The changing research landscape- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24
What has changed in the social science research landscape since the political change of 1990 that put an end to absolute monarchy in Nepal and ushered in an era of multi-party democracy (with more than a few hiccups)? One can begin to answer this question in many different ways according to one’s location in or outside the research landscape. Here I try to answer this question in my capacity as an academic researcher deeply interested in the ways in which members of my tribe produce academic journals.
I will start with one piece of evidence to think with. The Education Management Information System (2015/16) Report prepared by Prithvi Narayan Campus (PNC, Pokhara) of Tribhuvan University (TU) in 2016 is a short text of just 41 pages. Its chapter three lists the existing eight departments that PNC then had under its Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences: English, Nepali, Economics, Geography, History and Culture, Political Science, Sociology/Anthropology and Rural Development, and Population Studies. Chapter five of the same report lists all the journals published by the various departments of PNC. When you tally the information contained in those two lists, it becomes clear that each of those eight existing departments then published a separate journal: The Outlook: Journal of English Studies, Prithvi Bangmaya, Economic Literature, The Himalayan Geographers, Historia, Journal of Political Science, Himalayan Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, and Demographic Forum are the respective titles.
If you include the journals published by other departments in other faculties at the PNC—law, management, education, and science and technology—the total number of journals published from that single constituent college of TU (with about 8000 students) exceeds 25. How do we make sense of this phenomenon? What might the factors contributing to this growth be? Can the research community based at PNC (with its connections to other academics elsewhere) sustain such prolific production of journals?
The New Geography
As is the case elsewhere, academic practitioners in Nepal have published their own journals to communicate their analyses based on some kind of research activity. Such forms of communication are crucial to the progress of any disciplined inquiry in the social sciences and humanities. Journal production inside Nepal started in the immediate aftermath of the end of Rana Rule in 1951. In the following four decades, the journal production landscape had grown to contain various individual and institutional players. The journals that had come into existence by 1990 were produced from a variety of institutional entities. Many journals had been published by various entities associated with TU. For instance, TU’s research centres, central departments, and other departments of its constituent campuses had published journals. Journals were also published by professional academic disciplinary bodies (eg, Nepal Geographical Society) and other research collectives (eg, Samsodhan Mandal). Various types of Nepal government entities (eg, Department of Archaeology, Nepal Academy, etc) also contributed to the institutional diversity of locations from which journals were conceived, edited and published until the end of the Panchayat era.
After the resumption of the multi-party political dispensation in 1990, more than 100 journals have been established in the social sciences, most of them in the past two decades. Apart from the types of institutions mentioned above, these new journals have been published by the new Nepali universities, some academic NGOs, private research centres, and commercial publishers. Given the concentration of institutions of higher learning and research and related practitioners in the Kathmandu Valley, it is not surprising to find that most academic journals are still published from within the Valley. But the 1990s and the early years of the current century must be noted as the time when journal publication was taken up seriously in cities outside of the Valley. As mentioned above, Pokhara is notable in this respect but academic journals are now being produced from Ilam Bazaar, Bhadrapur, Dharan, Biratnagar, Birgunj, Bharatpur, Baglung, Nepalgunj, Surkhet and other locations. These new journals have boosted the institutional and physical diversity of the journal landscape in the country. The growth in the number of journals published from entities within PNC in Pokhara must be seen in this light. Among the journals mentioned above, the ones I have read or contributed to were established in this period: Historia was founded in 1995, Journal of Political Science in 1998, and Himalayan Journal of Sociology and Anthropology in 2004.
Factors for Growth
The growth in the number of academic journals in the most recent past can be tied to several recent developments in the Nepali social world. It has taken place in an environment structured by relatively more open political and economic dispensation. It has also happened in the context of the general expansion of college and university level academia in Nepal in terms of the number of institutions, academic practitioners, disciplinary portfolios and students all over the country. This growth has also taken place amid, as sociologist Chaitanya Mishra has put it, growing urbanization and deeper de-sacralization of social life in Nepali society, a symptom of which is the increased valorization of empirical modes of research enquiry. The number of journals has also increased at a time when new communication and printing technologies became available to Nepali practitioners.
