Ethics Week 2018 (VUB)

The first week of December, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel organizes an ‘Ethics Week‘ with a focus on research ethics. They explicitly invite people from the Slow Science Network to participate and/or share their critical questions. The topics discussed are:

Research Without Borders? Ethics of international research co-operation (4/12)

Soldiers in the laboratory? Military and civilian research (4/12)

Medical Ethics (5/12) 

Ethics, Human and Social Sciences (6/12) 

Ethics & Animal Testing (6/12)

Ethics and Valorisation of Research (7/12)




Action at arms lobby event (conference of the EDA)

In June this year, the Slow Science Network published an op-ed on the problematic nature of the influence of the military industry and the arms lobby on European policy, especially with regard to scientific research.

On November 29, Vredesactie will organise a non-violent action at the conference of the European Defence Agency. Vredesactie gives the following description of the action:

On 29 November, we will take nonviolent action at the conference of the European Defense Agency in Brussels. Arms dealers and policy makers meet behind closed doors and decide what the world of tomorrow will look like. Critical voices are not welcome.
We invite ourselves and enter the conference to make our voice heard.

Our politicians are outsourcing the security and migration policy to the arms industry. The results are appalling: the conference theme speaks for itself: ‘From unmanned to autonomous systems: trends, challenges and opportunities’. In other words: how can we make killer robots and deploy them in wars?

We will not let that happen overnight. Our future is at stake. We are going to the conference to make the case for a safe and peaceful Europe on a human scale, for sustainable solutions and good governance.

** Want to join or know more? **
Send a PM or an email to and we’ll send you more info soon.

More info about the arms lobby event:
More info about our campaign and actions to stop the arms trade:


Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (4/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: a way out!

Foto carnetJavier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In our previous post, we left our discussion suggesting that there might be ways to overcome the cultural hegemony of the English language in academia.

In this post, I summarise Javier’s point of view on how academic production could become ‘multi-lingual’, and how conferences and events could be organised differently to represent and reflect non-Anglo-Saxon cultures and contexts of scientific production.


Sofia: Javier, do you have practical suggestions in mind to overcome the hegemonic ‘mono-linguism’ of the English language in the future?

Javier: Yes, well, the key factor here would be technology. A conference should not only be multi-lingual, but language barriers should ideally be overcome. So that’s why I don’t believe there can be a lingua franca – not even Esperanto – but that there should be many at the same time.

For instance, at a conference, everybody should be able to speak in whatever language they want (at least the 7 most spoken in the Global South: Mandarin Chinese, Indi, Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese and English). In an exercise of imagination, for my ideal conference, the name tag should also include the native spoken language of the person, and everybody would go around with his/her smartphone and set the language of that person to communicate with each other. We could talk to our smartphones and then let the app translate to the language of the person we are talking with – that’s even already possible today. Or when speakers are presenting their papers or talking at a plenary, the content of their speech would be translated simultaneously in several languages on the screen, so that people can read it in their own languages. Another thing would be to make conferences more virtual – the ones who can make it to conferences in the Global North from the Global South are just the privileged – because of the cost of the travel, but also because they are the ones who can actually communicate in English.
Sofia: So a sort of not multi-lingual, but ‘post-linguistic’ conference?

Javier: In a way, yes. Technology can really help us overcome linguistic barriers – maybe even in the next few years, and I think for instance that Google could be interested in showing off its products during a conference – that’s why I say we should transition to a type of communication that does not necessarily flow into and through the English language.
Sofia: …A transition?

Javier: Yes. So we could in the future have a conference in the Global South where people can talk in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Indi, Chinese, Arabic, English, but without feeling ‘less than’ the English-native speakers just because they don’t know or command English as it is expected nowadays, for instance, because they could not access to a certain type of (elite) education. Of course it’s another thing when it comes to the translation of a paper – but for spoken English I think we already have the technology to overcome its use in the near future.
Sofia: But don’t you think that we would then give technology a huge amount of power? We would let technology translate our words without us having any control on this process of translation.

Javier: Yes, that’s also true, but what we would gain from the possibility to speak in our own language would be much larger than what we would lose. It’s a trade-off.
Sofia: What else could be done to overcome the hegemony of the English language?

