and for us academics enjoyable) avenues for promoting scholarly collaboration, such as jointly organized workshops, are closed to us due to the COVID-19 pandemic we have to resort to alternatives. Yes, online workshops are possible, but at this point so many have been scheduled that some scholars are experiencing a certain degree of fatigue. Moreover, the real “meat” of our work, the measure of our scholarly worth, is articles and third-party funded projects. Regardless of where we work – be it in Turkey, Germany, Iran, Pakistan, etc. – we are constantly measured by what we have published and how much money we have managed to acquire. In many cases, our professional survival requires we secure the funds from third-party sources (from government ministries or scientific foundations) for our continued employment. And so, despite all the differences in our national scholarly contexts, we share the same existential pressures to publish or perish and to chase the research money.
One of my current preoccupations in the IRSSC project touches on the first of these two existential activities. The task I want to reflect on here is a planned joint publication with an Iranian colleague, a sociologist. The project dates back to December 2018 when at a meeting in Iran the idea for the article was born. The topic is not important in this context. In December 2019 I received a completed draft article with a request for comments and a note that this should be published soon.
Shared pressures, but still worlds apart: Navigating differences in scholarly perspective and practice
As I was reading, it soon became clear that the article would require not just language editing (that is easily fixed) but considerable reworking of the whole structure of the paper, the style of argumentation and analysis of the empirical material. Moreover, the text unconsciously presumed an Iranian audience such that much of what was recounted would not be understood by an international readership unfamiliar with Iranian every-day life and would require more explanation, without making the article too long, of course. So, I spent several days carefully editing the language where I could and attempting to make constructive comments that would allow for a reworking of the article according to the standards of Euro-American Anglophone academic publishing. Then I sent the article back in hopes that my comments would nudge this project in a more collaborative direction.
I received a response quite quickly with a short note that the author had invested a lot of time in the article already and that I should just make the improvements and finish it up. I responded that I was not in a position to do this. I had not done the empirical research, nor had I read the same literature on the topic. I simply was not in a position to “finish it up”; the article required work at a very fundamental level, not just superficial editing, if it was to be accepted by a journal of adequate status.
For many months I heard nothing. Which is pretty normal in academia. We all have numerous projects and many teaching and administrative duties. Suddenly, another email. “What about our article? If you do not finish it, I will ask another colleague for collaboration”. I was a bit taken aback, actually rather offended (me being a woman, the author being a man, the whole thing rather felt like I was expected to act like a secretary dutifully finishing off the work of the great master so he could move on to bigger and better things). While waiting for myself to cool off, I thought more about the situation.
It dawned on me that perhaps the desire to dump the article on me stemmed from a general frustration in navigating the Euro-American publication system. The author wanted, and needed, to publish this paper in an English-language international, peer-reviewed journal that featured on a list of journals considered by the Iranian academic system to be of good ideological standing and academic reputation. It is important to note here that in Iran the renewal of employment contracts for non-tenured faculty is often dependent on scholars having published a defined number of articles (in English) in international journals of a certain reputation as “measured” by statistical indexes and rankings. So, the game is not just about publishing, it’s about publishing in the “right” journals. At the same time, those journals that get a lot of submissions anyway, and there is stiff international competition to get published.
Now one must understand that this pressure in the social sciences and humanities in Iran to publish in international journals in English is a fairly recent development of the last 10 years or so. This means scholars there now must compete in a “game” in which they neither have good mastery of the language nor familiarity with the rules. Because of the way academia has worked in post-revolutionary Iran, with a focus on knowledge production for the national context, scholarly practices in Iran, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have evolved to serve local demands in observance of certain ideological red lines set by the state. Academic training for the current generations of mature scholars has thus focused on these local desiderata. This is where they have been trained to excel and not in catering to the peculiarities and specific tastes of Euro-American-dominated international publishing system. This shapes the kinds of topics seen as important – which can puzzle the non-Iranian researcher whose own research foci are shaped by the research agendas promoted by universities and funding organizations outside Iran – as well as the way they can be studied.
