Hacking the System While Playing by the Rules – Interview with Márton Demeter about Unwritten Rules of Global Academic Publishing

The frontpage of Demeter’s book,
Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South – Questioning Inequality and Under-representation, 2020

In the Fall of 2020, Palgrave published a book by a Hungarian communication studies scholar who set out to prove that even though many still believe in the meritocratic nature of academia, where talent and hard work is the prime condition of success, this is far from being true. In Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South – Questioning Inequality and Under-representation, Márton Demeter shows that academic knowledge production not only reflects the inequalities present in a given society—as we know since Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal work on French academia[1]—, but it also recreates and maintains geopolitical inequalities on a global scale. In the centers of knowledge production, the scholars of the Global North control innovation and academic standards, while societies in the Global South[2] commonly serve only as the object of academic inquiry, and the source of cheap and often uncredited academic labor for scholars from the centers. This center–periphery dynamic is especially prevalent in the social sciences, the focus of the book. One would expect that cultural and epistemological differences in various parts of the world result in a diversity of theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and interpretations in social sciences, but instead, social sciences everywhere are dominated by theoretical approaches and methods of inquiry born in the top universities and most prestigious journals of the US and UK.

The two main areas of academic knowledge production the book investigates are academic publishing and the global academic job market. Through many compelling statistical figures, tables, and comparisons on large datasets, the author demonstrates that in global academia an elitist, exclusivist Westernized core has emerged, which systematically excludes scholars from the global periphery and scholars with non-elite backgrounds. As a consequence, it is extremely difficult to publish in prestigious international academic journals, if the author is affiliated with an institution outside of the Global North, or if they cannot show an impressive publication record in those same international journals. Through analyzing the career paths of thousands of scholars, he also finds that without a degree from the Global North, it is virtually impossible to earn a teaching position there. These trends, according to Demeter, lead to a uniform, predictable, mainstream Western scholarship in the centers, and self-stigmatization of Global South scholars, and in turn, a gradual loss of authentic voice outside the Global North.

The author argues that the global academic community should lead the way by showing that overcoming center–periphery inequalities is as important for the scholarly elite in the centers as for scholars outside the centers. One way to overcome the Western hegemony is to follow the Latin American example and create autonomous alternative centers outside of the Global North. Latin American countries, often with significant support from the state,[3] have managed to build up a hub of top open access Spanish language journals and maintain transnational collaborations. Due to the robust growth of the number of journals in the past 20 years and consistent development of citation networks, the prestige of Spanish-language journals has grown significantly in recent years to the extent that a Latin sub-center owns more than 40% of the publication output of the Global South.

However, the author encourages the international community to follow another path, and instead of creating many autonomous sub-centers, to start working on a less hierarchical global academic system. He argues that the current situation is “not only detrimental to the peripheral agents and institutions, but also to the global community, as it prevents the free flow of fresh, novel ideas and, in the long run, results in intellectual stagnation and homogenization.”[4] In turn, he also makes suggestions for possible practices to achieve a more just system: one of these is to develop transparent and openly researchable global academic evaluation systems, which would only take the product not the credentials of its author into consideration. Another important element on this path is for scholars of the Global South to abandon self-stigmatization, and value each other’s work as much as they value the work of scholars in the Global North. To achieve this, they should organize high-quality regional conferences with local keynote speakers, and establish regional journals, possibly represented in high-profile academic databases as well. In conclusion, the author emphasizes that researchers of the Global South should maintain and express their cultural identity.

The book joins an existing discourse on global knowledge production, empirically demonstrating the domination of a universal scientific language, theoretical approaches and methodologies dictated by a small Western elite. According to this discourse, the danger is that by abandoning the achievements of researchers who studied specific phenomena of their own societies in favor of a dominant, universal academic canon, non-Western scholars are overlooking the specific issues of their native societies, and thus dismissing and eventually losing the vast knowledge emerging from their own circumstances and historical specificity.[5]

Demeter is also in conversation with the postcolonial and decolonial literature, although in his conclusion he takes the stance that instead of creating alternative autonomous centers, we need to strive for the substantive transformation of the existing system of global knowledge production. In other words, instead of a radical delinking from and unlearning of the oppressive Western hegemonic discourse—as decolonial thinkers propose, he imagines the solution within the same system that he criticizes. This intellectual position seems to be characteristic of Eastern European intellectuals, maybe due to the historical struggles in the region to become part of “Europe,” to belong to the center—that seems to remain forever beyond arm’s reach.[6]

Márton Demeter is a scholar of communications studies, based in Hungary. Following countless initial rejections from international journals due to his own peripheral position, in the last few years he published dozens of articles in top journals of his field, and he became one of the most accomplished researchers in communication studies internationally according to SciVal, Elsevier’s worldwide database of scientific performance.

