A question of quality

2014-04-05

Pratyoush Onta

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In an article entitled ‘Ailing academia’ written by Bidushi Dhungel and published in this newspaper on October 4, 2012, it was argued that the decline in the quality of the journal Contributions to Nepalese Studies published by the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) of Tribhuvan University (TU) was an indication of the current sickness of Nepali academia. Dhungel did not provide any compelling evidence to prove that in fact the quality of this journal which was established in 1973 had gone down in the past two decades compared to its first two decades. Instead she mentioned that several contributors (and here she listed my name as well) had “flooded [the journal] with new ideas and approaches to looking at Nepali society…” earlier and implied that that was no longer the case.  According to her, this has happened as part of the result of political interference in the domain of scholarship in post-1990 Nepal.
 
Being named in the company of Nepali social science luminaries such as the late Mahesh Chandra Regmi (historian), Lok Raj Baral (political scientist), late Harka Gurung (geographer), Chaitanya Mishra (sociologist), and late Fr. Ludwig Stiller (historian) made my day but in simply riding the current ‘decline of Nepali academia’ bandwagon, Dhungel failed to persuade those who do not share her view with a clear link between the ‘evidence’ she presented and the argument of her piece.
 
Let’s examine the evidence first in the manner used in that piece. If the persons named above had contributed “new ideas” in the pages of Contributions through the late 1990s, much the same could be said about the articles published by political scientists such as Krishna Hachhethu and Dhruba Kumar, historians such as Yogesh Raj, Ramesh Dhungel, Ganga Karmacharya, and Bhaveshwar Pangeni, anthropologists such as late Saubhagya Shah, Mallika Shakya, Balgopal Shrestha, Laya P. Uprety, Suresh Dhakal, Anju Khadka and Sushila Manandhar, geographers such as Jagannath Adhikari and Bhim Subedi, sociologists such as Sudhindra Sharma, Indra Adhikari and Mrigendra Karki and several others from various other disciplines in the same journal in the years since 1998. In addition, veteran Nepali academics such as Prayag Raj Sharma, Chaitanya Mishra, Ramawater Yadav, Mohan P Khanal, Dilli Ram Dahal and Kamal P Malla continued to publish in Contributions in the past 15 years. That is why this journal continues to remain an important publication forum of Nepal Studies.
 
Quality of academic output gets measured in various other ways as well and if those measures are used, may be someone else can prove to us that the quality of the articles published in Contributions has in fact ‘gone down’ in the past two decades compared to its first two. But even that would not be enough of an evidence to prove the ailing state of Nepali academia. Why is that so? Put simply, Contributions is no longer the only major journal of Nepal Studies produced from within the country. Just as in the case of mass media, there has been an explosion in the sector of academic publishing in the form of journals. Hence even if the quality of a particular journal has gone down, that fact alone would not constitute evidence to make the case that the Nepali academia was declining.
 
First, there has been enormous growth in the number of social science journals. When the number of journals started in each decade is counted in a list, the number of new journals published since the year 2000 (more than 60) almost equals the total number of journals published in the previous 50 years (1950-1999) in the social sciences. Second, whereas prior to 1990, almost all of this publication emanated from Kathmandu, now there are several cities in Nepal from where various journals are published. These include cities like Pokhara and Biratnagar which produce a few journals each and other cities such as Ilam Bazaar, Bhadrapur, Dharan, Bharatpur, Baglung, Nepalgunj and Surkhet which produce a journal or two each.  
 
Third, there has been an increase in the number of discipline-specific journals. For instance, if you count all the journal titles related to sociology/anthropology, the number would be at least eight. Fourth, there has been no decline in the number of types of institutional homes (university departments and research centres, professional associations of discipline-specific practitioners, academic NGOs, etc) where journal editing happens. It is not possible to show the evidence for each of these four claims made here due to limitations of space but I have provided it in an article published in the December 2010 issue of the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS).
 
What are the implications of this growth for the subject under discussion here? First, production of research related to Nepal is now more decentralized — both in geographical and institutional terms — than ever before. This means the decline of a particular forum is being countered by the growth of other forums in the landscape. Second, research output tends to be published in various journals. This means articles which would have been submitted to Contributions by well-established scholars in an earlier era might now appear in other Kathmandu-produced journals such as SINHAS (established in 1996) or Nepalese Journal of Development and Rural Studies (2004) or SASON Journal of Sociology and Anthropology (2010). Alternatively they might appear in Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology (2005, produced from Baglung) or Historia (1995, Pokhara) or Anveshan (2001, Biratnagar) or any of the other several dozen journals.
 
Third, since good articles with important insights are being published in all sorts of journals including those edited by graduate students, analysts who want to say anything about the ‘quality’ of Nepali academia and its outputs ought to enlarge their radar before reaching major conclusions. Fourth, since good work is also being published by very young researchers who haven’t yet established their ‘brand’ in the academic landscape (hence their names don’t send quality signals), such analysts might also want to actually read what is being published before making definitive pronouncements about the health of Nepali academia.
 
It can be nobody’s argument that Nepali academia is thriving at the moment. However neither is it on sharp decline from a putative ‘golden age’ under Panchayat-provided political stability. The changes this sector has experienced requires more complex analyses than that rendered by the ‘decline under political interference’ thesis.

(Article courtesy: Ekantipur: Jan 27, 2013)