By Natalia Jarska (Institute of History, Polish Academy of Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno)
As I am writing this blog entry, I recall the recent statements by the Polish Minister of Education and Science about publishing in Polish, doing “Polish” scholarship, and defending Polish science against undesired Western leftist influences. “Polish science is for Poland” – he claimed on 23 of July 2021 on Twitter. Governmental figures have been voicing similar sentiments since 2015. For example, a Polish deputy minister of culture and professor from the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences claimed that humanities in Poland should not focus on “how to please Paris or London,” and that Polish universities are under pressure from Western “minority discourses.” This resonates with the popular belief among political leaders that Polish historians should promote “our point of view” – which means, among other things, conducting research about the suffering and heroism of the Polish people during World War II, and communicating it to the public. Beyond the hostility to “Western” science, the deputy minister’s statement also reflects a highly nationalized perspective on science, which is not considered universal but in the service of constructing national identities.
As a consequence of such statements, publishing in international journals and in English is criticised and downplayed in the evaluation of scientific activities, which will have a direct effect on the distribution of state funding for research. Publishing in Polish and with journals and editorial houses in Poland is given priority instead. Polish scientific journals, which very often do not uphold high standards in the reviewing process and publish countless articles that are never read or referred to in scholarly literature, are now seen as the appropriate place to publish one’s research. Being part of international scholarly exchange, which takes place mostly in English, has thus become a highly political matter. This situation is threatening the contribution of contemporary Polish historians to international scholarship.
It is clear that science should be communicated to the national public, and that scholarly works in social sciences and humanities are part of national cultures. It is also important to hold scholarly discussions in the local languages of each European state. Historical studies published in Polish, especially on controversial issues, reach other professionals such as journalists more easily, generate public debate, and are more accessible to a broader readership. Important historical discussions are also held in Poland, but I do not think there is any threat that they will disappear because of the domination of English in international academia, which is a fact. The threat is, rather, that articles and books in Polish are disconnected from international research, the state of the art, and debates. This is the result of methodological nationalism, but also of nationalism at the level of elaborating research ideas and research aims. Historical studies that are not confronted with a non-Polish audience tend to reproduce very narrow frameworks of interpretation and fail to properly account for the relevance of the research in broader historical debates, beyond the national realm. Although this situation is not exclusively a consequence of what politicians say, the current politics of science will only strengthen this trend.
For example, “true Polish” science rejects gender as a category of analysis. This is very often emphasised by government officials, but also widely shared among Polish historians, even those sensitive to social and cultural approaches to history. Consequently, it is difficult to engage in fruitful exchanges over research on gender. Gender blindness or even hostility to gender as a category of historical analysis may even result in unfavorable reviews, which I have experienced myself. In contrast, international, English-speaking academic forums provide a proper environment to share and develop one’s research. The European Union underlines the importance of gender on its research agenda, and international English-language journals provide a space to engage in scholarly discussions that go far beyond national perspectives. Historians who don’t agree to being reduced to agents of national identity policies find a place in international networks.
That is why I am a strong defender of using English as academic lingua franca. There is no other way to create a common space for discussion than to use a common language. That also makes it possible to challenge growing nationalisms, as in the case of Poland. Social sciences and humanities have a political and social importance, and they have an impact on ideas and understandings far beyond academia. Because of that, the choice whether to reject or not an international audience is not an innocent one. From this perspective, publishing in English is not about “narrowing the horizon,” but just the opposite. For a gender historian, it is also a “way out” of a highly nationalist mode of writing and from the perspectives on history still dominating in Poland.
However, for an average historian from a country such as Poland it is usually difficult to enter the world of publishing in high-ranked and widely read academic journals. We often cannot pay for professional language-editing, which is extremely costly compared to our salaries. We have to invest much more effort into publishing internationally than in one of the leading Polish historical journals, all the while this effort does not reflect in how our work is perceived and evaluated in Poland. This effort might not always be acknowledged in the English-speaking world either, where native English speakers are still privileged. Moreover, our articles often remain behind a paywall, which reduces their impact considerably. It is of crucial importance to support inclusiveness in publishing in English. In my opinion, translations could be a good strategy in this respect, but grants such as COST Actions do not provide funding for translations. Important research, such as habilitation dissertations that are published in Polish and make an important contribution to the field, take many years and a lot of effort to make available for an international audience. Otherwise, they are never translated and have no impact beyond the very limited audience of a mid-size country. Creating funding opportunities to support publishing and translations from Polish to English would be a good way to “save” this research, without necessarily abandoning publishing in the local language. Translations to Polish, on the other hand, would make international scholarship more accessible for the local public. The bridges between Polish historical writing and the international (not only European) research community need to be much stronger, and this would benefit both sides.