Here I have just highlighted a few factors in this connection. Foremost among them is the constitutional guarantee of democracy with fundamental rights with respect to the right to organize and the right to freedom of expression. This guarantee is fundamental to the rise of academic journal collectives and their ability to aspire as academics according to their own needs and ambitions, including in places such as Pokhara. Second, the two decades since the political transition of 1990 also coincided with an increase in the professional differentiation of the middle-class in Nepal. One of the ways in which academics, including those based in Pokhara, have tried to mark their difference from literary writers, journalists and other producers of written texts and periodicals is through the publication of journals that carry the written output of their research efforts. Such outputs, processed through some form of “peer reviews” realize that difference.
Third, the expansion of higher education across the country, especially the growth in the number of disciplines offered at the masters’ level in different colleges of TU (including at the PNC) is an important factor. To teach research at the masters’ level, faculty members needed to show they can do research themselves. The fourth factor behind the growth of journals is the link between the granting of specific points to research articles when academics apply for promotions within the university system.
In theory, academic journals are supposed to be published in a regular cycle of say one or more times a year. This kind of regularity distinguishes journals from other one-off or occasional publications. When journals are regularly published over the course of several years, they not only become a recognized brand for academic discourse but they also build up a corpus of published texts that could potentially influence the trajectory of specific disciplines and the social sciences and the humanities in general.
However, longevity and regularity are two different things when it comes to Nepali journals. Data I have presented elsewhere show that Nepali journals are irregular and most of the journals published from PNC are no exception. Most of them are irregular in the sense that annual issues are usually published every other year or with even longer gaps between issues.
What are the factors that influence journal regularity and continuity? Internal political dynamics within professional entities of academics (departments, disciplinary organizations, etc) have majorly determined what those bodies have been able to do as organizational entities. Lack of internal collegiality in such entities has, more often than not, limited the collective capacity of such groups and debilitated the functioning of departments or editorial collectives. One manifestation of this is the inordinate delays in the publication of journal issues. This is a phenomenon that is endemic in Nepali institutions of higher education and the departments at PNC are not immune to it.
With respect to keeping journals alive in the long run, the second factor that seems to matter is the commitment of individuals involved in their editorial production. In other words, among the journals that have had a long life, many have been sustained by the labour of love of certain editors or sets of editors. But given the high irregularity of Nepali journals, we can also conclude that on many occasions the ambitions of those who have established journals have far surpassed their managerial capacities and intellectual commitments to keep those journals going. This is most obvious from the fact that many journals have not survived beyond the first few issues and/or have been very irregular from the time they were founded. When one looks at these features of Nepali academic journals, we must conclude that many were founded by individuals who had motives other than promoting the interests of their disciplines or social science and humanities research in Nepal in general. These motives include wanting to be identified as an editor of a journal (even if only one issue is ever published) to score points in the prestige economy and editing a few issues of a journal in which one’s work can be published so that marks to get promoted in the professorial hierarchic system are secured.
Third, editors of Nepali journals clearly work in an environment of scarcity when it comes to academic articles. Several former and current editors of the journals published from PNC have told me privately that they suffer enormously from this scarcity. This situation is clearly related to the larger lack of incentives for doing research in Nepal. But in the PNC case, is there scarcity because there are more journals in existence than can be supported by its research community? If the number of journals is really in excess of the number of researchers who can produce good contents for them, then it is time to think about merging existing separate journals to create more robust journals. Each department need not produce its own journal just to show its existence. If all the departments in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at PNC could agree on publishing just one or two journals (instead of eight), scarcity of good articles would be less of an issue. Those journals would be stronger platforms and researchers elsewhere in the country and videshis who do research on Nepal would have to read them. Right now, most journals published from PNC cannot claim this status.
In the post-1990 period, the capacity to research, however limited in its execution, has spread to different parts of Nepal from its erstwhile concentration in the Kathmandu Valley. As seen in the case of academic journals, these years have been especially good for the dispersion of the research ethos and its outputs to and from different parts of the country. However, some of the basic challenges facing this enterprise from its early days in terms of its regularity of production, its quality and its financing (a topic for another day) still persist in the federal democratic republican Nepal. These challenges need further public scrutiny if research production, of which journal publication is an important part, is to become a more effective part of the academic endeavour in our country.
Onta is the founding editor of two journals, Studies in Nepali History and Society and Samaj Adhyayan. He tweets at @pratyoushonta