Together with János Tóth, he is the founder of KOME, an international communication studies journal that gradually reached Q1[7] rating in the past 10 years, thanks to their deliberate strategy to build up a journal through inviting well-known international scholars as authors and editorial board members at the beginning. Although several Western publishers have been interested in buying the journal, they are committed to keeping it in the region to provide international visibility to scholars outside of the centers.

Demeter is also an editorial board member of several prestigious journals, and as the board member of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, he recently edited a special issue on Eastern European scholarship in communication studies, and currently editing another special issue to come out in 2022.

Since 2019, he has been teaching at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary—an institution established in 2012 by the right-wing Orbán government through the merger of several existing institutions. In recent years, he has been a vocal critic of both the century-old Hungarian academic system, and of the recent large-scale reorganization of this system, as well as the privatization of higher education in Hungary that gave rise to previously unprecedented levels of corruption.

While other research and publishing communities in Hungary, like Helyzet Műhely or the scholarly community that formed around the social science journal Replika focus on educating local audiences, he chose a different path and strove for international visibility. In the following interview, I asked him about successful strategies of publishing from the periphery, and about the possibility of initiating change in the world-systemic logic of academic publishing from within the system.

In your book, you used the concept “systemic protagonism”, and while you didn’t define exactly what you meant by it, I thought it was a thought-provoking way to describe strategies to fight the center–periphery division of the academic knowledge production. Can you tell me more about it?

Yes, systemic protagonism refers to good strategies. We are in the middle of a project in which we investigate the Latin American trends in global publishing. Latin American scholars are in a better position than we, Eastern Europeans are, because of the shared Romance languages. They operate an alternative hub for research, because they publish in Spanish and Portuguese. They created and developed prestigious journals that are open access, and their position in the global publishing system is continuously improving. This can be a solution, if many countries collaborate. It is very hard for a single country, though—the only exception is the Netherlands. The Netherlands has a long tradition in publishing, with excellent publishing houses, rich universities, and rich publishers in a relatively small country. Its power position is very strong. But all the other countries are far less powerful in face of the Western hegemony. So the “Latin protagonism” is a good example, because Latin American countries together with Spain and Portugal form a very powerful transnational network. These scholars do not attempt to take power positions in the existing system, but try to build an alternative one. The number of open access journals is extremely high in Latin America, and these are Diamond Open Access journals. It’s not the type of open access that Western publishers offer, where the author has to pay $2000. Diamond Open Access means that neither the authors, nor the readers pay for the content. I think, Latin Americans are pretty much “hacking” the system, because there are dozens of Latin American and Spanish journals among the top journals, especially in social sciences. This can be a successful strategy, if a given region, e.g. Eastern Europe or Asian countries come together and try to form a powerful hub. Asian countries, nevertheless, chose a different path. Even if China would be big enough to follow this path, as far as we can see, it aims for a power position within the current academic system. Chinese scholars publish a lot in elite Western journals. They weaken the hegemonic position of the West through occupying central positions in Western universities, and in editorial boards. I can talk a lot about this, because I am often asked to propose strategies for Hungary to raise the visibility of our scholarship. I always share my opinion, but no one seems to actually listen, because the other problem here is nepotism and informal connections. In Eastern Europe, meritocratic principles are not very important. Everyone talks a lot about meritocracy, and about how to raise the level of scholarship in the region, but when it comes to funding research projects and giving positions to internationally visible and successful scholars, meritocracy just fails and informal connections rule the field. In a similar vein, creating local networks seems to be working within the Eastern European context, but when we want to gain international visibility, that strategy is flawed. We have to connect to international academic networks, publish in prestigeous journals, and make ourselves visible in central places. I wrote a lot about issues like world-systemic hegemonies and dependencies in Hungarian journals, but no one reads Hungarian journals, or even Eastern European journals. I had to publish a lot in the leading international journals of my field, in order to make my voice heard. So, we have to somehow find our way to the centers without assimilating, and we have to talk about these issues, but in front of an international audience.

I will come back to the problem of assimilation and authentic voices, but first can you tell me more about your experiences in international publishing?