An additional source of frustration for Iranian colleagues is that academic training in the social sciences and humanities, in particular, focuses largely on the discussion and reproduction (i.e. “mastery”) of theoretical frameworks. Knowledge production is seen as the correct application of theory. There is little or no emphasis on critical engagement with these theories or with theory building (for example, by comparing one’s own empirical work with a theory and then thinking about the theory’s weaknesses and how it can be improved or must be discarded in light of this empirical material). Euro-American journals, on the other hand, want articles to do precisely that. And so, there is a disconnect between what Iranian colleagues have been trained to regard as “good work” and what foreign scholarly journals expect as a minimum standard for publication.
As if being thrown into a new game whose rules are so unfamiliar with no one to explain them were not enough, Iranian colleagues are now expected to write in a language not their own, and for which the acquisition of proficiency requires the overcoming of material (money) and political (entry and exit visas) hurdles. If you are struggling to put your ideas together in a coherent way just on a very basic language level, the previously noted challenges with regard to differences in research foci and styles as well as forms of knowledge production will just seem too much to overcome. The natural reaction is just to want to dump everything onto the foreigner who understands what these journals want.
Internationalization: Creating spaces for a diversity of scholarly practices
This colleague and I are back on e-mailing terms. The back-and-forth has resumed. I have explained how “just finishing up the article” will not produce a publishable product, that no Euro-American journal would accept it for publication. More work will be needed, or it should just be posted on the university server. I stated I was willing to put in the time and energy needed to give the article the sort of shape Euro-American journals expect, but that collaboration means that this was also required of the first author. This seems to have changed our mode of interaction for the moment. I’m not sure we have reached a point of real collaboration yet, but the article is being sent back and forth, and we are in dialog about how to improve it.
From my perspective, as someone committed to the internationalization of scholarly practice in a post-colonial world, all this is about more than just helping my colleague get his paper out there. It’s about finding ways of disseminating scholarship from other academic systems without simply pressing that scholarship into “Western” academic norms. Iranian researchers do their work from a very specific perspective within a particular set of political, economic and socio-cultural circumstances. This makes it “different”, but this does not mean it does not have value. My wish as a collaborating author in this article would be to act for my colleague as a kind of scholarly facilitator, who works with him to re-shape the text so that is comprehensible and meaningful to a wider non-Iranian readership while preserving the uniqueness of the original perspective and research intent.
Dr. Katja Rieck is a principle investigator and project leader at the Orient-Institut Istanbul in the BMBF-funded initiative “Iran and Beyond – Breaking the Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration (IRSSC). Performance of Culture, Religion and Body as Strategies of Self-Empowerment in the Islamic Republic of Iran” . Within the framework of the IRSSC project, Dr. Rieck analyzes how local and globally circulating patterns of practice and knowledge have an impact on religiously connotated, motivated or legitimized practices as well as on comparable, but purportedly ‘secular’, not religiously legitimized ‘cultural’ practices, e.g. in the field of charity that have emerged in recent years (through modification, re-reactualization, reinvention).
If internationalization is the true goal of building scholarly collaborative networks, then this is the terrain we must traverse. It isn’t just about working with other researchers who are just like ourselves, having the same scholarly training and sharing our perspective, but who happen to work in a different country. Nor is it about teaching our colleagues the “correct” way of doing research and publishing. It is also about reaching out to work with scholars whose perspectives, methodologies, and forms of analysis and argumentation may be very different from that instilled in our own training. Of course, our engagement should not be uncritical. Different is not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily good. But assessing the value of different scholarly practices and perspectives is in the best of cases the outcome of an on-going dialog. Our institutional situations and time budgets don’t always allow for that. Currently, unable to conduct fieldwork, my colleague and I have more desk time. So, we will give this a try.
No doubt there will be further moments of tension, frustration, and deadlock in the weeks and months ahead. The task ahead is considerable. And in all this misunderstandings and miscommunications abound. Who knows if we will ever manage to produce the desired outcome? But collaboration is as much about the journey as it is about the end result (the academic existential pressures notwithstanding). Anyway, I’ll be keeping you posted on how things develop.