Russia's 'untapped potential' for publishers carries risks

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The banks of the Volga in February are cold. Make no bones about it (and my bones were making plenty of complaints as the temperature dropped below -20c), off-season travelling in central Russia requires major determination, writes Martyn Lawrence.

I was in Russia on behalf of Emerald Group Publishing, travelling with colleagues to visit libraries in St Petersburg, Moscow and Kazan.  If St Petersburg looks west and Moscow is the fabled heartland, Kazan is ancient eastern border country. Capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, the city lies 800km east of Moscow, an anxious 12 hours drive along the frozen M7 motorway (although a relatively painless flight with Aeroflot). Our intention was to learn more about the Russian higher education market for social science publishers.
Russia has long been famed for its chemical, engineering and physical science output, and spending on R&D in these areas dwarfs all others. However, Emerald primarily publishes in the social sciences, and we wanted to know the potential for growth in an emerging economy. Plus we wanted to meet people; in Russia, the kommandirovka (business trip) still reigns supreme, and there is no substitute for what the Chinese call guanxi, and the Russians – slightly less elegantly, it must be said – call blat.
The situation

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, universities in the newly-independent Russian Federation went through a difficult period of adjustment as an entire system of tertiary education adjusted to radical change. Russia finally co-signed the Bologna Declaration in 2003 – not without objections from several well-established universities – which began a gradual migration to a modernised higher education system.  

In 2007, President Putin signed into law a declaration that introduced a two-tier education system: a bachelor degree followed by a masters, rather than the traditional single-degree course that lasted five years and was created in the 1940s at the height of the Soviet planned economy.
This transition was slow to take effect, and in the annual Times Higher Education (THE) university rankings, Russian universities were consistently poorly ranked.  This weakness was attributed to poor global citations, since the Russian scholarly publication process – perhaps reflecting its social context – has historically rewarded productivity, not intellectual stimulus or theory development.
2012 saw the nadir of this process, when only one Russian university was ranked inside the THE top 400. The ensuing frustration and national embarrassment led President Putin to accelerate a dramatic and systematic overhaul of the higher education sector with the aim of identifying and weeding out weak universities. An external audit of 600 public HEIs was commissioned, and 102 universities and 374 local branches were found wanting, on the basis of student quality, research intensity and productivity, and teaching space.
Consequently, the Russian government has threatened widespread closures of poor-performing HEIs while offering significantly increased funding for fifteen leading universities. These top institutions will initially receive special grants totalling R9bn (£165m) in order to encourage English-language research. This is seen as the best way of improving citations, and thus the international rankings (and thereby the perceived status) of Russian universities.  

National university rankings are also being developed in line with government targets.  President Putin’s ultimate aim is to have at least five of the country’s universities in the THE top 100 by 2020. Despite drawing criticism that Russia’s vast regions are being disadvantaged to the benefit of hyper-dominant Moscow, and that research is being left only in the hands of the privileged, the government is determined to press ahead.

Why this matters

These reforms are the most significant overhaul of Russia’s university system in living memory. So what of the impact on Emerald and other social science publishers? We feel they are four-fold:

  • Increasing international research collaboration, improving quality of output;
  • Elite universities will have more money to spend on subscriptions to international publications;
  • Russian authorship in international journals will increase; and
  • Government activity increases likelihood of national consortia deals.

This was what brought us to Russia.  We visited nine universities in three cities, dividing our time between running publishing workshops for faculty, and interviewing librarians and library directors. In our interviews, we asked about four issues:

  • Challenges and opportunities for overseas scholarly publishers;
  • Level of faculty/student demand for English publications;
  • Specific requirements or rewards for faculty to publish; and
  • Trust of intellectual property/copyright assignment/peer review.

Challenges and opportunities for overseas scholarly publishers

  • Government is overwhelmingly the driving force. Decades of central control and funding means that publishers must win friends and influence people at the centre before seeing success;
  • Language remains a barrier. Older faculty are limited in English, and Russian textbooks often have a limited print-run to achieve margin;
  • Culture vital to understand. On all theoretical models, Russian culture is profoundly different from that of Western Europe and the USA (hence the continued importance of the kommandirovka in increasing understanding on both sides);
  • University structures and systems are slow to change, since older faculty and administrative staff remain from the Soviet era; and
  • Corruption still runs deep. As one interviewee told us, larger companies have the wherewithal to bring issues to court, but smaller subsidiaries will struggle.

Demand for English publications

Language skills appeared to be driven by publication needs. Almost without exception, younger faculty were more globally aware and had more international exposure, and expected to find some (not necessarily all/core) publications in English. By contrast, older faculty felt they could achieve their goals by reading and publishing in Russian.
Faculty requirement and rewards

Journal indexing is crucial, and the approach is not particularly nuanced. Despite the regular objections to Journal Impact Factors thrown up by (among others) the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), many individual universities hold to an ‘ISI is best’ approach, offering sliding scales of cash incentives for Web of Science/Scopus publications to enhance the institution’s prominence. President Putin has targeted a 50 per cent increase in Russian output in SCI/SSCI journal within two years, a figure that appears all but impossible. Even if the quality of Russian research did consistently reach international publication standards – a debatable point, given the THE data – it will take longer than two years for this to filter through into journal publications.
Trust of IP and peer review
We heard many historical anecdotes about evasion of review processes, and tales of professors cutting and pasting entire articles from print-only journals. Despite the prevalence of digital publishing, improvement is still debatable. Although online programmes such as ScholarOne and Editorial Manager offer more transparency and consistency, many Russian journals do not use these and figures are therefore hard to come by. On the other side of the argument, Russian faculty had the same fears as those in other developing countries: a feeling of bias against them in favour of established, ‘Western’ scholars.  There were lots of call for editorial support in the guise of language editing, reviewer training and paper development workshops.
In conclusion

Russia has enormous untapped potential. However, it became abundantly obvious during our visits that the ‘Wild East’ holds such risks that social science publishers must be very sure of their ground. Publishers, libraries and universities seeking exchange programmes should focus on relationships and long-term sustainability, not on quick wins, and outside the hard sciences, this requires greater effort and investment. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising, given the pressures on companies to maximise ROI in the shortest possible times, that so few are willing to take a chance on Russia.
Martyn Lawrence is publisher at Emerald Group Publishing   @martynlawrence