It was very hard at the beginning: publishing my first paper in an international journal was extremely difficult. I had to submit it 10 times or so, but the next one was easier to publish, and so forth. It is not enough to write good papers, though, because this is a “prestige economy.” Editors want authors with an existing publication record. Every time you submit a paper to a journal, the editor will check your publishing history, and it is definitely an advantage, if they see that you are someone, who publishes papers in the best journals of the field. As I said, it is very hard at the beginning. My case is also special, because I stayed in Hungary, and the situation is not easy here. In my experience, your talent, your publication record, your values are not really recognized here, and I can fully understand those people, who at a given point of their career decide to leave. So, another good strategy to challenge the center–periphery division would be, if peripheral countries gave lot more attention—grants or fellowships and good positions at universities and research institutes—to scholars who have the right attitude, appropriate knowledge, capacity, publication record, and connections to international scholars too, which is very important and valuable. It would be a useful strategy for peripheral regions to do everything to keep these people from emigrating. I talked to many internationally recognized scholars who left Hungary, and they all said that they wouldn’t need the salary they earn in the US or UK, they just need an environment, where they are appreciated, where they don’t have to fight for positions, because their knowledge is acknowledged.

It seems that this could also be addressed by creating communities that can work and publish together. Even if it is a local hub that is not readily connectable to a larger community in the short run, maybe this could still be an answer to the lack of context, a lack of supportive environment. Together with János Tóth, you created a very highly ranked international journal in communication studies in Hungary. What could others learn from your experience creating your own journal from a peripheral position?

It took 10 years of free labor. We worked a lot in order to first get it indexed in Scopus [Elsevier’s abstract and citation database], and then, step by step, we worked on raising the level of the journal. The indexing system is also biased towards Western journals, because in order to gain a good position, the journal needs to be cited in journals that are already indexed in Scopus. The journal has to be in a central position, or at least within the international network, because all the citations that come from non-indexed journals, will not count when Elsevier determines the ranking of each journal at the end of each year. In the first years, we invited authors who generally publish in good journals and are part of established publication networks. This was challenging, because we had to be exclusivist and elitist. Later, we received better and better submissions. So, we decided not to build the journal on a Hungarian or Eastern European network, because that would have been counterproductive for our purposes. Actually, now I think there is a better way to do this. Last year, I started to work with Hungarian scholars, and I became a mentor and supervisor to them. I share my experience with them on how to publish papers that are most likely to be published in prestigious journals. If we become a critical mass, we can occupy some positions, because if I can publish 20 papers a year, then 10 people similar to me can publish 200, and that’s visible. Even if it is not a great number of scholars, but 10 or 100 very prospective scholars could raise the visibility of the region. This is also a “publishing community,” or network, but a network that works in central places. We can help each other, even cite each other—because established publication networks work by implicit agreements: “if you cite me, I’ll cite you, if you cite me in good journals, I’ll cite you in good journals.” This is something that works, when you are inside the system, but before you become part of the system, it seems impossible. In Bourdieu’s words: the price of entry is extremely high. In conclusion, establishing Hungarian or Eastern European journals is not a solution in itself, because you have to be part of the international system, and when you are part of it, you can change it a bit. In my opinion, it is not enough to create alternative networks. We should make them equally visible for Western peers, because we believe that scholarship, and academia is international—even if right now it is very biased towards Western hegemonies, Western epistemologies, cultures, and the English language. We have to change the international system, instead of pretending we don’t care about it.

In your book, you suggest that these changes could yield larger social transformations, which would hopefully lead to a more diverse, more equal distribution of power globally.

The Trojan horse is a good analogy here. I think this is the only way, because there are systemic problems that should be solved, but we on the peripheries are not in the position to do that right now. For example, the most detrimental aspect of academic knowledge production is that the place of one’s PhD is overvalued. This is a discriminative practice, because we know that many people, even if they are talented and diligent, due to their background, cannot afford to go to elite universities. Scientific production is connected to elite education, even if, in my opinion, productivity or performance should be assessed by itself only. We have empirical research on this topic, and we can say that during the first few years, or first decade of one’s career, the institution that issued their degree counts much more than their academic performance. Also, if you check the CVs of decolonization professors from the Global South, like Walter D. Mignolo, or Sousa Santos, they were all educated in the West. So they are accepted now, but not before they have had an education at elite Western universities. If we want to change the power relations, the most important thing is to separate education history from academic performance. I argue that one’s education should manifest in the performance. Nevertheless, it is becoming a trend now that when you submit your paper, journal editors want to know where you earned your PhD. In communication studies, this wasn’t a trend a few years ago, but now in the best journals you have to reveal the place of the PhD even for your co-authors. And I ask why this is interesting information for the peer reviewers. It is because of elitism. It should not be a factor in the editorial decisions. I think the direction is wrong—academic performance is not considered separately from education history, but the opposite is happening. Universities, rich publishing houses, science itself is part of a huge business and a prestige economy. I think, science and academia should be an autonomous field, and it should not play by the rules of the capitalist economy.

