Community views: obstacles to globalising media research

By Cherian George and Minos-Athanasios Karyotakis

When we asked our network how to make media studies research more globally diverse and inclusive, thoughtful responses arrived from every continent, from senior academics, early-career scholars, and PhD students. They talked about linguistic barriers; the lack of interest in the non-west among the field’s tastemakers; how a narrow understanding of theoretical rigour marginalises work on the Global South; and how performance metrics adopted by non-western universities undermines their own ability to serve their communities’ needs.

Language and money

Several colleagues highlighted language as a major barrier to intellectual exchange. Maria Carmen Rico de Sotelo (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada) suggests that articles should be accompanied by abstracts in multiple languages. Given the dominance of the English language, another colleague (who, like some others, wanted to remain anonymous) says it would be especially useful for non-English publishers to provide English-language titles and abstracts. This would not only improve their discoverability, but also help get around some journal reviewers’ suspicion of non-English citations. 

One early-career scholar suggests that to improve English-speaking readers’ exposure to the other countries, specialised journals could insert translations of articles, both academic and non-academic, that educate readers about relevant trends and issues outside the west. “Even if it’s just a few pages every issue, it would already make a difference,” he said. An academic in Mexico observed that “English-speaking scholars make no effort to learn a different language”, which makes it harder for them to understand “other cultures and realities”. 

Toby Miller (University of California, Riverside, USA) calls for more institutional solutions, including putting together multi-lingual research teams. Such teams, he writes, should not only include members who are fluent in major world languages such as Chinese and Spanish, but also “mix academic backgrounds across the human sciences; and who are prepared to rewrite the rules of what counts as knowledge and where they should publish it”.

Miller notes that in Latin America and Spain, where he works, state policy is a problem: “You must publish in English or your career is stymied.” He calls for national and international solidarity among academics to correct such practices. Maria Faust (Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany) notes that technologies such as the Grammarly app can only go so far in helping non-native speakers produce work in English. 

For much of the Global South, the financial cost of conducting and publishing research is an additional barrier. Wole Adamolekun (Elizade University, Nigeria) notes that “research in Africa is self-funded and this has serious limitations as to the level and quality of research required”. 

Lack of interest and expertise in the non-west

If media studies is to become more globally diverse, the western scholars who currently dominate the field have to broaden their horizons, say many colleagues. Research without a western focus is “overlooked and considered as substandard”, says Adamolekun. Scholars in the United States need to learn that “US” does not stand for “UniverSe”, adds John Hartley (University of Sydney, Australia). 

Perceptions of geographic bias are widespread among non-western scholars. Peng Hwa Ang (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) relates how more than half a dozen US-based journals rejected a colleague’s social media research, which was based on a survey of around 1,400 students from three colleges in the Indian state of Gujarat. He thinks reviewers may have been doubtful that findings about Gujarati college students were generalisable. “I am inclined to suspect that had it been of 1,392 second-year students in a large mid-western university in the USA, it would have been accepted,” Ang says. (With a population of more than 60 million, Gujarat is larger than any US state.)

Another colleague relates her experience trying to get an article about Russian disinformation operations in Ukraine accepted by a leading communication journal in 2018. “One reviewer blatantly asked why this paper was not about the US (there was no prerequisite that the special issue was only about the US),” she recalls. Her research was conducted after the annexation of Crimea but before the start of the current war. She eventually got her article published in a lower-ranked journal. “This article is obviously very relevant and popular now, but sad that it took a large-scale war for people to start paying attention to that part of the world,” she says. 

Maria Faust (Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany) notes that even when western scholarship turns its attention to non-western societies, it is often through the lenses of western priorities and perspectives. Research on the rise of China, for example, focuses on China as a rival and threat. While some of these issues are important, she feels cooperation is neglected. 

“There is no funding within Western Europe anymore that promotes cooperation — neither in researcher ties nor in topical interest between Western Europe and China. This is not sustainable,” she says. “We need foundations and funds that promote dialogue. The real obstacles of the 21st century cannot be overcome with de-globalisation and singularization. Is it not time for a more inclusive academic environment that stands against the political trends of the 2020s?”

Wendy Li (University of Melbourne, Australia) shares the frustration with “very Western-centric review comments during the peer-review process”. She appeals to journal editors to assign “articles to peers who care about epistemic justice and appreciate contributions to de-Westernization”, and to initiate “more conversations (in the form of panels, roundtables, and workshops) to spread the idea of de-Westernization”. 

