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Challenges to Academic Research and Publishing in MENA: Dr. Noha Atef shares her experience

In an interview for MERH, young academic Dr. Noha Atef shares her experience of the Higher Education sector in Egypt and comments on some of the structural inequalities that limit inclusion of young academics based in the MENA region with regards to research funding and academic publishing. She offers perspectives and recommendations for enhanced research capacity.

Noha Atef is an Egyptian media academic who has published for a number of local, regional, and international media outlets. She has worked as a Research Associate for the Birmingham Centre for Media and Culture Studies and currently lectures for different higher education institutions in Egypt, including Cairo University, the British University in Egypt and the Canadian International College (Cape Breton University).

What are some of the challenges you and your peers are facing when developing a career in academic research?

There are three main challenges. The first challenge is that those of us who have graduated from foreign institutions or studied abroad are struggling to validate their degrees and certificates. Validating your degrees and certificates is required if you want to get hired by an Egyptian institution. For the Ministry of Higher Education here, you do not have a degree or PhD until it gets validated. It’s a long process and you go through many time-consuming procedures. One of them, for example is that the thesis or dissertation in which you already obtained a degree gets reassessed by an academic committee. Sometimes, committee members choose to validate your work in another discipline. For example, I have a friend who obtained a Masters in Gender Studies in the UK. He had graduated from a sociology department. But when he got his certificate validated in Egypt, the committee considered that he had the equivalent of a Masters in Law. Simply because in his thesis he discusses Islamic law from a gender perspective, which means if he wanted to pursue a PhD in Egypt or apply for an academic job here, he should be affiliated with a School of Law, instead of a Sociology Department. I personally went through some of the procedures required and finally chose not to have my PhD degree by the Egyptian authorities.

The second challenge has to do with limited opportunities for academic research. Those of us who want to pursue an academic career need to teach because research opportunities are extremely limited. Not only in Egypt but in most developing countries. We have a restricted number of local research centers that would need more resources and infrastructure to recruit more academic staff. Young researchers have to apply for grants and secure funding for themselves, but funding opportunities are also limited to the academic staff based in Egyptian universities. The only body that supports independent researchers is The Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS). This is one case of funding body that would consider applications on the basis of candidates’ degrees and qualifications. I was able to benefit from their funding scheme. But other programmes, such as Fulbright fellowships require you to be formally affiliated with an Egyptian university.

Can you still work as a researcher even though your certificates aren’t validated?

I can only work as an adjunct faculty member but I could not be based in a faculty and get hired as a member of staff. At the moment, I work as an adjunct in several universities. This allows for a more flexible schedule but it has its disadvantages. There is this tradition of paying adjunct faculty members at the end of the semester. So, you spend the entire semester without being paid and then you get all your money at the end of the term. This also means that you cannot get support for conferences and other academic events because you are not a member of staff and you will spend the summer holidays without being paid. Adjuncts have a fixed pay rate. They calculate your teaching hours and you get paid at the end of semester depending on your workload.

Another challenge we face in the higher education sector is job uncertainty. I think this is more of a global issue. Egypt is luckier than other MENA countries in this regard because there are many international universities. A number of western universities, especially from the United Kingdom, have local campuses and students benefit from this knowledge hub. Coventry University, for example, has a local campus, which delivers the same modules studied at Coventry in the UK. At the end of their curriculum, students graduate with both an Egyptian and a British diploma. At the moment, the programmes and scholarships offered by international universities are limited to undergraduate students. Therefore, due to the lack of international postgraduate programmes available, there is not much room for academic research.

Is the knowledge hub of international universities limited to Cairo?

Yes. Cairo-based international universities create a job market for young researchers and local academics. But most of these higher education institutions open their campuses in the middle class suburb of New Cairo, which is relatively far from the city center. Some people are happy to commute to find a job, but considering the fact that the city has poor public transport infrastructure and a population of 23 million people, commuting is not always easy. Those who can afford to use their own car still spend a lot of money and up to 3 hours a day in the traffic, which generates stress and extra expenses.

Do you still have the opportunity to publish your research locally?

To get your work published, local publishers and reviewers would first assess your research according to where it was previously published. Most of the high impact journals are in English, not in Arabic. There are only one or two journals in Arabic which have a good impact factor – publishing with these academic outlets would get you noticed and recognised. All my publications are in English except for one Arabic article, which got high viewership, according to the statistics of the Academia website, which is the platform I usually use to share and publicise my research. There is a paper I’ve just finished working on, I chose to do it in Arabic. It is now ready for publication but I’m still looking for an academic journal to submit it. Arabic publications are either hardly visible or would require you to pay money to access it. There is no open source access for academic outputs in Arabic. As an author, you would have to pay around 750 (EGP) to get it peer-reviewed. Alternatively, publishing your work in English, also generate costs. If I write something in English, I need it to be proofread, copyedited and this costs money. In the event that you are not fully employed, you do not get financial support and would have to bear this cost.

Why are local researchers and academics still expected to publish in English?

The most highly-ranked academic publishers are English speakers. I would love to find an Arabic or bilingual journal in SAGE, Palgrave, Routledge or one of these big publishing houses. But it doesn’t exist and there are only a few Arabic journals with a good impact factor. […] There was a research conducted by two colleagues on predatory journals. Predatory journals are journals in which researchers pay to get published, but that are usually not considered as reliable because the articles are not subjected to rigorous review. These two researchers were questioning why most of the Arab academics are getting published in predatory journals. They examined eighteen journals and they found that the Arab researchers often don’t know that these journals are predatory and that they are not scientifically respectable. They simply get hunted by these publishers and are simply interested in the prospect of publishing their work, which reveals that Arab researchers lack knowledge on how to promote their work and how to select the right publishers.

Are there any well-known Arabic journals in your field?

Yes. For example, I can think of the journal published by the ‘Faculty of Mass Communication in Cairo University’ – which involves a traditional review process and is well-respected in the academic community. But you would need to pay a fee to get published and there is only a print version, which means articles do not have much visibility.

What tools and resources do you think young researchers need to develop their research?

I think young researchers like me should be guided through the academic publication process. There are a lot of researchers who often get rejected when submitting publications or applying for funding because they are simply not experienced and do not know how to bid for research funds. These skills are usually not taught in universities. There should be workshops designed to train early-career academics who may have to work as independent researchers. Young academics should also receive more support when it comes to demonstrate research impact. Their work is often exceptionally good and deserves more attention, because it does provide ideas and suggestions for policy recommendations. Unfortunately, it does not get much visibility, hardly ever reaches the relevant audience and does not get noticed by decision-makers. Impact and networking are crucial. Last year, I paid a lot of money to attend a few conferences. But when I came back I realised I had not successfully built my network and I personally feel that this is also a skill that I need to learn. Trainings and workshops could be designed to support young researchers and this could be made accessible in the form of online tutorials or videos.

Do you have anything else to mention before we finish?

If I was to add something it would be that I can see how challenging it is for young academics. Research is something that lacks support all over the world. If it it’s not supported enough in Western countries, one can imagine how it is in the developing world. So, pursuing a research career in the Arab region is really challenging. Those of us who have achieved something should be proud of themselves. I encourage everyone to go through it. It’s not an easy process at all, it costs money and time, and it may be disappointing at some point but eventually you will find a place where your work gets recognised.

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