Javier: Well, another thing I am working at the moment is to build a network of scholars from the Global South regarding urban topics – for instance from other countries in Latin America, but also from South Africa, Lebanon, India and China. The establishment and expansion of this network over time would be extremely important to overcome the Anglo-Saxon-based networks where our knowledge about the Global South is conveyed (which means, not passing through London to have exchanges with other places in the Global South).

An additional thing is – although it’s not my favourite – to publish both in English and in Spanish (or Portuguese), for instance. Then you increase the citations, and hence the journal’s impact factor , by increasing the audience the journal reaches to. But of course there are also resistances – many would just like to keep writing only in Spanish or Portuguese, or are against translations, because they argue that even the best translations are never like the original texts. I think the same happens in France.

In my point of view, I would be more than happy to loose something in the translation of a book or an article if that knowledge can be disseminated more broadly to other audiences. It’s a trade-off, like the one about technology we were discussing previously.

Sofia: But some journals for instance are already translating into French, Spanish or Chinese the abstracts of articles written in English.

Javier: Yes, but this does not mean that they cite it, and make their impact factor increase. For instance, many English-speaking scholars in urban studies writing about Latin America do not cite literature written in Spanish or Portuguese . They cite other scholars who are like them, and who write about Latin America. As a consequence, we from Latin America cannot share our knowledge beyond the ‘language barrier’ set through the English language, nor get recognised for the knowledge we produce.

Therefore, it is not contemplated that there might be a knowledge about Latin America that is different from the view that the Global North has about this area of the Global South. For me it’s clear that any study about Latin American should at least be in three languages – Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Sofia: Thanks a lot Javier for sharing all this with us!

Javier: Thanks to you.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.


Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (3/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: the lock-in

Foto carnetJavier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In our previous post , Javier and I talked about the asymmetry in academic production, which is dominated by (generally native) English speakers, even when topics are about other cultures and contexts.

In this post, we focus more on how we got to this point – that English has become the language we have to use in academic production and communication.
Sofia: Javier, ok, that’s a fact: the English language is culturally hegemonic.

Javier: Yes.

Sofia: But in the past, in Europe, we had Latin, then French, then German as a ‘common language code’ or ‘passpartout language’ across countries, for commerce, trade, science and literature, and historically there have always been hierarchical ‘power centres’. Now there is English and London, as you said… so why is this necessarily a problem?

Javier: The use of English as a hegemonic language is not a problem per sé, but its consequences are a problem. If we restrict our discussion to scientific production, and within it to the social sciences and specifically to urban studies, which is my field of expertise, it is undeniable that academic production is asymmetrical. It is a North-South relationship, not South-North. I mean, if English would be such a lingua franca, as you say, the Global South would contribute equally or similarly to scientific production. But this is not the case.

Sofia: Can you tell me more about this asymmetry?

Javier: Sure. Let’s start from acknowledging that in the world the most spoken language is Mandarin Chinese. Then we have Spanish, and at the third place we find English. It is clear that the role of English as a lingua franca – as you call it – isn’t neutral, but that it is related to specific path-dependent processes and lock-ins whose persistence is inevitably linked to questions of power and history.

The hegemony of the English language does not stem from its numerical hierarchy – as it is the third most spoken language – but of the specific historical process that made the English language gain a certain status that is now difficult to change. Basically the supremacy of English is a consequence of the influence of the British Empire from the 18th century, and US neo-colonialism since the mid‐20th century.

The use of language is not neutral – the consideration of the English language as a so-called lingua franca is a false universalism. For instance, when in a book the author refers to ‘the city’, it is clear that the author has in mind the US or the European city model.

Therefore, the use of the English language is an aspect of a cultural hegemony that has consolidated over time. It didn’t get to that hegemonic position by accident.

Sofia: Are you saying that all academic production is linguistically biased?

Javier: Yes. Hegemony has a hierarchical structure, which in this case is organised not only around the use of a certain language, but also through ‘centres of knowledge’, for instance in London, and then of course through journals, catalogues, impact factors, and so on. Again, the US fought its ideological battle after World War II also through science and scientific practices. The scientific dominance of the US was grounded on a positive feedback loop: first, the larger the involvement of scholars (directly or indirectly) in Anglo‐Saxon academia, the more consolidated its reputation and hence, second, the higher the attraction for scholars to study, research and publish in English. Third, as a consequence, Anglo‐Saxon academia becomes more important, as well as the use of the English language. Of course, the larger the predominance of English, the more the academic audience gets involved in Anglo-Saxon academia, so the loop begins again.