A figure from the book, showing the result of ‘excessive brain drain’ due to academic migration from the Global South to the Global North. The figure represents networks of education and career paths, where the width of the edges represents the frequency of a given path. “The strongest paths in career development are those that link Latin America to the United States, to Western Europe, and especially to Spain. Developing Asian authors from the Global South prefer the United States and developed Asia, followed by Western Europe. Most Eastern European researchers selected Western European institutions for education, followed by US universities. Twice as many researchers from the Middle East chose the US rather than Western Europe. Finally, African academics prefer the old continent, both Western and Eastern Europe.” (cited from the book)

It seems that now you focus more on creating publishing communities with students and colleagues. When I say publishing community, I mean a community of people that find it inspiring to work together, think together, write together, giving voice to certain issues that one or two people working on their own would not be able to do.

Yes, I work with a team of researchers from all around the world, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe. Metrics and Media is the unofficial name of this research group, and it has a core of 5–10 people, including mathematicians, statisticians, communication scholars, scientometrists. We have people working on similar projects, like sociology of science, scientometrics, media and journalism studies, but from different perspectives, and we frequently invite other researchers too. We have regular weekly meetings, and we discuss our ideas, and then each of us decides, what we want to work on in the given project: maybe for the statistical part I want to be onboard, and I can help with the theoretical part. 4–5 people work on any given project. This is a very focused process with very efficient meetings; we have a structure. When you present your idea, it should be a clear and well-researched idea already, you have to be familiar with the literature, you have to show how this project will contribute to the existing literature, you have to provide a research hypothesis that should be quantifiable. You have to show your variables and a sharp methodology for the analysis. I would prefer to call it a working group, but it is also a publishing community, because we publish a lot together. I started to do the same in Hungary, and in the first few months it was an absolute dead end for me. But gradually, it turned out that there are people who are willing to work hard, and they learn the necessary skills fast, and they can produce quality research… I take pride in this, because they can achieve a lot in a relatively short time. I believe in training. I have several PhD students, but the best students are the ones who I write a paper with, initially as the first author, next time we co-write a paper, but they are the lead authors, and the third time they can write it alone—all in very good journals. Soon enough, these PhD students can train others themselves. This way the effect spreads fast—and I myself just started an international career 3–4 years ago. (As I have three children and in the first few years, before they went to kindergarten or school, I wasn’t able to make giant projects.) This way it is not impossible to have a critical mass within a few years. All you need is to find the right people, and supervise, mentor, and teach them, and convince them that they can succeed. You have to be sort of a psychotherapist too, because the first few years can be very frustrating—I remember. You have to keep them on track, because many of them want to quit when they realize that they could be a cashier in a supermarket for twice as much money,[8] and they want to give up. But it is not impossible.

Similar to global academic career paths, the patterns of international academic collaborations between world regions and countries also show the effects of the center-periphery logic. This figure from the book represents the patterns of mixed co-authorship, where at least one author is from the Global South and at least one is from the Global North. It shows individual countries as nodes and co-authorship as links between them. Thicker lines mean more frequent co-authorship between the linked countries, and the color of the nodes indicate the world region the countries belong to.

You mention in your book that as a scholar you are an activist too. What does activism mean in academia?

You should do, what you can do. In Hungary, I talk a lot against nepotism, and about how our academic life is corrupted. So, even though I criticize the Western hegemony, I also criticize nepotism, corruption and counterselection here, which makes the best people quit academia, or go abroad. In Hungary, I am more active as a public figure. I give many interviews, in which I talk about how to reform the old system inherited from state socialist times. I am an advisor for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, now the Eötvös Loránd Research Network.[9] I try to develop frameworks, by which scientific excellence can be objectively measured in Hungary, because it is now completely informal, and all the positions and research grants go to people who are in good relationship with the selection committee or the board members. As an activist, one can improve the academic culture of their own country, or where they currently live. I am also a shadow mentor of a dozen of PhD students, who don’t get much help from their own supervisors. For me, activism is not about protesting on the streets against the Western hegemony, but about helping people around me to reach the level, on which they can publish in the same journals as Harvard professors. I also talk a lot about these issues at international conferences, and in international journals. And I can tell you that I have the ears of my Western colleagues much more than my Hungarian colleagues. For example, the editor-in-chief of the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly specifically told me that they wanted to increase the number of Eastern European authors, and asked me how they can be more inclusive. She actually took steps, published an Eastern European special issue, and invited Eastern European editorial board members. The new editor-in-chief is a Bulgarian researcher, Daniela Dimitrova, who now works in the US. So, things have happened—they didn’t just write letters and manifestos. This is something I don’t experience in Hungary. So I criticize both nepotism in Eastern Europe, and hegemony, exclusivism, and discrimination in the West.

