November 15, 2012, by Simon McGrath

Mapping the uneven landscape of academic knowledge production

In my previous KWBN blog reflecting on my recent visit to Fiji, I argued that we should see the global South as sites of theory generation, not just as providing exotic exceptions to “universal” Northern theory.  However, I noted that this was far from the norm. Indeed, my starting point for my reflection was the absence of Pacific Island perspectives from the international and comparative education debate as defined by the leading international journals.  In this piece I want to reflect on why this unevenness in knowledge production has happened.  I will limit my focus to the social sciences, as there are significant differences in the traditions of journal article production here as compared to the humanities and sciences.

There are several possible ways of explaining this phenomenon that then impinge on what might be done, if anything, to address this unevenness.  First, the most straightforward explanation of the exclusion of authors from a large range of countries from the international literature might be that international journal standards are largely robust and that work from the South lacks the quality to deserve to be published.  This might suggest that the way of getting excluded voices included in international journals is to develop institutional and national academic performance systems.  The argument would run that building a culture of “publish or perish”, perhaps linked to financial rewards for publishing in “quality” journals as in South Africa and/or to more meritocratic promotion systems, would be the key intervention.

Second, it might be argued that the real issue is the neo-imperialist nature of academic social science knowledge, particularly as it is dominated by the English language.  Beyond the important effects of limited technical competence in English, there are issues regarding the dominance of Anglo-Saxon ways of writing a journal article that appear to lead to certain nationalities (including some from the North) being effectively excluded from the land of the journal. More technical and neutral responses to language “deficits” are found as a form of response here but there is much in areas such as “English for academic purposes” that seeks to combine concerns with technical weaknesses with more critical approaches to discourse and narrative that see English, and particularly its academic forms, as highly value-laden. Thus, responses are focused on understanding the rules of the academic writing game, including its reliance on English, as a means to engaging in it successfully.

My own position, though it has some sympathy with elements of the above approaches, perhaps reflects a third stance that is more about learning and capacity development.  I do believe that systems, cultures and incentives are important but I am also deeply suspicious of performative approaches. I do believe that the rules of the game need to be understood but I am more political economist than socio-linguist in persuasion.  Thus, in events like my academic writing workshop in Fiji last month I try to stress the importance of learning about journal writing.  I strongly believe that this is a long-term process that is caught up intensely with identity.  As someone interested in vocational learning, it seems more of an artisanal approach that is about becoming a confident and skilled academic writer, rather than being primarily about learning the rules and developing technique.  The organisational domain can clear help or hinder but my personal emphasis is more on mentoring and building a dialogue on writing with a more experienced colleague.

In writing this I am mindful of an obvious criticism that I am taking for granted that “international” journals are vitally important to knowledge production and academic careers; and that Southern authors share this position.  I actually do think that we have overemphasised such journals and, in my own writing portfolio, I seek to balance my writing across audiences and locations.  Nonetheless, it is clear to me that whilst the international journal article holds such sway we do need to be exercised by the unevenness of the distribution of its production and do need to be engaged in trying to redress this.

A more extended treatment of some of these issues from the perspective of one journal can be found in my joint paper from 2010 with Mark Mason of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, a pre-press version of which is available for free at

Simon McGrath (Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

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