Sofia: And in what other ways is the cultural hegemony of the English language played out in your own experience?

Javier: For instance, the fact that scholars from the Global South have to make an extra effort. This goes of course also for those scholars in the Global North whose native language is not English. They also have to make an extra effort.

But what I often tell to my students is that, as critical scholars in urban studies, we have to do four-times the effort of a native English speaker. This is because I try not to give translated texts to my students. They should learn to access books and article written in English on their own. This is because I once took the 300 keywords in the leading journal for urban studies in Latin America – and translated those words into English. I searched for those keywords in academic catalogues and the result was that those keywords in English appeared 11 times more on average than they did in their Spanish version. So if I would show my students only academic literature in Spanish, I would basically be hiding from them 90% of the knowledge in urban studies.

So we in the Global South have to make four different efforts: we have to be acquainted with mainstream theories and also critical theories of the North – so that’s already two efforts – and also with mainstream and critical theories of the Global South – so that’s the other two efforts. But despite that – we aren’t even recognised for it. The hegemony of the English language is so powerful that they treat you differently if you cannot properly speak in English. This is discrimination based on language.

Sofia: So how shall we change this system? Is there a way out?

Javier: Yes, I think there is. The first step is to recognise that there is not only one lingua franca, but many. And conferences and events can and should be organised differently, and knowledge communicated differently as well.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.

Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (2/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: the unequal competition with native speakers

Foto carnetJavier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In the previous post, I asked Javier to tell me about the episode at an international conference where he stood up and asked, provocatively, why we were talking in English about the Global South from the Global North (the conference was held in the UK).

In this post, we continue our discussion about the cultural hegemony of the English language.

Sofia: Javier, I understand that English nowadays is a hegemonic language for cultural and scientific production. But that’s our current lingua franca, so we in academia do not have so much other choice but learn it… that’s the game.

Javier: Well, remember that in the Global South many people do not have access to education so easily. So even in higher education, the access to academic literature written in English should not be taken for granted. This is partly why sometimes concepts that are already consolidated in the Global North, might not be so in the Global South, and vice versa. Because there is a language barrier cutting through scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, and you might also have had the same experience, non-native English speakers feel ‘less than’ native English speakers because they do not have the words to express themselves properly. For instance, it was only when I went to do my PhD in the US that I could improve my English proficiency. And at the beginning I could not express myself properly, for instance when it came to concepts – but that didn’t mean that I was wrong or that I was thinking poorly. What I thought was as valid and significant as much as what my native English speaking colleagues were saying. But my words had less power, because they were not communicated properly.

The consequence is that English native-speakers and non-native speakers are competing on an unequal level.
Sofia: But would it not also be useful then to ‘educate’ native English speakers to look beyond their own culturally hegemonic language and knowledge, and to realise that they have to communicate with people for whom English is the second or third language? Shouldn’t they make also the effort?

Javier: That would be great. But I know so far only a handful of people from the UK or the US that know a second language. I saw that effort from other Europeans, like Germans, French, or Dutch, where they might speak Spanish as a third language. But I did not see this effort from the British.

People from the US almost pretend when they travel that people should speak in English. It’s part of their ethnocentrism. And you can see this in academia as well.

Sofia: So the English language cannot be considered a lingua franca?

Javier: Well, no. An additional issue linked to the cultural hegemony of the English language is that it forces people to speak the same language and, consequently, our thinking is ‘narrowed’ to the same conventions and parameters. It narrows and limits our world, because concepts emerged from different cultures and contexts necessarily have to be translated into English – and this is not always easy, or even possible. This is a process of homogeneity, which tends to level out differences, as one of the aspects of the broader globalisation process.

But I myself am part of the problem. I went to the US for my PhD, I often travel to conferences to the Global North… I am also part of the system. I have to recognise that for instance in Chile, only 10% of the population speaks English, which is the elite, who can afford having their children study in the best universities and to study abroad. However, this type of self-reflexivity has to be present in critical social scientists. We can’t just pretend our privileged position doesn’t matter.
Sofia: In your opinion, how could we change this situation?

