Last year, Carlos Estévez-Bretón was at a conference when he was asked — not for the first time — how much of the Netflix series Narcos actually happened and how much was fiction. “At least 70 percent was fiction,” he said, “but people will never know because all the articles covering what really happened are in Spanish, and they’re not in indexed journals. Our research on narco-traffic, drugs, violence and other aspects of social conflict are in local publications, with local collaborators, and those researchers simply don’t work in English.”
Estévez-Bretón knew that global peacemakers had looked to Ireland and South Africa, both of which had undergone long-term civil unrest, for solutions that might help Colombia deal with the aftereffects of the narco experience. But any lessons learned from the application of those solutions were in Spanish, so Colombian knowledge couldn’t help nations outside of Latin America.
In fact, a recent review of two large social sciences databases revealed that nearly 90 percent of the contents are English-language publications. Yet significant work, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, is being done in local languages.
The realization was a tipping point for Estévez-Bretón, then a transfer technology technician at the University of Rosario (Universidad del Rosario). He was determined to bring his university’s local research to light so it could speak for itself. Now the library is collaborating on the project.
“I knew the university was already using the Pure platform, which had produced a research portal that mainly showcased the work of its STEM researchers, which was already in English,” he said. “I was determined to find a way to get our non-STEM work visible.”
The importance of doing so was underscored by, among others, scientists at Leiden University, who had reported in Nature that “the language of publication has a dramatic and largely underestimated effect on citation-based measurements of research performance.” Non-English-language journals generally have a low impact, as they have fewer readers and fewer citations. Therefore, in a system in which rankings are based on the number of citations per paper and per faculty member, “the language of publication directly affects the ranking of the university hosting the research.”
It follows that the individual researcher is also affected. The H-index, a metric that measures both the productivity and citation impact of a scientist or scholar’s publications, is based on the author’s most cited papers, and the number of citations he or she received in other publications.
Ignoring non-English, non-STEM publications has additional consequences. Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO, wrote in the forward to the World Social Science Report 2010:
Social scientific endeavour is … poorer for its bias towards English and English-speaking developed countries. This is a missed opportunity to explore perspectives and paradigms that are embedded in other cultural and linguistic traditions. A more culturally and linguistically diverse approach by the social sciences would be of tremendous value to organizations such as UNESCO in our efforts to foster mutual understanding and intercultural dialogue.
Bringing social science research to light
Estévez-Bretón started with three tools: Pure, Elsevier’s research information management system and collaboration module, the Mendeley reference management system, and the DeepL translation service. His idea was to get at least the title and abstract of all the university’s Spanish social sciences publications translated into English so they could be indexed by Pure and included in the portal.
The Elsevier technology team created an interface to assist non-English-speaking researchers in entering information in English, as well as Spanish, into the Pure research entry form. Pure could then serve up the English information to Google and other search engines.
When the project launched in late 2017, more than 1,000 publications needed to be translated from the university’s repository of existing social sciences research, and the system had to be ready to accommodate new publications continuously over time.
“There was quite a bit of resistance from the faculty,” Estévez-Bretón acknowledged. Department budgets didn’t include people to do translations, enter the information into the system and keep the everything up to date. He tried to impress upon the researchers that by doing their part, they would gain visibility individually and also improve the visibility of the university’s research output overall, thereby improving its ranking.
Uptake was slow but steady, as the university agreed to recruit and train several student interns to support the initiative, each providing about 60 hours of translation and data entry time every semester.
Gaining momentum, ensuring researcher compliance
Estévez-Bretón left the university in mid-2018 to work with Elsevier, and Natalia Márquez-Bustos, a metrics professional in the Research and Innovation Office, took the reins. The university has long had a system whereby researchers receive a financial incentive for publishing in a reputable journal, she said. “Now, in order to get paid, they also must register their output in our Pure system, and make sure the information is in both English and Spanish, just as Carlos had suggested.”
Gaining researcher buy-in continues to be key to the initiative’s success. “We have to help them understand the importance and how it affects them,” Márquez-Bustos said. “If we achieve that, then their participation will become not only a requirement they have to comply with but something they want to do because they see value in it.” The value emerged for some researchers as soon as they start translating their work. “They have a ‘fingerprint’ on the research portal, where before, they didn’t have anything. That has generated excitement.”
The chancellor’s support of the initiative makes it easier to implement, she noted. “We have administrative support, as well as support from the library, which is also critical.”
Librarians at the visibility forefront
Librarian July Andrea García Amézquita, Chief of the university’s Resource Center for Learning and Research (CRAI), stressed that increasing institutional research visibility is a university-wide priority and includes all research areas and departments. The library is using various strategies to bring researchers on board.
“We are always sensitizing researchers to the importance of academic visibility and best practices to improve their positioning on the research portal, and we offer one-on-one advice, as needed,” she said. Awareness-building extends to students, with information literacy projects to “teach them how to identify publications relevant to their projects, how to use the information ethically, how to make the most of informational tools such Mendeley and the importance of building and maintaining an academic reputation.”
In the here and now, she said, the system Estévez-Bretón put in place is a critical strategy for “raising the web presence of researchers, improving their citation index, measuring their impact, demonstrating the university’s research strengths, and improving opportunities for collaborative research and comparative studies in the social sciences and humanities.”
Further, without it, “we might lose a wealth of local research that can contribute both to knowledge-building and a better future.”
The Pure Community Module
Pure is a research information management system that aggregates an institution’s research from various internal and external sources, creates individual researcher profiles and identifies subject experts to stimulate collaborations. The Pure Community Module facilitates the management of multi-institutional research collaborations, including data collation, analytics and shared reporting. It also provides a multi-institutional portal that enables the collation and aggregation of data to showcase a project’s research assets, including the contributions of each collaborating institution.
A case study from Colombia
Elsevier has produced a case study about the University of Rosario’s efforts to maximize the visibility of its research capabilities and encourage international collaborations. The case study details the novel use and implementation of three technological tools — the Pure research management system, the Mendeley reference management system and the DeepL translation service — to help ensure that the titles and abstracts of the university’s research publications are translated into English and visible to, and indexed by, the major Internet search engines. The goal is to boost the rankings of the university and its researchers and facilitate learning and collaboration around topics of global and local concern.
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