The power relations in world science. An anti-ranking to know the science produced in the periphery

By Fernanda Beigel1

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The use of indicators to measure scientific output is, and has been, a controversial issue. Arvanitis and Gaillard2 argued early on that it was paramount to take into account the “specificity of scientometrics in developing countries”. Instead of a difference in quality, they pointed out that distance was a matter of proportion. To observe the scientific development in the periphery, it was then essential to evaluate the particular characteristics of the institutional framework, academic evaluation, mobility, and publishing strategies. But the truth is that the ISI, its indexes and the Impact Factor end up imposing an idea of mainstream science linked to those articles published in journals included in the SCI and by opposition, an idea of peripheral science, including there all that was outside of this database. The local and the international, both inseparable characteristics of scientific output became divisible in terms of the process of academic recognition: the peripheral scientists ended up circumscribed to the local circulation while the scholars of the central universities accumulated “international” scientific capital.

More than reinforcing the spatial asymmetries that separated marginal communities and “centers of excellence” during the development process of this global academic system, the logic of circulation led to the segmentation of different forms of consecration within the periphery. Two opposite paths began to be observed: on the one hand, the elites who only write in English and publish in mainstream journals, integrating themselves in international networks but resigning local power and, on the other hand, scholars who write in their native languages, non-English, in non-indexed journals, which are held in power positions in the local academic field.

Far from vanishing, in the last two decades, the concept of mainstream science was consolidated globally because publications became the main axis of institutional and individual evaluation also in the periphery. The use of bibliometrics contributed to reinforce the hypercentral role of English as lingua franca and the extension of a progressively homogenous style of writing and academic publication. The “universalization” of the SCI evaluation criteria was driven by the growing interest of journals from around the world to enter the ISI complex (today Clarivate), including journals from peripheral communities eager to belong to the “mainstream”, that changed to the English language and the institutions worried about rising in the international rankings – whose indicators were monopolized by that same source.

However, the prestige acquired by a publication in an “ISI journal” was universalized as synonymous of “international prestige” while the concrete influence in the science debate differ strongly according to whether it is a researcher affiliated to the American academy or from a Chinese researcher. And this is where the story of each field and its process of “original accumulation” of ISI prestige plays a decisive role for the establishment of structuring hierarchies of the circulation process.

If we now look at this process from the spaces that were traditionally built/classified as “periphery” we will see that there are evidences of different styles of output and, at least, four ways of circulation of that output: a) the dependent integration that goes from publishing in English only in mainstream journals, the paid publication, up to the institutional or state strategy of converting journals into English and/or indexing a growing number of local journals in these systems; b) transnational networks and circuits in open access; c) the regional circulation sustained by public networks and institutions (i.e. Latin American or African, for example); and d) the resistance that includes boycotts, university journals that are not indexed, the transfer and dialogue with the social demands of the community, up to local circuits that are strongly endogenic.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the first way: in what way is that international scientific capital built that seems to confer publication in “WoS-ISI” journals? To understand this consecration process, the specific combinations of these individual strategies, institutional frameworks and evaluative cultures must be empirically observed, articulating the analysis of the publication circuits with the structure of the national scientific field. In the peripheral centers that we have studied, those that have achieved a dominant role within the Southern regions, but a dominated position in the “world science”, “the international” is built and valued nationally. But rarely does this consecration transpose national/regional boundaries.

To know the other ways there are few studies beyond the available databases of the mainstream indexing systems, consequently, we know very little about the output outside that circuit that was consecrated during the last 40 years as guardian and guarantor of the excellence of scientific output. Regional and national repositories have been generally neglected in the global reports on academic internationalization and scientific research and only recently we are beginning to know the dimensions of these circulation spaces.

On the other hand, non-indexed journals have usually been undervalued as endogenic and of low quality, a value judgment that, it should be said, has not yet been demonstrated. Our empirical studies have allowed us to observe that local circuits are very dynamic. The number of active scientific journals that exist in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil is striking. At least 50% of the publications of these countries live outside the indexing world, which is necessary to untie the existing link between indexing and circulation to know the diversity of local scientific output. It is necessary to dismantle from its bases the widespread belief that identifies the mainstream with excellence, the regional with an exotic or subsidiary quality and the local with endogeny.

