Does internationalization change research content?

Does internationalization change research content? SSCI journals by country

Source: Kang 2009, p. 201

Every linguistics undergraduate student is by now familiar with the fact of linguistic imperialism in academic publishing where the pressure to publish in international journals translates into the pressure to publish in English, leaving researchers from non-English-speaking backgrounds at a competitive disadvantage. I have often joked in my introductory sociolinguistics lectures that discovering a cure for cancer and not being able to publish it in English would probably be little different from not discovering a cure for cancer at all. The academic pressure to publish in English is thus old news but I’d never before thought about the fact that there might be more to the story: does the dominance of US- and UK-based journals among the most highly-ranked journals not only constitute pressure to publish in English but also pressure to conduct particular types of research? I.e. is there not only a form effect but also a content effect?

Myungkoo Kang’s article about university reform in South Korea demonstrates exactly that. In the name of globalization and international competitiveness, South Korean academics, just as their colleagues elsewhere, are under pressure to publish in SCI- and SSCI-indexed journals. In South Korean academia, publications in SCI- and SSCI-indexed journals bring financial rewards for faculty, have become indispensable for being awarded tenure and constitute a positive hiring consideration.

In 2007, for example, there were 1,865 journals indexed in the SSCI. 1,585 (79.62%) of these originated in the USA and UK (see table for details). SSCI-indexed “international” journals are thus clearly hugely skewed towards those originating in Anglophone “center” countries. Among Asian countries, 7 SSCI-indexed journals (0.38%) originate in Japan, 5 (0.27%) in China, 4 (0.21%) in India, 3 (0.16%) in South Korea, and one each (0.05%) in Singapore and Taiwan. Even those SSCI-indexed journals published outside the Anglophone “center” countries are overwhelmingly English-language publications. So, the fact that pressure to publish in SSCI-indexed journals translates into pressure to publish in English is obvious.

In order to find out whether it is not only the language of publication that changes with the pressure to publish in SSCI-indexed journals but also the actual research, Kang analyzed articles published by Asian scholars in the top SSCI-indexed journals in the area of Communication. He found that most such articles “framed local phenomena with American mainstream theories” or “appropriated mainstream theories by redefining mainstream theoretical concepts.” By contrast, only a very small number of these articles attempted to formulate research problems from the local context.

The author concludes that South Korea’s policy for improving research competitiveness (as expressed in pressure to publish in SSCI-indexed journals) actually jeopardizes local/national knowledge production and the formulation of local/national research agendas with relevance to the actual needs of local/national societies. The attempt to foster globally top-ranked social sciences researchers in South Korea constitutes simultaneous encouragement of social sciences researchers to neglect issues within their immediate social contexts.

Kang’s paper is part of a special issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies devoted to “Neo-liberal Conditions of Knowledge.” All the contributions in that volume demonstrate how academic “internationalization” in effect means the imposition of English-mediated centralized regimes of knowledge. It is not only local/national languages that are being pushed aside and undermined in the process but, more worryingly, locally informed, locally engaged, and critical forms of knowledge production and dissemination. Kang, M. (2009). ‘State‐guided’ university reform and colonial conditions of knowledge production Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 10 (2), 191-205 DOI: 10.1080/14649370902823355

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Jean Cho

    Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Ingrid
    That’s very true.
    The idea of academic publishing in English journals has become a familiar dilemma for some. Persian could be a good example in this case, too. When I talk to my friends, some of whom have a Master’s degree, irrespective of their fields of studies, they confess that they might not be considered well-educated or knowledgeable unless they have published an article in English. Nonetheless, most of them have some articles published in the Persian Journals. In linguistics, for example, this (academic publishing in English), to the best of my knowledge, could have been one of the major reasons why many aspects of Persian language have been left unexplored.

  • Very, very important issues you’re discussing here, Ingrid.
    These two resources may provide additional insight into it:

    Frans de Waal’s ‘Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science’:

    The 2008 AILA Review, ‘Linguistic inequality in scientific communication today’:


  • Shiva Motaghi

    Fantastic piece! Thanks Ingrid!
    As Frans de Waal says (thanks to Madalena for sharing the link) “Good scientific ideas formulated in bad English either die or get repackaged.”


  • Grace

    I can’t agree more.
    Utilizing English as a lingua franca in academia is not just about having a platform to communicate internationally but also implicitly imposing a certain value and criteria to everyone who wishes to stay in academia.
    In addition, I also wonder the meaning of turning all the research into English based presentation. For instance, while I was trying to understand more of Mandarin syntax, I found myself lost in the journal papers and had to translate all the examples given in English spelling back to Mandarin in order to make sense. A lot of times, I needed to guess what words they exactly refer to since there are too many homophonic characters in Mandarin. What is the meaning for a researcher from non-English background trying very hard to write their pieces into English, while their local readers have to try very hard to translate back? In this sense, the language has slowed down and even hindered the benefit of dissemination of research.

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  • Ulfath Sadia

    I agree that, the concept of academic internalization is in a way imposition of English medium Instruction. The internalization is changing the research content as all the researchers do not competent in English but forced to use English in their journals. I liked the Example on A cure of cancer, as it focuses on the secondary position of the English language as it is not the language that makes the research important but it is the content which is important. English in reality do not play any role in discovering a cure of cancer but still US or UK based journals seem to dominate the research publications.