Scientific journals and the Arabic language

Bilal Orfali 16 Mar, 2022

Bilal Orfali

16 Mar, 2022

Bilal Orfali 16 مارس 2022

Bilal Orfali

16 مارس 2022

Do Arab researchers publishing their scientific and Arabic-language studies prefer to do so in English? If so, what does this shift of academic authority on Arab-related subjects to the West mean for such research? Lebanese researcher and academic Dr. Bilal Orfali finds this colonization of Arabic academia very dangerous, and discusses here its impact on scientific and linguistic production in the Arab world. He details the reasons why Arab researchers are deciding to publish in English, and its significantly negative impact on the Arab world, while providing the means to reverse this impact through organized institutional change that would improve the status of Arabic research journals.

"The global trend today is to decolonize knowledge and celebrate world literature. Therefore, reclaiming academic authority in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies is only the first step, with a possible second step the study of Western literature and cultures in the Arabic language." 

Who should possess the authority in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies?

Nearly two decades ago, Dr. Wadad Al-Kadi, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, wrote in the Journal of “Al Tasamoh” about the existence of two large groups working in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies: (1) an “Islamic” group in the “East”, represented by Arab universities; (2) And a “non-Islamic” group in the “West”, represented by universities in Europe and North America. Each of these two groups claims "المرجعية" (Al Marja’iyya), the Arabic word for “academic authority” in the field, detracting from the role and importance of the other group. Dr. Wadad Al-Kadi spoke about the danger of this double authority, and called for the merging of the two groups, unifying their efforts so that the field would continue to be active within the academic research of modern world civilization.

Today, we are facing a completely different reality. Many Arab researchers working in Arabic and Islamic studies have received their higher degrees in the West, and whether they work in Arab or Western universities, they prefer publishing in an international language other than Arabic for several reasons that shall be detailed below. The crisis today, therefore, is no longer in the double authority, but in its Westernization, or rather - and much more dangerously - its colonization. The beginning of change lies in an organized institutional work that sponsors the publication of academic journals in the Arabic language.

The importance of publishing academic journals in Arabic

Publishing is linked to the sharing and circulation of knowledge, but it is also linked to the consolidation of the effectiveness of a researcher in the field, and to the promotion of university professors or the nomination of one of them for a specific position. In recent years, knowledge production on Arabic-language affairs has been present in international languages at the expense of the Arabic language, because Arab researchers tend to publish in a language other than their mother tongue (mostly English) in order to reach a wider audience base, in addition to the scarcity of proper and renowned Arabic journals. Even If scholars are given the opportunity to publish in a proper and respectable Arab journal, the article would not be included in the scientific databases or in the databases of global search engines, which makes the assessment and evaluation of the article difficult, especially for university promotion committees.

Unless this situation is rectified, four major threats begin to appear: (1) the limitation of academic knowledge production in Arabic language, and the difficulty in informing Arabic readers of the latest developments in the field; (2) limiting the Arabic language to creative literary writing and turning it into a subject for study instead of using it for writing scientific research; (3) deficiencies in the linguistic and technical tools necessary to overcome the increasing knowledge gap between Arab and Western countries; (4) the migration of Arabic and Islamic studies outside its cultural, intellectual, linguistic and historical environment, which consolidates the Euro-American centrality in the field, and keeps knowledge, experiences and the reading public confined to the West.

The crossing of Arabic studies through other languages ​​to the world is both necessary and commendable, as it opens a necessary critical and creative space in literature, involves issues of Arabic language, civilization, literature and thought in international intellectual debates, and contributes to strengthening its presence within comparative and cross-cultural studies. After all, Arabic civilization is part of global human civilization, and no group can claim a monopoly over it to the exclusion of the other. As for the non-Arabic “dominance” of the field of study, it is clearly a cause for concern, and the first step to regaining scientific reference and authority is to increase the number of proper and respectable Arabic journals issued by educational or intellectual institutions (universities at the forefront). These journals should not be based on individual scattered efforts, such as relying on a brilliant individual or group of researchers in the field, and then disappear after their departure. Rather, these journals should be issued through an organized collective institutional work that ensures the continuity, growth and objectivity of such journals.