This knot is particularly expensive in the university rankings, because they are built with indicators that prioritize the measurement of research results but collect information exclusively in the mainstream databases (WoS-Clarivate and Scopus). Rankings such as THE, ARWU-Shanghai, Webometrics, THE-QS or Scimago Institutions Rankings were created mainly to intervene in the international flows of students who choose their target institutions based on these reports. But they became progressively a direct source to reinforce the prestige of a small group of universities, leading journals and oligopolistic publishers. Several authors have pointed out that these rankings are based only on bibliometric data and international awards, consequently, they are oriented by global competitiveness instead of actually observing research performance. Even in recent attempts to build multi-rankings, the research capabilities of universities located outside the traditional academic core are measured out of context and without considering the various publication circuits.

There is a relative consensus, at this point, that the idea of ranking, in itself, serves more as an instrument for commodification than as a tool for scientific policies. Behind the university rankings there is a notion of descending hierarchy that is built on the basis of models from very specific universities, such as Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge, without considering different institutional styles, scientific cultures and much less, the social impact. They infer levels of educational quality without including teaching indicators or observing the teaching function, but through research capabilities. From Latin America, the Regional Conference for Higher Education pointed out the limitations of university rankings and advocated regional criteria for university accreditation. It affirmed the university character as a social and public good, pointing out the risks involved in prioritizing “global” criteria against regional/national/local ones.

A relevant attempt to create a more complete set of indicators for the countries of the region is the Santiago Manual. “Internationalization” is defined as a complex and polyhedral concept, although its unidirectional movement is not problematized. In addition to international awards and publications, it recommends observing a diverse set of interactions, such as academic mobility, international agreements, networks and other means for research collaboration. However, the databases used to measure publications are the same as in the university rankings, therefore, the data ends up being narrow to explain the different directions of the output circulation. A measurement of scientific output from the periphery implies a transition not only technical, but conceptual from the paradigm of internationalization to circulation, incorporating all interactions: local, national, regional, transnational and international ones.

After many years of observing the development of the scientific field in the periphery, through a collective research program in which we have conducted national studies and comparative analysis of the processes of institutionalization, professionalization, and internationalization3, we are currently proposing to open a discussion to create an instrument able to know the modes of circulation of knowledge production in the periphery contemplating different directions of these exchanges and different institutional styles. The proposal is to build an Institutional Circulation Index of Scientific Output that aims to discuss the reductive notion of “internationalization” that underlies the generally accepted studies of science and comparative analysis of higher education, without considering the domination relations that affect the academic field and translate into available databases.

This index proposes to invert the usual process of building indicators, which are normally fed from “international” databases to build them, instead from observation at the local level. Their difference, rather their opposition to the rankings, lies in the fact that it is an anti-hierarchical classification tool, which aims to observe the interactions of the universities of the periphery in their different directions and not only with the dominant academic pole. Its benefits in terms of a broader understanding of the diversity of institutional styles involve high costs in relation to the survey of indicators since they require primary data for each institution. But it is an instrument designed for diagnosis and public policy recommendations, so its implementation will depend on the interest it may generate in the ministries of science and technology of Latin American States.


1. What follows is the summary of the article published in the journal Nueva Sociedad, no. 274, March-April 2018, pp.13-28.

2. ARVANITIS, R. and GAILLARD, J. Vers un renouveau des indicateurs de science pour les pays en développement. In: ARVANITIS, R. and GAILLARD, J. (ed.). Les indicateurs de science pour les pays en développement/ Science Indicators for Developing Countries. Paris: L’Orstom, 1992.

3. I refer to the Research Program on Academic Dependency in Latin America (Programa de Investigaciones sobre Dependencia Académica en América Latina – PIDAAL) that operates within the framework of Conicet and the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, in the city of Mendoza-Argentina, and is composed by 17 researchers and doctoral and postdoctoral fellows. In this framework we have developed historical studies of the development of the scientific field in Argentina and Chile; structural studies of the current Argentine academic field based on empirical surveys of universes of institutes and trajectories of accredited researchers; studies of evaluative culture with participant observation; studies of scientific journals from all the countries of Latin America; a trinational survey (Chile, Brazil and Argentina) of academic internationalization and linguistic capacities; among other monographs, case studies and doctoral theses with related objects.


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About Fernanda Beigel

Fernanda Beigel is Senior Investigator of the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Full Professor of the Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales de la Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (Mendoza, Argentina). She directs the Programa de Investigaciones sobre Dependencia Académica en América Latina (PIDAAL).


Translated from the original in Spanish by Lilian Nassi-Calò.


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BEIGEL, F. The power relations in world science. An anti-ranking to know the science produced in the periphery [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2018 [viewed ]. Available from:


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