Javier: People should take more responsibility to work as ‘hinges’. I mean, not gatekeepers that control access, but people that would function like bridges across cultures and contexts. Knowledge is manifold and diverse. It cannot be homogenised and levelled out only because the use of the English language was gradually imposed to us.

Academic knowledge and scientific production should recognise, also in the diversity of languages that are employed, that there are different types of knowledge and different centres of knowledge production – and that many of these are located also in the Global South.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.

Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (1/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

Why is research about Latin America mostly in English?

foto web


Javier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


I met Javier last time during a conference in Leeds in September 2017. At the closing plenary session, focused on African cities, the usual round of questions & answers started. Javier stood up and asked provocatively why Global South issues have to be discussed in Global North venues (especially in the UK) and why, if we were at a conference of left-wing, critical social scientists, we were still only talking in English.

In July 2018, I got in touch with him to know more about that episode, not only to disentangle his motivations, but also to what extent the English language as the current lingua franca can uncontroversially be considered as such.

The following text is a synthetic re-elaboration of our Skype talk – during which, by the way, we could talk in Spanish (another hegemonic language?) – structured in four posts and reviewed together with Javier before its online publication on the Slow Science blog.
Sofia: Javier, can you tell me about how you came to stand up during the plenary and ask why we were talking in English?

Javier: Yes, of course. But I don’t think at all that I was saying that we should not talk in English, nor I was complaining about it. My aim was not to criticise, but rather to put under discussion the asymmetry of academic production among the ‘Global South’ and the ‘North’. I was calling for a joint and serious discussion about this topic.

I was making the point that the Global South is a place where we study and conduct a lot of research, but that at the end of the day our research never makes it to the North – it is the North that comes to us.
Sofia: Can you give an example?

Javier: Sure. For instance, in urban studies, we often have Western scholars from Europe or the US that come to the Global South, for instance India, Africa or Latin America, and do their targeted fieldwork in our cities, go back to their offices in the North and then write books and articles about us in English. Books and articles that are not even translated for instance to Spanish or Portuguese, but that we have to cite anyways, because they become part of the academic and official knowledge about our cities.

Most of the time these scholars don’t even have contacts with local academics, just with a select few – certainly the ones that can speak English -, and then publish stuff about us. This is what happens for academic production about Latin American cities. The research and the fieldwork are neither communicated nor shared with local scholars – it stays within the limits of the English language, as in a bubble formed by language barriers – so how can they claim to have understood something about our cities? Which kinds of theories are made out of this process? That’s asymmetry.

Looking at it broadly, you can see that academic production and knowledge about cities in the Global South is mediated by London, as the capital of the largest empire in human history, and all this comes with that legacy. It has to go to London first and then it is recognised, and comes back to us.
Sofia: But there have been scholars that have been critical about this…

Javier: Yes. This isn’t new of course, and scholars have raised these issues in the past decade or so. However, if you look at what happened to the ‘Global South’ scholars that actually raised these questions, they are now all in the North (i.e. Jennifer Robinson, Ananya Roy, Susan Parnell).

First, these scholars come from the ‘North of the South’, so to say – so South Africa and India, where English is one of the official languages, and they have – at least partially – an Anglo-Saxon culture. This doesn’t happen with scholars that do publish a lot, but do so in a local language, such as Spanish or Portuguese. Knowledge and research that is not produced in English, in a way, does not exist. So this is the first aspect of the power asymmetry of academic production in English.

The second thing is that, once they are recognised, they flee to the Global North. These scholars are ‘co-opted’ by the centres of knowledge production in the North. From South Africa or India they go to London, Berkeley or Manchester. It is clear that there is a centralisation of academic production by means of the hegemonic role of the English language. This is the second aspect of power asymmetry.

These scholars are of course very progressive and all – but these scholars set the research agenda about what we, in the South, have to study about the South. This means that studies about the Global South are finally made ‘top-down’.
Sofia: …top-down?

Javier: Yes, for instance there is this association, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), that includes scholars studying and researching Latin America in different fields, for instance literature studies, history, urban studies, geography and other stuff. But the members are mostly English-speaking, from Europe and from the US, and they do their annual conference in the Global North. What happens then is that these people set the agenda, define themes, write handbooks and ultimately decide what we Latin Americans have to study about Latin America (although this is starting to change in the last 5 years or so).

