How Does Academic Knowledge Travel Long Distances? Social Sciences and Humanities in Eastern Africa from a European Perspective

Project: Dissertation

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Information Studies


  • Social Systems Theory, Postcolonial Theory, Action Research, Eastern Africa, Scholarly Communication, Bibliometrics


Research Problem: Like presumably many Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) researchers in Europe, I rarely come across publications by East African researchers. Some reasons for that are obvious: the comparatively low number of East-African researchers is badly funded, lacking basic infrastructures and access to information that, e.g., European colleagues base their research on. Together with other factors, this leads to a low publication output, especially in SSH basic research, which is given lower priority than applied research. Looking at crucial social problems in many East African countries and the vanishing of cultural heritage, this emphasis is questionable. However, a large part of the literature published under these conditions is badly covered by bibliographic databases. Researchers who strive for worldwide recognition of their work, try to get published in media recognised in the centres of the academic system: media published in the Global North. Many encounter problems of acceptance there, justified first of all with low quality, but also with lacking relevance beyond the local African context, while the main research funders--based overseas--only fund research that addresses development challenges.

Research Questions: Which venues are actually drawn on for publication by SSH researchers in an exemplary region: East Africa? To which extent can local scholarly communication systems be identified here? How are they delimited and to which extent are they permeable? How does the work of East African SSH researchers integrate in the global system of scholarly communication? How is this knowledge production affected by semantics and policies of “international” academia? Is the semantics of a global academic communication system adequate? Otherwise, how could these near-to-closed regional systems, that will probably be found in this investigation, be described?

Method: Experimental bibliometric methods will be applied, including the construction of a database populated with articles and books by East African researchers in SSH basic research published both in the region and overseas. The sole existing databases useful for this task are Africabib, Google Scholar and Ulrichsweb. The academic success of the indexed work in terms of Google Scholar citation counts will be interpreted, and theories about factors that may influence the choice of a publication venue and publication strategies will be developed. Further, a sample of articles published in "local" journals and their references are analysed qualitatively, together with the submission policies of the journals, to compare them to journals of the same field published in the Global North. All through the project, references to “international academia” and similar labels will be collected to contextualise the results from the individual studies of the project.

Coverage: Eastern Africa was selected as a field for this study, because this region is rarely researched in regard to its academic system, which seems to be especially small and isolated. For instance, in all 20 countries together, only 26 journals did suffice my inclusive criteria for the construction of the citation database, with no journals at all in many countries. To analyse citation networks, SSH literature has to be older than five years. I therefore decided to limit the journal articles studied to the publication date 2008-2009. Unfortunately, Africabib includes only basic bibliographic data, so a lot of manual work is required for my study, e.g. to discover author's affiliations. This is also the reason why many steps of the bibliometric study can only be achieved with small samples. The same is true for the text analysis: most journals are available in print-only, so a lot of effort has to be made to digitise the content. The policy analysis focuses on selected journal submission policies. The material for the semantic analysis will be limited by incipient saturation (and by time to spare).

Theoretical Approach: The bibliometric study and the text analysis as well as the policy and semantic analyses are self-contained, but at the same time integrated on the levels of theory and interpretation of my analyses. The terminology I use to describe communication derives from Social Systems Theory (Niklas Luhmann). This theory, although critical towards it, is closely entangled with the intellectual tradition of Alteuropa (a term coined by Otto Brunner: from Homer to Goethe). For the application and development of this theory on a subject that had no adequate place in this tradition, it will be read against the background of Postcolonial theoretical thinking.

Layman's description

To European social sciences and humanities (SSH) researchers, substantial parts of ssh literature produced worldwide is invisible. For instance, much literature published in Africa is neither indexed in any subject databases, nor acquired by European libraries, a gap unacknowledged by the information profession. In this thesis, opportunities to discover publications by East African SSH researchers will be investigated. Bibliometric methods applied include the construction of a bibliographic database. Scholarly reception is determined by citations in Google Scholar and Web of Science. To assess the influence that the choice of a publication venue has on the text, a sample of papers published in East African journals is compared to papers by the same authors published in journals edited in the ‘global North’, complemented by a review of the according submission policies. The analysis focusses e. g. on topics, references, and writing style. What exactly is missed out on when Africa-published literature is invisible? Crucial to this project is the discussion of concepts such as ‘Postcolonial research’, ‘international/local journals’, ‘global academia’, and ‘centre/periphery’.
Effective start/end date2015/09/012020/04/30