Do Iranian scholars actually want academic freedom?

Restrictions are partly due to a stilted academic culture in which criticism is uncomfortable, says Roohola Ramezani

一月 12, 2023
A no entry sign next to an Iranian flag symbolising restricted academic freedom
Source: iStock

Last April, a Tehran launch event for a collection of books by Reza Mansouri, a celebrated emeritus professor of Sharif University of Technology, was unexpectedly cancelled. The cancellation followed the receipt of a letter of objection allegedly written by a group of Iranian professors (the letter had no signature). The letter’s main concern was that in his works Mansouri had understated Iranian scientific advances.

The concern seems strange at first glance, for Mansouri has played a crucial role in the country’s improved global scientific ranking, which the authorities often boast about. As a deputy science minister from 2001 to 2005, he contributed to the imposition of strict regulations that mandate international publication for Iranian academics. In addition, he has always taken a firm stand in defending the crucial importance of science for the country. However, he has recently been outspoken in his criticism of the current state of affairs in Iranian academia, condemning prevalent fraudulent practices, misconducts and charlatanism.

The mere fact that a celebrated university professor can be censored merely for criticising academic affairs raises important questions about scientific freedom in Iran. At first sight, it might sound pointless to talk of freedom in a highly authoritarian system, in which academia is administered on non-academic bases. However, science, in and of itself, calls for freedom. Therefore, academic freedom is actually obtained to a certain extent by the very practice of science.

Iran’s supposedly high scientific performance is based on purely quantitative measures. According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank, based on the Scopus database, the country ranked 15th globally in 2021. Yet many Iranian researchers attribute the improved showing to quantity-oriented scientific policies, rather than indicating anything substantive about the country’s R&D capacity.

Indeed, the quantitative mindset – which demands that researchers get their names in international journals by hook or by crook – is suspected of giving rise to the misconduct that Mansouri complains of, including citation circles, ghost/guest/gift authorship, plagiarism, collusion and data fabrication/falsification. In the absence of appropriate detection mechanisms and deterring regulations, this makes for a problematic scientific community.

This is arguably illustrated by the fact that Iran’s global rank doesn’t look as promising when we consider qualitative measures, such as international collaboration, external versus self-citation, rankings of journals in which Iranian authors publish, and the global standing of Iranian universities and academic journals.

The quantitative mindset in research policymaking also gives rise to individual research works that are not defined within well-planned projects aimed at specific problems. As a result, Iranian research does not relate in a meaningful way to the real problems of society. This is widely discussed in Iran as the university-industry linkage problem, but it applies just as much to humanities and social science research, which has no relevance to local problems: researchers would rather contribute to international research projects.

To be fair, Iranian academia does focus on training skilled practitioners, such as physicians and computer programmers, to meet the practical needs of the society by means of imported technological knowledge (albeit not always in step with global innovations). But it is unclear about its cultural role, its contribution to science-based policymaking, its task in science communication, and its role in nurturing critical thinking in society.

In a way, this disorientation problem is only to be expected. In spite of its revolutionary features, the modern university emerged in Europe from medieval antecedents. In Iran, however, it was founded from scratch only about 170 years ago, with no reference to traditional forms of education.

Iranian academia, then, is yet not in a position to demand freedom. Institutional autonomy is completely out of the question in Iran’s current political circumstances, and the situation is not much better for individuals. It is common for Iranian academics to self-censor, considering the risk of losing their positions. There is no independent organisation to protect their rights, nor is the scientific community strong enough to support its members.

The related truth is that there is little demand for academic freedom from within. What is needed is a process of self-evaluation, during which Iranian academia makes sense of its place within the society – in practical rather than abstract terms. This is the only feasible way to practise academic freedom in the current circumstances. But while a few academics are eager to take part, others seem indifferent and, as the Mansouri case illustrates, some even react against it, interpreting it merely as self-blame.

Why so? Because deficiencies in Iranian academic freedom are not merely an administrative or political issue, imposed by restrictive regulations. They are also due to a stilted academic culture, in which criticism is uncomfortable. Even when it comes to outright academic corruption, Iranian academics are reluctant to criticise one another openly. This mindset has some roots in Iran’s reserved society, but it is clearly incongruous for a community that is supposed to work through uninhibited evaluation.

The relationship between free society and academic freedom is not one-sided: academic freedom does require free society, but in its turn contributes to the formation of free society as well. Breaking the ice of academia’s stilted culture seems to be the first step Iranian academics can take towards academic freedom – but, as the current anti-government protests go on, even that first step may be hard to take.

Roohola Ramezani has a PhD in philosophy from Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. He has been a research fellow at the IFK International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna. His research interests include various topics in science studies, social epistemology and Iranian studies.



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