So in this sense there is an ‘occidentalism’ about the Global South – that is, that knowledge about the Global South is mediated by the North which is very much marked by the language we use to produce such knowledge.

And this is also partly our fault: it is difficult for us in the Global South to communicate, network and organise. We from Latin America are not connected to Africa or the Middle-East directly. This is also because we in Latin America first learn about European history, then about our country, and very little is left to indigenous cultures or to other continents. Everything goes through London, which in turn is connected to everybody.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.

Opinie – Europese subsidies voor wapenonderzoek (be)dienen vooral militaire industrie

Nieuw opiniestuk van Slow Science in Mo*

Europese subsidies voor wapenonderzoek (be)dienen vooral militaire industrie

Vandaag, 27 juni, lanceren bezorgde wetenschappers en vredesorganisaties het Europese initiatief researchers for peace. Meer dan 700 onderzoekers uit 19 EU landen roepen hun collega’s op om zich uit te spreken tegen een Europees militair onderzoeksprogramma, dat donderdag en vrijdag op de agenda staat van de Europese regeringsleiders.

Met het Slow Science-netwerk ijveren we voor open, democratisch en duurzaam wetenschappelijk onderzoek. De huidige Europese plannen staan haaks op deze waarden.

Met de lancering van de “Preparatory Action on Defence Research” zette de Europese Unie in 2016 de eerste stappen naar het uitwerken van een Europees militair onderzoeksprogramma. De Europese Commissie heeft plannen voor een Europees Defensiefonds waarbij de komende jaren miljarden euro naar onderzoek en ontwikkeling van nieuwe wapens moet gaan. Uit een recent rapport van Vredesactie blijkt dat de wapenlobby een bepalende invloed heeft gehad op het proces dat leidde tot deze beslissing. Zoals te verwachten zijn de plannen dan ook op maat gesneden van de wapenindustrie.

De Europese Commissie stelt het Europees Defensiefonds voor als hét antwoord op de nood aan een Europees veiligheids –en defensiebeleid. Maar de EU slaat een belangrijke stap over: bepalen wat voor beleid ze voor ogen heeft. Dat is een politieke vraag. Pas als die beantwoord is, kan men de verdere vraag stellen hoe dit beleid het beste in praktijk wordt gezet. Hiervoor is kennis nodig, waar wetenschappelijk onderzoek een bijdrage kan leveren. Het soort kennis dat men hiervoor nodig heeft, is niet alleen militair van aard, maar ook economisch, sociologisch (en afhankelijk van het antwoord op de eerste vraag, ook ecologisch).

Het is alsof men de auto-industrie zou vragen om een mobiliteitsbeleid uit te werken voor Europa.

Wat men nu echter ziet is een compleet gebrek aan politieke visie. Iedereen lijkt het er over eens te zijn dat er een Europees veiligheidsbeleid moet komen, maar niemand stelt zich de verdere vraag wat dit beleid dan zou moeten inhouden. Het wetenschappelijk-technologisch onderzoek dat in de pijplijn zit, is bovendien ook niet van die aard dat het kennis oplevert die bijdraagt aan het beter uitvoeren van een politiek beleid of helpt in het uittekenen van ervan. Het vertrekt eerder van de aanname dat militair onderzoek door de privéindustrie het enige mogelijke antwoord is. Het is alsof men de auto-industrie zou vragen om een mobiliteitsbeleid uit te werken voor Europa. Uiteraard zal het “ideale” beleid er dan uit bestaan om te investeren in wegenbouw en geld te pompen in research & development uitgevoerd door de industrie zelf.

De belangen van de militaire industrie

De details van de financiering tonen bovendien hoe de huidige plannen enkel de belangen van de militaire industrie dienen. De EU financiert het onderzoek voor 100 %. De industrie zelf hoeft dus geen financiële bijdrage te leveren, maar krijgt wel de volledige intellectuele eigendomsrechten op de ontwikkelde technologie. Onderzoek houdt altijd een risico in: verwachte resultaten blijven soms uit, experimenten kunnen mislukken.

De samenleving betaalt de kosten van het risicovolle onderzoek, eventuele winsten worden volledig opgestreken door privébedrijven.

