'Publish or perish': Understanding research culture at Indonesian universities

20 January 2023
International Day of Education is on 24 January
Dr Evan Doran explains his PhD study exploring research culture and productivity in the field of social sciences at three universities in Indonesia.
Evan Doran with students at Universitas Muhammadiyah Makassar

Dr Evan Doran is a PhD candidate in the School of Languages and Cultures exploring research practices, research culture and research productivity at universities in Indonesia, drawing on three in-depth case studies. Already an experienced researcher, Evan has a previous PhD in the field of clinical pharmacology.

Ahead of International Day of Education on 24 January, SSEAC spoke with Evan about the pressures facing social scientists in Indonesia, as the country’s universities seek to rocket up the rankings, and what led to his interest in this field.

Tell us what your PhD research is all about?

I’m looking at research culture and research productivity in Indonesia, particularly with regard to social science. I came to the research after spending a year as a research development officer at a university in Makassar, the Universitas Muhammadiyah Makassar, which is a private university in South Sulawesi. My role was to try and support the staff to develop their research skills and writing output, particularly for scientific journals. While I was there during 2016-17, I witnessed some of the challenges they faced writing and publishing as researchers at a smaller university. As an Australian academic, I was struck by both the differences and similarities in these challenges as compared to here in Australia.

Some of the challenges are greater there, especially with teaching loads, for example. But that pressure to ‘publish or perish’ was pretty much as it was for academics in Australia. If you’re not producing publications, then your career can lag a bit, and it can have a real impact on your progress. I became intrigued by the similarities and differences between the two systems, and wanted to explore that a little more. I’ve been working with three universities, all state universities that have a degree of independence from the government: Airlangga University in Surabaya, Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and the smaller University of Jember.

My research was meant to be an ethnography, but due to COVID-19 I had to switch to online data collection through a survey and interviews. My main focus has been on what it’s currently like as an Indonesian social scientist trying to research and publish, especially as the government’s introduced some new rules that actually strengthen the ‘publish or perish’ imperative. If you want to advance your career in the state university system in Indonesia now, you really do need to publish. And there’s actually a premium on publishing internationally, as Indonesia is trying to raise the status and profile of its universities. It’s really made the rewards greater if you can publish internationally because that’s where the points lie for both the University, and now given these new rules, for the academics themselves.

How does this pressure to publish in international English-language journals impact Indonesian academics?

It’s a huge hurdle for those academics who aren’t English language proficient. If Australian academics had to publish in Mandarin, for example, Australian academic research productivity would plummet. So it’s an enormous challenge. Many Indonesian academics have relatively good English speaking skills. But writing can be a different matter and, of course, academic and scientific writing is a different matter altogether. Academics are trying to meet this challenge by working even harder to get published. Often they’re having to spend more of their personal money to cover the cost of things like translation and proofreading. For those Indonesian academics that are returning from, say, having completed their PhD studies overseas, they’re at a distinct advantage if they’ve been in an English-language country. And yes, as you mentioned, English is the language of science internationally and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.

Universitas Muhammadiyah Makassar

The Universitas Muhammadiyah Makassar campus.

You’ve got a period of field work in Indonesia coming up. What will that involve?

It will include more interview and survey work. I’ve done a number of online interviews and now I aim to spend a few weeks reinterviewing some of the people I’ve already spoken with and really getting to know them. I’ll also do additional interviews with university managers and academics. While I had a reasonable response rate for my initial survey at one of the universities, it was lacking at another university and hasn’t yet been rolled out at the third university. My main objectives for this field work are to connect with more people and try and increase participation in the survey. Like everywhere, academics are often bombarded with surveys, so it’s hard to get people excited to fill out a questionnaire. I’m hoping that by arriving in person, I might be able to interview more people, if not inspire them to complete the survey.

You’ve got a previous doctorate in clinical pharmacology. What led you to want to undertake a second PhD?

When I tried to apply for funding from various sources in Australia to further my research interests sparked while I was in Indonesia, I soon realised that I have no track record in higher education studies in general, no track record in Indonesian studies, and very limited language competence. I thought: well, how does one get a track record in a particular field? How does one make contacts in a particular field? For academics, it’s generally done during your PhD.

My previous PhD and research experience was largely on policy, affordability and marketing of pharmaceuticals. I’d had a couple of ARC projects in my own right and that research experience and those skills carried over reasonably well. But there have been new challenges of doing research in a culture that I didn’t know, and with limited language skills – which are now much better, but still not as good as I would love them to be. I think a PhD made sense and I have really benefited from the experience of Indonesian-focused researchers like Professor Michele Ford, Dr Natali Pearson, and others such as Dr Liz Kramer in the Indonesian department. I’m also lucky to have the continuing support of my Indonesian sponsors and collaborators – Dr Amalinda Savirani at Gadjah Mada University, Dr Siti Mas’udah and Dr Diah Arimbi at Airlangga University and Dr Al Khanif and Dr Agus Trihartono at the University of Jember.

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