Enduring hardships in global knowledge asymmetries: a national scenario of China’s English-language academic journals in the humanities and social sciences

This research finds that the English-language journals from China have been confronted with four major challenges: English language hurdles, unfavorable position in research evaluation systems, unfamiliarity with standards of international academic writing and publishing, and tensions between international ambition and local commitment.

– Mengyang Li, University of Hong Kong

Li, M., & Yang, R. (2019). Enduring hardships in global knowledge asymmetries: a national scenario of China’s English-language academic journals in the humanities and social sciences. Higher Education. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00476-3

China’s achievements in higher education during the past few decades are marked by rapidly rising ‘hard’ disciplines (science, technology, and medicine) and much less visible ‘soft’ disciplines (humanities and social sciences, abbreviated as HSS). Against such a backdrop, the government has recently stressed the significance of improving the international influence of China’s HSS. Developing English-language academic journals is one of China’s proactive initiatives for its HSS to go global. As a relatively recent development, these journals have rarely been researched empirically. Based on interviews with 32 journal editors and on a thorough review of related policy documents at various levels conducted during 2017-2018, this article delineates an overall picture of HSS English-language academic journals in Mainland China, and explores their efforts and predicaments in bringing China’s HSS research to the world under a context of global knowledge asymmetries.

By 2018, China had 66 HSS English-language academic journals, primarily hosted by universities, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences(CASS) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and publishers. Political rationales have been the strongest push for these journals to emerge. While the earliest, the Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, was established in 1978, most of the journals were launched in recent one or two decades. They were directly or indirectly resulted from top-down HSS ‘going-out’ policy aiming at global status and soft power enhancement. Despite being influenced by the policy discourses, according to the interviewees, the journals enjoy a considerable extent of freedom in operation.

On the whole, the journals are still at their preliminary stage of development. In comparison with a total over 2000 HSS Chinese-language journals (CNKI 2017), the number of HSS English-language journals is dwarfed. The 66 journals cover different subject areas, mostly in economics, finance, business and management (17), followed by eight in law, four in education, and three in history. 47 (71%) journals cooperate with international publishers. Currently Taylor & Francis Group, Brill, and Springer are the three major international partners for the journals. By far, the international impact of these journals is generally very limited. Only six are indexed by the So­cial Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and none by the Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI). 27 (41%) are indexed in Scopus, the largest international citation database of peer-reviewed journals. In 2018, three journals were ranked in Q1 in their respective areas in Scimago Journal Rank based on Scopus data, while 11 were ranked in Q2, three in Q3, and 10 in Q4.

Despite their limited international visibility, HSS English-language journals in China provide a platform for bringing China’s research to the world. The interviewed editors have shown a clear awareness of Euro-American hegemony in global knowledge production, pointing out a lack of understanding of the global south and misunderstandings about China and China studies. The journals therefore aim to be a platform for reciprocal communication and multiple perspectives in HSS research. They encourage theoretical discussions on Chinese, Asian, or non-Western issues, reforms, history, traditions… from various especially local perspectives, and explore their possibilities in contributing to theory building. Besides, the few journals that have achieved relatively higher global impact have demonstrated possibilities in strategic dependence on international resources to enhance visibility, such as Chinese Journal of International Politics. While spending substantial efforts in inviting top international scholars to join their editorial boards, and as readers, authors and reviewers, the journal works hard to balance domestic and foreign papers at the same time so as to facilitate dialogue between Chinese and international scholars.

Four major themes emerged from the data regarding challenges of journal development: English language hurdles, unfavorable position in research evaluation systems, unfamiliarity with standards of international academic writing and publishing, and tensions between international ambition and local commitment. First, most editors report English as a major obstacle for their journals. At their initial stages of development, most of the journals can receive few submissions from foreign scholars and Chinese diaspora. Thus they need depend largely on domestic researchers. Considering the unsatisfactory English proficiency of many domestic researchers, journals have to either compromise language quality of the articles they publish or rely on translation of articles that have already been published in Chinese journals and submissions in Chinese. Yet qualified translators and copy editors are lacking, and the language ability of many editors is also a problem.

Second, the journals are hindered by their unfavorable positions in research evaluation systems. As rankings and league tables have become parts of the global governance of higher education, China’s HSS research evaluation system is increasingly shaped by SSCI and A&HCI. Since the overwhelming majority of the HSS English-language journals are not indexed, it has been very difficult for them to attract international and domestic submissions. Third, many domestic Chinese researchers and some editors themselves are not familiar with standards of international academic writing and publishing. For example, among the 27 interviewed journals, about 12 journals only publish original articles while other journals rely on translated articles at varying degrees; even fewer journals (about 8) have achieved double-blind peer review. For journals cooperating with international publishers, financial pressure caused by the high cost of the partnership might restrict a sustainable development of them.

Lastly, the journals are struggling to strike a balance between international ambition and local commitment. To deal with Euro-American hegemony and bring indigenous Chinese research to the world, journals need to publish more locally-oriented research. However, hoping to be better recognized international­ly, most journals in the social sciences set entry into SSCI as their current strategic goal. The intention to have a larger international readership and authorship is desperate. Even SSCI or A&HCI are not regarded as a major target in the humanities, the journals also orient to the ‘golden standards’ set by Western practices to enhance their international recognition. Moreover, editors confirm the lingering difficulties in the dialogue between Chinese and Western scholarship. As an editor in philosophy expressed, “We’ve translated and published articles written by leading Chinese schol­ars, but they have almost zero download, much lower than those written by younger Chinese diaspora members.” This reflects the global position of China’s HSS research. Issues such as catch-up mentality, over-pragmatism, academic nationalism, and lack of original theoretical contributions have exerted a combined impact on HSS research in China, lead­ing to a limited contribution to the dialogue with interna­tional scholars.

To conclude, this study shows that HSS English-language journals in China attempt to challenge yet are conditioned at the same time by the imbalanced international knowledge structure. Theories of center-periphery structure (Altbach, 1987; 1998) and academic dependency (Alatas 2003; 2006) are still powerful in explaining disadvantages of HSS development in non-Western societies. However, China’s HSS English-language journals provide us with a telling case to observe how to develop self-consciously counter-Eurocentric and counter-hegemonic HSS (Alatas 2006). It takes time to see their effectiveness in empowering Chinese HSS researchers to become global.

Author Biography

Mengyang Li is a PhD candidate in Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests are in international academic relations, internationalization of the humanities and social sciences, and China’s global engagement in higher education. Her doctoral research examines Mainland China’s English-language academic journals in the humanities and social sciences. This paper is based on part of the doctoral thesis. She can be contacted via email: u3003515@connect.hku.hk

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