De motivatie die vaak gegeven wordt voor het toekennen van intellectuele eigendomsrechten is dat dit bedrijven en onderzoekers aanspoort om toch dit risico te lopen. Een geslaagde en gepatenteerde ontdekking kan namelijk de mogelijke mislukkingen meer dan compenseren. Wat we in het Europese plan echter zien, is een socialisering van het risico en het privatiseren van de winst: de samenleving betaalt de kosten van het risicovolle onderzoek, eventuele winsten worden volledig opgestreken door privébedrijven.

Als Slow Science onderzoekers roepen we de EU dan ook op om de belangen van haar burgers voorop te stellen, niet die van de militaire industrie. Om het beleid niet te laten bepalen door de militaire lobby, maar zelf politieke verantwoordelijkheid te nemen en democratische controle toe te laten. Om onderzoek te financieren dat bijdraagt tot een duurzame en veilige toekomst van de EU en niet louter de bankrekeningen van de militaire industrie spijst.


Slow interview #2 – An interview with Paolo Cherubini (part 2)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

Why journal editorials are disappearing, and why we should care

Paolo Cherubini is a senior scientist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. He has been previously interviewed by Sofia Pagliarin as a collaborator of Slow Science when he shared some of his critical thoughts about the Impact Factor.

He is Editor-in-Chief of Dendrochronologia, an international scholarly journal publishing tree-ring science. Recently, he published an editorial about the rates of changes in scientific publishing and the “extinction” of editorials.


Sofia: Paolo, first of all thank you to be again with us.

Paolo: Thanks to you. Already 10 years ago I was thinking about the need to create a network about “slow science”, so I’m glad that it emerged and that I can contribute to it.

Sofia: It’s our pleasure! Anyway, let’s talk business. So are editorials as an introduction of a journal issue disappearing?

Paolo: In the old days, when journals were published on paper, editorials were an important part of a journal because they gave an opinion of the editor(s) on a certain topic possibly of interest for the readership of the journal. So you went to the library, you skimmed through editorials published on paper journals, and through published articles, too. Now, literature search is different. It’s digital, and scientists search and find exactly what they’re looking for. A readership of a journal almost doesn’t exist anymore, nobody takes a hardcopy of a journal in their hands, and nobody reads editorials anymore. The way of reading is also different. Everything is changing!

Sofia: …Changing?

Paolo: Well, the fact that editorials are disappearing also frees up editors’ time, so you do not lose time anymore by writing an editorial that nobody will ever read. What I am a bit worried about is the decrease of serendipity in academic research. But first I want to make a premise: I am one of those scientists who, despite having a high environmental awareness, still likes to print out papers, take notes and highlight stuff on them. Some of my colleagues make fun of me, but I think that reading papers digitally is quite another thing than reading them on paper. It’s not only a different feeling, it’s a different way to “study”, to get the content of the paper in your mind, and to use it possibly in your own research.

That said, when you looked at the editorial of a journal in your domain in the past, you also checked the table of contents. You certainly found stuff related to your own research, but you could also look through published articles in other topics, for instance about the flight trajectories of a butterfly of a certain species. Although now this might seem as waste of time, it was actually enriching, and it stimulated cross-fertilization in research, “side-thinking” and ability to make connections across topics. Now scientists are so specialised also because they have less opportunities to know what others are doing. ((Note to Freek: Reference Abbott’s digital paper for both a practical and sociological view on how to deal with these issues)

Sofia: Do you mean that nowadays researchers are behaving “badly”?

Paolo: No, not at all. But today’s researchers, especially the younger ones, when they look for a journal where to publish their own research, they look at the Impact Factor and publication time. So it’s a “fast science”, where editorials, as well as papers providing personal opinions, commentaries and ideas cannot survive. On the other hand, I think that, “fast science” can easily induce not-so-well-done peer-review.

It takes time and care to make a good peer-review process, while today researchers can opt to pay open-access journals to get their research online. This is not good for scientific research. Furthermore, it is obvious that a molecular researcher will have many more citations than a scientist working on a Himalayan beetle.

First, the size of the academic community for a certain topic affects the Impact Factor and number of citations. We are maybe 1000 dendrochronologists in the entire world, so our publications will never reach a very high number of citations. But is our research less relevant only because of this?