Journal editorial boards need more scholars based in the Global South, agree Brian Ekdale (University of Iowa, USA) and several other colleagues. One pointed out that knowledgeable editors were needed to protect authors from “biased or incompetent reviews”. 

Special issues with knowledgeable guest editors can “enable journals to source for articles in underrepresented areas and regions”, says an academic in Kenya. But representation can cut both ways, cautions Nimmagadda Bhargav (Manipal Institute of Communication, India). There are scholars of Indian origin on some US editorial boards who “are no saints and often do not promote research on caste”, he says.

Active editorial boards are vital, says John Hartley. “It takes a generation to swing disciplines around, during which many goals remain impossible until they become inevitable,” he says. He adds that journals’ success or failure is strongly associated with their readers. “It’s a club.” This means that de-westernising journals requires them “to nurture readerships as well as authors in neglected countries”, he says. This would in turn require more open access.

Wole Adamolekun (Elizade University, Nigeria) hopes that “the new reality” of virtual workplaces and meetings will facilitate intellectual exchange between academics in different locations.

Theoretical and methodological barriers

Even when editors are keen to diversify, mindsets about theory and method may get in the way. One colleague said that since most of the reviewers are trained in West, “they tend to see non-western research as atheoretical due to their training filled with western theories”; this results in a structural bias against studies of the Global South, amounting to a “colonial mindset that should not be tolerated” in the field. Wendi Li (University of Melbourne, Australia) calls on reviewers need “to respect epistemically marginalized but valuable theories, concepts, and facts”.

Jonalou Labor (University of the Philippines) agrees that “‘standards’ in theorizing are still very much western”. Adds Mohammmad Aminul Islam (University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh), “I think a shift in pedagogy, a shift in authority and ownership of knowledge is a must.”

It is not just universities in the west that are replicating questionable mindsets. CSHN Murthy (Paradigm Institute of Media and Film Studies, India) says Indian universities emulate the West, “applying western methods directly to Indian social and media situations”, and thus “do not broaden the scope of research methodology relevant to Indian social and media context”.

Eduardo Villanueva (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Peru) critiques how journals and academics in general think of academic “rigour”. “It is understood as a very specific set of practices that are presented as ‘science’ but that lack the actual relevance of science to construct a field of knowledge,” he says.

The tendency, he says, is to treat “rigour” as a series of procedures for reinforcing academics’ “community of practice” — one that “is self-referential and is satisfied with outcomes that reproduce the approach already established” at the expense of local relevance. The result is work that fails to speak to the urgent task of improving policy making and public discussion of issues in specific contexts. Such “scholasticism” turns academics into representatives of a global order, “rather than making them part of the effort to change their world”, he says.

The scourge of metrics

Several colleagues critiqued the emphasis that Global South universities place on Scopus-indexed journals, which not only tend to be out of reach for cost reasons but are also more likely to be Western-oriented. These universities adopt metrics such as journal impact factors not for any intellectually defensible reason, but to secure “a better position in the international rankings”, said one colleague from Mexico. 

Yrmeliza V. Rodriguez (University of the Philippines Open University) called for a re-design of metrics, to reflect the value of non-western scholarship. Similarly, Jonalou Labor (University of the Philippines) argues for more institutional recognition for university-based and open access journals that publish local content, instead of allowing “well-oiled journals that are ‘bought’ and managed by for-the-money publishers” to dominate. Metrics “must be built within countries and contexts”, he adds.

Wole Adamolekun (Elizade University, Nigeria) also criticises the common practice of incentivising publication in journals over books, which are more affordable for many students in Africa. “We now have many professors that ascended the height without a solid contribution to their fields by publishing books,” he says.

Another contributor from Russia suggested that “universities should allow faculty to propose their own assessment plan with an explanation on how their proposal reflects the criteria that would typically be assessed through journal metrics”. Academics around the world could cooperate to develop shared templates. 

Abu Taib Ahmed (Colorado State University, USA) hopes for a future where universities assess “how far the research of the particular research can contribute to knowledge building”.

Join us at ICA Toronto


Globalising research and teaching of media and communication studies

Panelists: Saba Bebawi, Cherian George, Silvio Waisbord, Herman Wasserman

Monday 29 May, 1:30–2:45pm, Toronto, Canada

The convenors of the Global Media Studies Network will lead a conversation at the International Communication Association Annual Conference in Toronto about diversifying, de-westernising and decolonising the field.