Returning to the question of authentic voices, in your book, you expressed the opinion that thinkers of decolonization who come from the Global South, but receive their education in the West, might hinder the decolonization efforts. Why do you think this is the case?

Epistemologies change over time, and if you study in the centers for years, and follow their curriculum, even if you decide that you will hold onto your Eastern European, or African, or Asian identity, you won’t be able to do that as an academic, because you have to meet the academic requirements of the West. I call it a re-education: you spend 10 years in American higher education, reading those books, taking those exams, for me, you are an American scholar, because you work in that environment. I don’t think that this is anybody’s fault, it’s just how it is. The situation is the worst in development studies—I work on several research projects with development studies scholars. The departments invite and employ their own students, and they invite them as guest lecturers too. They teach them and then they recruit them. What new can they learn from their own people? What kind of diversity can we talk about? For me, real decolonization, and real diversity is when you have someone who was educated in Africa, someone who was educated in Asia, because they have different knowledge. So, I don’t think you can decolonize when you are ‘colonized’ on the most powerful level—on the level of academia.

This interview took place in January 2021.


András, Edit. “Orientációváltások a közép-kelet-európai művészetelméletben 1989 után. Nemzeti, regionális vagy globális művészettörténet (a posztszocializmus, posztkolonializmus vagy dekolonialitás jegyében)?” Ars Hungarica 4, (2017): 395-406.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.

Böröcz, József. “Anthony Giddens: Szociológia.” BUKSZ 9, no. 3 (1997): 3–6.

Demeter, Márton. Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South Questioning Inequality and Under-representation. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

About the authors:

Márton Demeter is an associate professor at the National University of Public Service in Budapest. His main research foci are global academic knowledge production, international higher education, academic capital accumulation, science communication and research evaluation, but he also writes on media studies, journalism, and political communication. His works are extensively published in top-tier international journals like Scientometrics, New Media and Society, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the Journal of World-Systems Research, or Journalism Studies. His monograph entitled Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South was published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Ágnes Szanyi is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. Before moving to New York, she studied sociology at the University of Szeged, and Central European University, Hungary. She also worked at the Budapest-based contemporary art organization tranzit.hu. Her dissertation asks the question: how art activism changes the meaning of art and artists’ understanding of their own role in society. She was a student fellow of The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and The Curatorial Design Research Lab at The New School. She is currently a member of the Decolonizing Eastern European Studies (DEES) research group, and of the art collective BFAMFAPhD.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975)

[2] Throughout the book, Demeter considers Eastern Europe as part of the Global South, and demonstrates through statistics that the characteristics of the region make it much more alike the Global South than the Global North.

[3] The author mentions the Chilean example, where the state pays institutions for each article that is published in a journal indexed in the Web of Science. Márton Demeter, Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South Questioning Inequality and Under-representation (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 10.

[4] Márton Demeter, Academic Knowledge Production and the Global South Questioning Inequality and Under-representation (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 173.

[5] József Böröcz, “Anthony Giddens: Szociológia,” BUKSZ 9, no. 3, (1997): 3–6.

[6] This intellectual tradition in analyzed in Edit András’s essay, “Orientációváltások a közép-kelet-európai művészetelméletben 1989 után. Nemzeti, regionális vagy globális művészettörténet (a posztszocializmus, posztkolonializmus vagy dekolonialitás jegyében)?” published in Ars Hungarica 4, in 2017.

[7] Q1 is the most prestigious quartile of international academic journals rated by Scopus, based on how often they are cited in other journals, and how prestigious those other journals are.

[8] While this might sound shocking, in 2017 Márton Demeter’s Facebook post made rounds in the media, when he pointed out based on facts that—while the government claims to build a knowledge society—an assistant lecturer makes only minimum wage, and about half of what an entry-level supermarket warehouse worker or cashier makes. This hasn’t changed much in the last 4 years. According to the latest data, assistant lecturers still make only the official minimum wage in Hungary (in 2021 approximately 400 EUR after taxes per month).

[9] In 2019, the Hungarian government restructured the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by moving all its research institutes under the control of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, with the new name Eötvös Loránd Research Network. This significant reduction of the autonomy and research budget of the Academy resulted in national and international uproar in the academic community, while others pointed out that the academic system did indeed need restructuring.

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