Scientific journals publish articles - or what is known as academic short papers - which provide a quick medium for the exchange of new scientific results without having to wait years for the results to be published in a book. The texts of the articles, in the proposed journals, should be presented in Arabic with a translation of the article’s title, abstract and keywords, to make it easier for readers to find them in the databases of international search engines, and allows researchers in the West to view research work in Arab universities, which they often know little about. These journals should publish translations of valuable academic articles (beside Arabic articles) to be an enriching cultural bridge for an audience that is excited and eager to read in Arabic.

It is this interactive transfer of knowledge production from and to Arabic that ensures the renewal of the field and its permanent reformation. In addition, journals should publish scholarly reviews of the most prominent recently published books in Arabic and Islamic studies, including descriptions of these books and their most important conclusions and evaluations. These journals may also include reports on academic activity in the Arab world, such as workshops, conferences, and research projects in universities. This diversity and increase of content is truly the main corner of building a vast horizon of knowledge for researchers in Arabic, and the ultimate tool of enriching the field with serious and innovative studies.

Contemporary Arabic academic journals are accused - with some exceptions, of course - of poor-quality published articles, and of repeating the same knowledge without contributing to the advancement of the field they study. It is also described as being local in nature, with limited readership, and failing to keep pace with emerging studies and standards in documentation, translation, and so on. For this reason, the establishment of new Arabic refereed journals requires two things: the presence of an advisory committee in addition to the editorial committee, and a blind peer-reviewed process system. The advisory committee includes between ten and fifteen distinguished researchers, in their selection taking into account the diversity of universities and countries in order to ensure a more comprehensive view. The journal gains its credibility from the importance of these researchers and their academic reputation, and at the same time, it is supported by their opinions in making decisions and judging articles, among other duties. As for the blind peer-reviewed process, it is a key factor in ensuring the quality of academic content in Arabic, as it is usually adopted to withhold the identity of the researcher from the reviewers, and in turn, the identity of the reviewers is withheld from the researcher, so the journal ensures that the articles are selected based on their quality, not because of the interference of different parties that control discretion, favoritism, or other subjective grounds.

It is also recommended in scientific journals to adopt the open-access online system, because the lack of it on electronic platforms makes their impact very limited before becoming non-existent after the journal stops being issued. The presence of articles within global search engines (JSTOR, Scopus, Index Islamicus,…) enables researchers - professors and students - all over the world to benefit or quote from them, by searching for keywords related to each article. Open publishing helps boost the presence of the journal and promotes its name in cultural and academic circles, but in return, the journal loses its sustainability, requiring journals to seek out sponsorship from institutions that will provide the necessary financial support.

One major issue of publishing in Arabic is the issue of “terminology”, as many of the scientific and technical terms used have not yet been translated into Arabic. In addition, some sub-fields of knowledge (such as the study of papyri, literary theory, and others) arose in the West and formulated their own vocabulary in a non-Arabic language. However, we see in the refereed Arabic journals a golden opportunity to overcome this “terminology” obstacle with time. Journals can become a mainstay in the process of updating Arabic dictionaries and supplying them with the latest terminology, emphasizing the vitality of the language and its ability to grow.

Arabic database of scientific journals

Arab countries are among the few countries that do not enjoy a global presence in electronic databases. Although there are a few Arabic journals published in English that are registered in international databases, the vast majority of Arabic intellectual contributions remain uncirculated. It is no secret that making Arab academic knowledge production available in an expanded, comprehensive and accurate database is important for Arabs to take their rightful place in the field of scientific research, and to share their ideas, opinions and aspirations in shaping the future direction of industry and scientific and human studies. The creation of a database of scientific journals, specifically in the Arabic language, supports these journals, ensures their spread, and achieves the goals set for them.