Secondly, and more importantly, how to judge the quality of the research? We may argue that research on the Himalayan beetle has its good relevance. The Impact Factor is a quantification of the utility, not a proof of quality, and less so of how relevant the performed research is.  Or better, other measures complementary or alternative to the Impact Factor should be developed that can account for the topic and certain characteristics of the academic domain. Similarly, the Impact Factor should not be used – or at least not solely – to hire or not people: hiring a new person in a research group is not only about choosing “Impact Factor Stars” – people with many top publications – but it is also necessary to have the sensitivity to weight other aspects, for instance if this person made other contributions (media, software, events, and so on) and on her/his personality, how it would fit to the research group overall. But these aspects are of course not so easily quantifiable as with the number of citations.

Sofia: Do you think that there is an “antidote”?

Paolo: As I said, the Impact Factor should be considered one of the possible measures of scientific research, and possibly not applicable to all the scientific disciplines. Other measures should be developed which are domain-specific, and at best which can also include qualitative assessments of the research. So I urge scientists to work on this and to propose other measures than Garfield’s Impact Factor, which was created to evaluate different journals basing on their utility.

Sofia: Thank you for your time and for sharing your experience Paolo.

Paolo: My pleasure!


Disclaimer:  The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.


Slow interview #1 – An interview with Paolo Cherubini

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

Impact Factor: how a useful tool turned into fever

Paolo Cherubini is a senior scientist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL studying forest ecological processes using tree rings, i.e., dendroecology. Dendroecology provides information that can help us understand and predict how our forests and environment have changed over centuries, from carbon dioxide concentrations to warm or cold, dry or wet weather conditions.

I met Paolo Cherubini when I was working as a post-doc at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. During an informal event, I discovered that in 2008, Paolo published a letter titled “Impact Factor Fever”  in Science (Vol. 322), where he strongly criticised the abuse and misuse of bibliometric in evaluating academic life and performance. He also told me different stories about the Impact Factor and his opinion about it.

As a contributor to the Slow Science network, I hence got the idea to organise in written form those early conversations. Actually, we scheduled a Skype interview where we talked about his thoughts about the Impact Factor, its increasing importance in academia and his experience as an author, reviewer and editor with it.

The following text is a synthetic re-elaboration of these interviews, structured in two posts and reviewed together with Paolo before its online publication on the Slow Science blog.

Paolo Cherubini

Sofia: Paolo, first of all, what is the Impact Factor?

Paolo: The Impact Factor is a measure that calculates how frequently articles published in a journal are cited. The Impact Factor of a journal for a certain year (e.g., 2015) is calculated by dividing the number of citations accumulated by all citeable items, e.g., articles, reviews, personal commentaries, of this journal with the average of all published citeable items in the two previous years (e.g., 2013-2014). So, if a journal had 100 citations over 50 published items, its Impact Factor will be 2. The Impact Factor is a great tool that was developed by Eugene K. Garfield, the owner and founder of the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI), when staff was still typewriting and comparing the number of times the publications in a certain journal were cited by other journals, and now run by Thompson Reuters.

Sofia: In your letter to Science published 2008, you wrote that “The exacerbated pressure to publish we all suffer from is induced by an exaggerated reverence for the impact factor”. How did this all happen?

Paolo: Well, the story is long but basically the Impact Factor comes out of a true necessity to navigate through the different journals and rank them according to their reputation and utility. Although it is a measure that changes over time, it can give a good idea of how important a certain journal is for scientific publications in a certain domain, based on the ratio of citations of the journal articles.

However, this practical need for comparing international scholarly journals has “backfired” and evolved into a way to evaluate scientific performance, institutes and personal careers and a “citation rush”. So today not only journals are fighting to increase their Impact Factor, but also authors crave for the quantification of their research publication records. Personally, I am not against the Impact Factor; as an editor-in-chief of a small journal, I care about it for my journal, but I also know that it’s a measure that does not tell everything about a journal.

Sofia: But why is there such a “reverence”?

Paolo: Because the quantification of scientific results through the Impact Factor is extremely effective for decision-making: it is easy to use. From a measure useful to rank journals, the impact factor now is used to decide which departments have to die and which ones can survive, live or are “of excellence” and be funded. It is a measure that is functional if one has to demonstrate that “objective” decisions have been taken on who should be hired, who be funded and who be prized because of high scientific productivity.

