Russia Burns Scholarly Bridges

An effort at collaboration collapses, and sanctions pose existential threats

Russia Burns Scholarly Bridges

Kazan Federal University is located 822 km (510 miles) to the east of Moscow. Since 2006, the university has been pursuing a three-pronged strategy to raise its domestic and international profile — publishing a journal focused on educational research, creating a popular conference on the same topic, and conducting cutting-edge research into how people learn. The strategy was proving successful, with the school becoming listed among the Top 100 educational research institutions in the world, and vying for the top spot in Russia.

The journal the institution developed and supported — the Journal of Education and Self Development — is a Platinum OA journal that has served as a major bridge with counterparts and collaborators in the West. It was co-edited by Nick Rushby until March 17th, when he felt compelled to resign.

As Rushby told me, “it was the boiling frog syndrome — each new atrocity or action wasn’t going to make me resign, but I knew I had to leap out of the saucepan.” Rushby also donated his salary to the Disaster Emergency Committee for humanitarian work in Ukraine.

How Rushby became involved with a Russian journal is an interesting story itself. He was editor for the British Journal of Educational Technology from 1993-2015. In 2013, as an “enterprising editor,” he accepted an invitation to a predatory conference in Turkey. While he knew it was predatory — with all the corruption and disappointments you might imagine — he also knew that some of the academics and ideas could be good, and since he was speaking, it was free. So, why not?

As chance would have it, equally enterprising counterparts from Kazan Federal University were at the conference, and conversations ensued. Rushby had been visiting Russia since 1979, finding the differences in how the culture thought about education and development fascinating, so there was basis for rapport.

Seeing a chance to advance their strategic initiatives, the representatives from Kazan Federal University gave Rushby the challenge — which he gladly accepted — of making the Journal of Education and Self Development into a reputable international journal. His work began there in 2016.

Since then, the journal has been indexed in Scopus, has achieved a 20% acceptance rate — indicating and perpetuating robust submission levels — and has had authors submitting and publishing from around the world.

Then, Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, the implosion of the journal Rushby helped bring to a high level of worldwide acceptance has been rapid, and may prove existential.

Early on, Rushby attempted to reassure authors with a statement committing the journal to the principle of “fair trading” – not allowing issues unrelated to the science to affect evaluation. However, when the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding anyone to refer to the Ukraine invasion as anything but a “special military operation,” Rushby’s email – which accurately described Russia’s actions as an “invasion” and “war” – caused alarm, making authors and reviewer nervous to be associated with the journal. This was just the first sign of trouble.

Sanctions have made some operational aspects of publishing the journal far more difficult, if not impossible.

For instance, the journal used CopyLeaks as a plagiarism awareness tool since, rather than requiring a large annual payment ala iThenticate, it allowed a monthly SaaS subscription via credit card payments. However, no credit cards means no software subscription, and that means no plagiarism detection services.

CrossRef has also frozen accounts in Russia and Belarus, complicating the assignment and resolution of DOIs.

The journal uses OJS’ manuscript submission system, which is based in North America, making it subject to sanctions. Rushby was able to pay OJS’ annual fee — due at the beginning of March — just 24 hours before such payments were prohibited due to sanctions.

Hosting — which was done through a boutique hosting company in the UK — has been quickly moved back to Russia. Uncertainty lingers, as companies like WordPress may yet change their stance relative to Russian aggressions.

Things are devolving quickly, Rushby notes, saying, “It was a manageable situation three weeks ago, but it has become untenable.” For instance, Russia has started to impose prohibitions on its own researchers, barring them from traveling to conferences and de-emphasizing publication in international venues.

But technical and political responses to the Ukraine invasion haven’t been as threatening to the journal as the social response. All members of the journal’s board from Western countries have agitated to be removed; reviewers have simply stopped responding to requests to review; and, submissions from outside Russia — quickly self-limiting to states like Iran and India — have now dried up entirely, isolating the journal again as a venue for Russian researchers only.

For Rushby personally, he says he is “seriously hacked off” that he and his Russian colleagues’ efforts over the past six years have been “destroyed in a month by a madman.” In addition, the long-term effects of this concern Rushby greatly.

“Even if Putin withdrew forces this Saturday, the sanctions aren’t going away,” he said. “Nobody trusts Putin, so sanctions are going to endure for some years. The existential threat to Russian journals is real. Russian institutions are going to be forced to choose, and journals won’t fare well in those choices.”

Thanks to Phaedra Cress and ISMTE for helping to connect me with Nick Rushby.