Knowledge Divides – 2010 World Social Science Report

The 2010 World Social Science Report (WSSR) produced by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and co-published by UNESCO was launched by the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova and the President of the ISSC, Gudmund Hernes, on June 25th 2010.  The report presents a unique collection of information and insights on the institutional and organizational aspects of social sciences in different parts of the world. Hundreds of social scientists from various disciplines and regions contributed their expertise to producing it.

Ten years after the publication of the first World Social Science Report in 1999, which focused on the history and prospects of social sciences as well as on various intellectual trends, the 2010 Report points to the various divides that characterize the production, dissemination and use of social sciences – divides that fundamentally undermine the ability of the social sciences to analyze how human beings behave and societies evolve. While some politicians and policymakers tend to consider social sciences as an unnecessary luxury, the report highlights the extent to which social sciences are indispensable to understanding trends in human societies, informing public debates and advising private and public decision-makers on how best to address global challenges, which are as much social as they are natural.

In the past number of decades, social sciences have become more global; they have also become more diverse. They are taught in almost all universities in the world. The number of social science students and professors has been increasing rapidly, at a faster rate than in other sciences. There has been a corresponding acceleration in the number of articles produced and more and more social scientists collaborate across countries and continents. Research results are widely disseminated in books and articles, and increasingly through new communication channels such as the Web. Social science expertise is also in high demand by policymakers, the media and the general public.

In spite of these positive achievements, large and striking inequalities across regions, countries and institutions throughout the world continue to characterize the volume, nature and quality of social science research carried out and knowledge produced. As Ms Bokova says in her preface “social scientific knowledge is at risk in the parts of the world where it is most needed”. The following extracts illustrate some of these disparities.

More than two-thirds of all Latin American post-graduate programmes- where research is taking place- are offered by the public universities of Brazil and Mexico. In India, 80 per cent of all universities are considered to be teaching universities only. In Africa 75 per cent of articles published in peer-reviewed journals come from a few universities in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

Social sciences have become more international but knowledge production – as measured by the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals – is still highly unevenly distributed across countries. While the production of articles in developing and emergent countries, such as in Latin America and Asia, has risen sharply, publications in international peer-reviewed journals remain overwhelmingly dominated by researchers from North America and Europe. Research collaboration across national borders has increased but continues to be largely dominated by institutions from the Global North. Only four countries produce two-thirds of all social science peer-reviewed journals in the world (the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany).  It is well known that research published in books – which concerns much social science work – and in languages other than English is not well represented in existing databases such as the Web of Science or Scopus. Journals from developing countries are not well represented either. This leads to another inequality: a lot of social science research focusing on issues of local interest and written in national languages remains invisible: it is not cited internationally, nor is it taken into account in global studies.

A number of important changes have occurred in recent years in the environment of social sciences, particularly in the organization and management of research, which influence their role, function and content.  The report analyzes these changes in some detail.  Universities are no longer the only producer of social science knowledge, as more and more social science knowledge emerges from government departments, private consultancy firms, non-governmental organizations, and think-tanks. Public funds that in the past were used to finance research have been declining in relative terms and in some cases drastically in absolute terms. This has led to the marketization of research and influenced both the institutional capacity and the quality of research, particularly although not exclusively in low income countries. A number of policies and management tools have gradually been put in place, which were intended to compensate for the relative decline of public funds. At the same time they were meant to encourage researchers and institutions to increase the quantity of their output, to re-orient research more towards the analysis of the major problems of the day and to foster excellence. On the whole, competition has become a dominant feature of research and knowledge production almost everywhere. The report discusses the mixed impact of trends such as project-based funding, narrowly defined quantitative assessment practices and ranking on the social sciences.

Knowledge fragmentation and the evolving boundaries of disciplines is also covered in the report. The trend has been toward a multiplication of sub-disciplines, and a certain hyperspecialization.  However, in order to fulfil their functions in the face of global challenges, the social sciences must become more inter- and trans-disciplinary than they have been to date. Social scientists from different disciplines are increasingly expected to work together on the same problems as well as with natural scientists. Some have started on this already but many obstacles – such as those related to funding structures, systems of evaluation and ways of promoting and training researchers – must be solved before more inter- and trans-disciplinary research can take place.

The report highlights an extended range of other important issues such as the effect of information technologies on the diffusion and dissemination of social sciences and the potential of open access web-based journals and journal depositaries; the sometimes tense relation between researchers and policymakers; and the need to reduce the gap between academic researchers and a wide range of knowledge users in society.

A critical element in strengthening the presence and authority of the social sciences globally lies in collecting and providing information on their organization and reach in all parts of the world. The Report provides a statistical annex on the number of social science researchers, students and research output. It draws attention to the reality that the social sciences have too little social science knowledge about themselves.  More information and data has to be collected in a comparable way at the national level and more databases, including bibliographic ones, adapted to a social science specific nature have to be developed at national and international levels. This points to the need for a new range of activities for ISSC and their partners.

The suggestions outlined at the end of the report can go a long way to enhance the visibility of social sciences worldwide and to allow social scientists to play their role on a par with colleagues in the natural sciences in a drive to address existing and future global challenges.

Françoise Caillods

Senior Managing Editor

2010 World Social Science Report

The report can be downloaded free of charge on a special WSSR website managed by UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector.

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