Conflict and Leadership
Science of Victory: International Academic Rankings and Russian Science Policy

International ratings are not an end in themselves. Russian science should seek to solve the problems of national development. Does this mean that we need to remove the goal of publishing in journals indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus and stop focusing on international rankings? Of course not – several important tasks are solved here, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

International academic ratings and publication in scientific journals indexed in the Web of Science and Scopus remain an unassailable fortress for Russian science. Although this goal has become a priority of Russian scientific policy, the discussion about the effectiveness of scientometric indicators for assessing the effectiveness of Russian science does not stop. Opinions are voiced about & need to refuse to participate in international rankings and to no longer pursue publication in journals indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus, most of which are published in the West.

There are several reasons for this. For example, in the social sciences, there are examples of politicisation, when scientific publications by Russian authors are rejected due to “wrong assessments”. The socio-humanitarian sciences themselves have not fully developed, they in many cases cannot convincingly answer fundamental questions about a person and society, but, at the same time, they already set normative standards by which the correctness of judgments is assessed. The latest wave of politicisation of research, under the slogan “Black lives matter”, disorients and alienates Russian researchers, who do not understand why they should adjust themselves to comply with the newspeak of Western academia.
It is necessary to tell the truth – acceptance of Scopus and the Web of Science as a general scientific standard, and not the Russian Science Citation Index (RSCI), means delegation of the right to determine scientific success to an arbitrator. In a similar fashion, Russian CEOs may opt to resolve disputes among themselves in a London court, since they consider its judgments to be more impartial.
Education Alliances and Russia’s ‘Soft Power’
Yaroslav Lissovolik
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Expert Opinions


The Western academic system has a number of specificities. It is based on the dominance of well-endowed private universities, which compete for the best faculty and students. Professors and academics who obtain positions in the best universities go through an extremely arduous process of “natural selection” during the course of their careers. The main criteria for this selection are publications in leading scientific journals – there is the well-known expression: “Publish or perish”. Only the most brilliant, persuasive, scientifically and methodically trained professionals are invited to sit on the faculties of Ivy League universities. To support this process, a galaxy of private and university scholarly journals has emerged, which provide a platform for these publications. Amid formidable competition among journals, rating agencies have arisen, which award impact factors and quartiles to journals. In other words, the Western system is a system of free competition between the best professionals for resources which are in private hands.

The international standard that has developed on this basis is mainly based on the experience of American and British universities. That is why up to 90% of articles in leading world scientific journals are still published by authors from the United States and United Kingdom. From the point of view of the humanities and social sciences, the West has its own special discourse and epistemology of knowledge, which do not correspond to the Russian system of coordinates at all. There is little interest in local topics related to Eurasia in the West, and Russian researchers are often accused of politicising issues when points of view on issues of common interest, especially conflict-related ones, do not coincide.

What are the specific features of the Russian system? It is a predominantly state-owned, centralised system of universities and research institutes with low staff mobility, low entry thresholds, and relatively low salaries. Often in past years, administrators from other branches of government with no scientific experience have been appointed to leading positions in academia. The task of such a system is not to be academically competitive, but to ensure the educational process at a satisfactory level and be ready to mobilise for solving practical problems, if they, together with the necessary resources, come from government agencies. The ability to centralise and mobilise resources allows the Russian system to work effectively. So, in a short time, nuclear weapons were created in the Soviet Union, a breakthrough in space launch technology was made, and a vaccine against poliomyelitis was developed. The development of hypersonic missile technology and the creation of a vaccine against coronavirus show that science in Russia continues to produce world-class results. By centralising and mobilising resources, Russian scientists take less time to achieve these objectives than their Western counterparts. Most importantly, scientific publications play a secondary role in achieving these advanced results.

Even if the practice of scientific competition is introduced in Russia, it will proceed in a centralised manner, through the state grant programmes of the Russian Science Foundation, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR), Mega-grant programmes of the Government, the Ministry of Education and Science, and other institutions. However, in addition to these, in Russia money is provided in exchange for publication in journals indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus, and researchers are obligated to have their work published. Thus, centres of competence are being formed in Russia, similar to the “school of the Olympic reserve” – for effective “performances” of Russian scientists in the international arena.

The Russian system will never become the Western one. There are few private universities in Russia, staff mobility isn’t high, and there are almost no jobs that are interesting enough to attract highly qualified foreign specialists. The meritocratic mechanisms that drive career-building in academia are weakened. Universities are poor; they fulfil their role providing education and are prepared to mobilise to address urgent government tasks. Often the only financially attractive career track for a young scientist is in government administration. The influx of foreign applicants to Russia comes mainly from Eurasia – countries with a similar socio-cultural environment or low effective demand. All of this taken together does not stimulate an increase in the number of publications in the Web of Science or Scopus journals. As a result, the place of Russian universities in international rankings will never be particularly high. 

But international ratings are not an end in themselves. Russian science should seek to solve the problems of national development. Does this mean that we need to remove the goal of publishing in journals indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus and stop focusing on international rankings? Of course not – several important tasks are solved here. By transferring the task of peer review to research teams which are external and independent of the administration of any given university or institute when granting money, we strengthen the human potential of Russian science and retain young people in academia, which is important in preventing the educational system (and mass higher education in particular) from enduring “wear and tear”. Second, there is support for competition – small laboratories have the opportunity to be independent from the administrative vertical of their university or institute. As a result, a whole generation of competitive science administrators is emerging, who in the future can take leadership positions. Third, publishing abroad is a training session which offers strong “sparring partners”, preparing researchers to solve future national quandaries in Russia. Finally, fourth, this is the development of foreign know-how, which in the future can be applied in our country.

As a result, the Russian academic system is becoming more complex, richer in talent and governance. Significant research and publications abroad appear as a by-product. But the main result of the grant programme aimed at publishing in Scopus and the Web of Science is that the Russian scientific system is becoming best-prepared to answer the needs of the nation when mobilised during crises which necessitate first-rate expertise.
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On March 28, the Valdai Discussion Club together with the Russian Venture Company held a discussion under the auspices of Club 2035, focused on education and the development of education in the future.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.