The absence of such a database creates research problems within the Arab world itself, including depriving researchers working in Arabic of the accumulation of knowledge, making it difficult to build academic bridges between different geographical regions, and deepening the absence of scientific standards that govern academic life in Arabic. It is time to rectify this situation by creating such a database and making it available online with open access. This database will include refereed journals issued in Arab countries in various branches of knowledge, and journals issued in foreign countries concerned with the affairs of the Arabic language and the affairs of Arab-Islamic civilization.

In the absence or non-application of intellectual property laws in the Arab world, some websites have resorted to piracy of many Arab periodicals and put their entire content on the Internet. The previous attempts to create a reliable database, despite their importance, did not achieve their end, either because they are not comprehensive enough, or because they do not follow scientific standards and are not indexed. The desired database would take into account specifications and standards that are consistent with the best practices followed among global databases, and in a manner that ensures proper and effective performance. Therefore, specialized international companies can be hired to prepare the infrastructure and design the database according to specific conditions so it may contain all the necessary elements and tools needed to enable researchers’ access to the resources they need.

Searches in the database must be characterized by easy access to academic content and facilitate its use. This can be achieved by allowing access to the full meta-data of the article, facilitating the system documenting it; enabling filtered searches by author, date, topic and updates, as well as sorting search results according to date, topic, author or authors, source, title and names of those cited; retrieval of citations that were excluded from the results based on specified criteria; and the ability to print all or some of the citations and also send them by email.

The database of Arabic journals is a huge and ambitious project that requires several years to be completed, and is ongoing since publishing doesn’t stop in the interim. Therefore, in addition to material resources, it needs large human resources that work without interruption around the clock. The aim of the database must include a complete and continuous survey of Arabic journals, collecting all data on them from university libraries, editors, national libraries, scientific bodies and any other available sources. It should also seek, as represented by its board of directors and technical team, to define quality assurance standards and best practices for the listed scientific journals, and to provide the necessary advice and technical support for those journals to continue to achieve this.

Our call to issue refereed Arabic journals and support them by creating a database will achieve a qualitative leap in the global discourse about the Arabic language, increasing its spread and giving its fields of knowledge presence and due appreciation. It will also be a successful policy for activating cultural activity in the Arab world in more than just the academic environment alone, within schools, universities, publishing houses and research institutions. This would raise knowledge production’s contribution in shaping the mind and conscience of the Arab reader, and with time, would constitute a collective awareness among native Arabic speakers, and allow Arabs to rely on their own knowledge and science to build their human capital, a historically verified best practice.

"Publishing is linked to the sharing and circulation of knowledge, but it is also linked to the consolidation of the effectiveness of a researcher in the field, and to the promotion of university professors or the nomination of one of them for a specific position."

Shaping global discourse in Arabic

The global trend today is to decolonize knowledge and celebrate world literature. Therefore, reclaiming academic authority in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies is only the first step, with a possible second step the study of Western literature and cultures in the Arabic language. Since researchers in the West study the East, its languages ​​and civilizations - and in their own languages ​​- why not study the West and in Arabic? The Arabic language is prepared for this role because many peoples around the world consider it a religious language and for this, they study and master it. This makes Arabic well-equipped to shape global discourse about certain cultures than other, less widespread languages. This will lead with time to breaking the dominance of English on knowledge production, and break the dominance of European-American culture as a culture that studies others without being studied in return from an external perspective. Issuing Arab academic journals specializing in Western civilizations or their literature will create a new future for academic studies, and we should not deprive Arabic of a leading role that it is able to play.

This article was written in collaboration with Lina Jammal. She holds a PhD degree in Arabic and Near Eastern Languages from the American University of Beirut (2020). Her focus is on dreams and dream interpretation in pre-modern Arabic-Islamic culture.

Bilal Orfali

Lebanese Researcher and Academic

Dr. Bilal Orfali currently serves as the Sheikh Zyed Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies as well as Chair of the Arabic and Near Eastern Languages Department at the American University of Beirut.