The Impact Factor is functional to maintain a certain structure and functioning of academia, which is beneficial to many parties, that’s why I call it reverence. The journals gain from it as true “brands” in a scientific sector, and the scientists and universities gain, because they all compete for funding and the Impact Factor serves as objective quantitative measure to figure out who has been a good or a bad scientist. In a way, “it’s a simple game for simple minds”.

Sofia: Can you provide an example?

Paolo: Yes, sure. The Impact Factor serves specific academic structures and arrangements. For instance, the supervisor always has to be included in the publications of her/his post-docs and doctoral students. This is not only to increase her/his productivity record, but also because without the supervisor having such a productivity measure, s/he will not be able to get funding, and nurture this hierarchical structure of post-docs and PhDs who otherwise will not be working. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a problem per se, but of course it affects how academic research is done, the number of students in a certain department or research group, and their mentoring and supervising.

Another example is the impact this had on the social sciences, that have been forced to adapt to this parameter, created in and for the natural sciences; the social sciences have started to compete with the natural sciences for funding using the same measures and weapons, in spite of the fact that probably in the social sciences publishing a book makes more sense than publishing articles in ISI journals, making so the use of the Impact Factor perhaps less appropriate.

Sofia: So do you think we should get rid of it?

Paolo: Let’s say that the Impact Factor was invented for a certain purpose, that is ranking international scientific journals. Over time it altered into something that is almost a dictatorship in scientific research and production. It has been misused, and we should get rid of it being used in such a wrong way.

However, it is also true that the Impact Factor was a good thing in those university systems where competitiveness and productivity were not awarded. For instance, in Italy, where I originally come from, the traditional university system was based on professors making a career publishing one book every 10 or 20 years, or only a bunch of articles written in the local language in non-ISI journals. This corrupts the system and makes it extremely inefficient and not innovative at all, which is especially frustrating for students and for the careers of new researchers. It was a system that worked autoreferentially for decades, and recently, thanks to the Impact Factor culture, the university system has been changing. [See here for more background information on the effect of adopting metrices on self-citational practices in an Italian context]

Once I was giving a talk in a formerly Eastern European country, and when I said that I was critical about the Impact Factor, because it is not necessarily a good measure of good research, some colleagues got angry because they were trying to change the academic system there in order to put more pressure on the “dinosaurs” that did not publish and reward young researchers and professors who really did make an effort to compete on the international research scene.

So, it’s good to have a measure such as the Impact Factor that can tell us which journals are best and who is publishing the most. But the Janus-face of this is that, for instance in China, professors get paid thousands of euros more if they get published in one of those top-end journals in the Impact Factor list. This isn’t good, it can become a problem if academic research is solely oriented to get a publication done and cited: the quality of academic research will suffer.

Sofia: Thank you for your time, Paolo. Anything to add?

Paolo: Yes. As a dendroecologist and forest scientist I don’t think these are so far from the social sciences. Actually, ecological systems are very much connected to social sciences … So I believe we are all on the same boat, and the Impact Fair is currently misused in both the natural and the social sciences. Thank you for this opportunity to share with you these thoughts, that I have been discussing with so many other colleagues over the past two decades.

Sofia: Thanks to you Paolo!



“Slow Interviews” is a column published on the blog of the Slow Science network. The “Slow Interviews” articles/posts are conceived, written and reviewed by Sofia Pagliarin, as one of the collaborators of the Slow Science network. The publication and the content of each interview, in one or multiple posts, are discussed, reviewed and reciprocally agreed through a cooperative dialogue and effort taking place between Sofia Pagliarin, the interviewee(s) and some other members of the network.

These interviews have the aim to enrich the topics and debates that are central to the network, and are conceived to be in direct dialogue with the course on the critical analysis of academia and academic production organised annually by the Slow Science network: They add to our understanding through adding different points of view, and are not intended to replace the topics and debates dealt with during the course. Interviewees are academics or informants that have experience and/or knowledge on a particular topic, and who are not necessarily related to either the Slow Science Network or the course.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the “Slow Interviews” articles and blog posts are those of the authors and respondents and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Slow Science network.