x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Middle Eastern research has a new portal to the world

Arend Küster of QScience.com, a joint initiative of the Qatar Foundation and the UK's Bloomsbury Publishing, is determined to put Middle Eastern research firmly on the map.

Map of scientific collabarations around the world between 2005 and 2009 by Olivier H Beauchesne.
Map of scientific collabarations around the world between 2005 and 2009 by Olivier H Beauchesne.

Here in the UAE, home to the world's tallest building, playground of the world's leading architects and birthplace of countless ambitious and globally resonant cultural initiatives, it can sometimes feel as though one is living at the centre of the modern world.

In fact, according to one vision of our times, when it comes to scientific, medical and technical research, the UAE and almost the entire Middle East is living in the dark ages.

In January this year Olivier H Beauchesne, a researcher at Science-Metrix, a Canadian company that evaluates the global effect of research, devised a unique world view, inspired by a Facebook friendship map.

At first glance Beauchesne's map looks like a satellite snapshot of multiple missile launches at the outbreak of nuclear war.

Instead, it is based on data he drew from Scopus, the world's largest abstract and citation database, which covers more than 18,000 published and online titles, and paints a graphic picture of international scientific collaborations and citations between 2005 and 2009.

In demonstrating the relationships among research centres - with the brightness of the lines that link them reflecting the volume of collaborations and citations - Beauchesne also highlighted another reality: that while Europe, the eastern US and Japan shine brightly, with China, India and Brazil glowing with potential, vast areas of the world - including the Middle East, with the glaring exception of Israel - are simply nowhere to be seen.

The man charged with changing all that is Arend Küster, the German managing director of QScience.com, a joint initiative of the Qatar Foundation and the UK's Bloomsbury Publishing that is designed to put Middle Eastern research firmly on the map. He uses Beauchesne's map to illustrate the scale of the problem.

"It shows that there is not that much going on in the Middle East," says Küster, sitting in the book-lined offices of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in Doha's Education City, which is now home to branches of six US universities.

"It is very hard to find. You have Turkey quite well defined, and there is a light node here - that's Israel - and then ... nothing."

As part of Qatar's drive to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy, the Qatar Foundation is investing heavily in science and research, says Küster, "and it is logical that publication of research outcomes is part of the scientific process; if you don't tell people what you have done you don't get anywhere".

Throw one idea into the global think tank, and a dozen more of direct interest to the region, inspired by the original research, might come rippling back. The problem remains that whatever the subject, research directly relevant to this region might not be of sufficiently wider interest to find an outlet in the established journals of the global, and predominantly western, scientific community. Qatar's online journals, says Küster, will not only provide an internationally visible outlet but will also "hopefully benefit the region because more research will be done here".

Traditionally, the world of published research has revolved around peer-reviewed paper journals - expensive to produce and to purchase, slow to bring fresh research to light and limited in space and thus depth of content.

Increasingly, however, some of the world's major research funding bodies - from the Welcome Trust and the Max Planck Society to the UK's National Health Service and the US government's National Science Foundation - have embraced open-access publishing as part of their mandates, and this is the model that Küster and his Bloomsbury team have adopted.

"Not going with open access would be suicidal," says Küster. "Library budgets are squeezed and they won't buy journals without a track record, which we don't have at the moment. On the other hand, we have seen from research that citations go up exponentially if articles are available online."

And open access, he says, puts "a very typical Doha spin" on academic publishing. "In 1983, when you went to the Corniche you had the Sheraton and nothing else; now you have this amazing skyline. We are taking a similar approach to scientific, technical and medical publishing. We don't have a legacy, but that means we don't have to do things a certain way solely because that's how we have done it for the past 50 or 100 years. We can start from scratch and can choose the delivery medium we think is best."

Open access is also fast. "You don't have to wait for a whole issue to come out."

Launched in December, QScience.com already has six journals online, currently carrying a total of 25 papers. Some are written by local academics, but papers are welcomed for submission from anywhere in the world. All published papers are peer-reviewed and all the journals are recognised by Google Scholar and all-important citation trackers.

Küster says the journals they have launched so far reflect Qatar's research priorities - in health care, biomedical, engineering and Islamic studies.

One, Aswan Heart Centre Science & Practice Series, whose editor-in-chief is Sir Magdi Yacoub, the world-famous heart surgeon, is aimed at cardiologists around the world.

It is, writes Sir Magdi on the site, "not journals that make papers, but papers that make journals", and Aswan has so far published six. These include Modelling transoesophageal echo, by an anaesthesiology researcher at University College Hospital, London, and Transcatheter aortic valve implantation - role of imaging, by a team of Swiss researchers. This paper cites 36 references. Any related subsequent work by the authors of these, or other researchers in the field, could in turn cite the Qatar journal, and so the chain of links will start to grow.

Some of the other papers have already started to carry work of direct regional relevance. The five papers published so far in Avicenna, a journal that focuses on healthcare development and innovation in the Gulf, includeInterpreting low normative bone mineral density among Saudi Arabian women, by four researchers at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, and a study exploring breast-cancer screening practices among Arabic women in Qatar. Such women, this paper concludes, are at risk because of low screening rates and a subsequent lack of early detection and treatment. This is the type of paper, says Küster, that could inspire further international research and save lives, but without the QScience.com initiative might not have seen the light of day. Now, it is available, free, to the world.

Other publications promise to trigger lively debates. The two papers published so far by the Near and Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education include one by academics at Qatar University, who compared textbooks from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the US "to determine what knowledge is transmitted to students about the Arab-Israeli conflict". The conflict, they found, was "oversimplified, important information is omitted and textbooks provide limited narratives".

All the papers are published in English, with additional abstracts in Arabic ("though when it comes to Islamic studies we of course accept papers in all languages").

"I am German," says Küster. "English is my second language so I know what it is like to live with your second language the whole time. But we have to accept that English is the accepted language of science.

"If you want to make sure that an article about breast cancer in Qatari women, for instance, is being read by researchers throughout the world, then it has got to be in English."

QScience journals, he says, aim to publish "international research through a MIddle Eastern lens" and the word is spreading, as evidenced by a recent submission for the Journal of Contemporary Islamic Studies from academics at Harvard.

So far, no citations, but then the first papers did go up only five months ago and academic papers take time to write. Hits on the website, however, are increasing by one or two thousand every month, "predominantly from this region, but we know we are being seen everywhere and that everybody is looking at it".

And 10 years from now, believes Küster, a bright new light will be shining on Beauchesne's map.