Tag Archives: harri_siiskonen

Nordic networks support cooperation in China and Africa

The world university rankings published this summer were a pleasant read for the University of Eastern Finland.  Besides the performance of individual universities, it was interesting to look at the geographic distribution of the top 500 universities in the Shanghai ranking. It was no surprise that American and Western European universities did well, or that Chinese universities have been showing a strong performance in the past decade. The Shanghai ranking also included four universities from the Republic of South Africa but only two from Russia.

In the university world, networking has become an increasingly important tool in the growing competition for research resources and the best researchers. UEF has successful partners in all corners of the world. In China and southern Africa, we are also supported by an extensive Nordic university network. But have we fully tapped into the opportunities available through the Nordic networks? The Nordic Centre set up in conjunction with Fudan University, which was placed 151–200 in the Shanghai ranking, has served as a bridge connecting the Nordic universities and Fudan University, and businesses based in the Shanghai area. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in late October, the Nordic Centre currently comprises 25 Nordic universities.

A similar network, called SANORD (Southern African-Nordic Centre), has been established to bolster cooperation with southern African countries. This differs from its Chinese counterpart in that its membership consists of 25 leading universities from southern African countries, including the University of Cape Town, placed in the 201-300 bracket in the Shanghai ranking. Although not all African members of the network are yet able to reach the level of their Nordic partners, they are very eager to improve their higher education system, which creates demand for education export. Nordic SANORD members are by and large the same high-ranking universities that are part of the Nordic Centre.

Both the Nordic Centre and SANORD are fairly well known among researchers. However, the services offered by these networks could be utilised more efficiently. In addition to building bilateral relations with China and Africa, we should consider strengthening our cooperation with our Nordic partners. When seeking major international funding providers, or when planning extensive cooperation with the Chinese partners, a Nordic university consortium would be much more powerful and able to offer more skills and competences than any individual university. Based on my personal experience of the Nordic Centre’s operations, I would say we Finns have much to learn from the cooperation between the Swedish and the Danish in the Chinese projects. Active involvement in the Nordic Centre and SANORD allows us to forge stronger ties with our African, Chinese and Nordic partners.  Hopefully we will find ways of linking businesses to this competence network, too. Some promising developments are already under way in China.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

Challenge of parallel publishing

“Publish or perish,” as the old academic saying goes. The saying has many sides to it, depending on whether it is looked at from the viewpoint of an individual or an institution. Back in the day when university positions were public offices rather than employment relationships, professorships were filled almost exclusively on the basis of the applicant’s scientific merits – assessed by publishing activities. Even today, the extent and quality of the applicant’s publishing activities continue to be major factors affecting the evaluation; however, also other factors have gained importance. From the viewpoint of the university, the old system looked at publishing activities as just one, rather loosely defined entity in the ministry’s funding model, whereas in today’s funding model, publishing activities are defined very rigorously and given significant weight in the earning logic.

Since 2011, the Publication Forum project coordinated by the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies has been tasked with the classification of different publication channels on the basis of their quality. This work is now in the final stretch, and researchers representing the fields of my faculty are increasingly choosing to publish in journals and with publishers that have been assigned a Publication Forum classification. In other words, researchers’ publishing behaviour has changed significantly.

Satisfying the requirements of the ministry isn’t enough anymore, as also research funders have their demands. The European Union and the Academy of Finland have expressed their strong preference, or even demand, for publishing research findings in open access channels. In many fields, this demand is currently conflicting with the Publication Forum classification. In human sciences, open access publishing is still in its infancy. The majority of open access channels are so new that they have not been given a Publication Forum classification. The Bell’s Predatory Publishers List, on the other hand, reveals that open access publishing has brought about hundreds of fraudulent journals seeking to make money off of researchers.

The schizophrenic situation was recently noted in a meeting of the chairs of the Publication Forum panels, a role in which I have acted for a year now and, before that, as a member of a panel ever since its establishment. At worst, publishing in a journal with a Publication Forum classification can be in conflict with funders’ requirements. Furthermore, from the viewpoint a researcher’s merits, it is usually better to publish in a high-impact, Publication Forum classified journal than in an open access channel still finding its place.

As a solution to the problem, setting up a system of parallel publishing in the universities has been proposed, allowing researchers to make their articles accepted for publication in scientific journals available to everyone without infringing any copyrights. The idea is good, but the legal jungle is really thick. Parallel publishing would require contracts with hundreds if not thousands of publishers. This is something that cannot remain at the responsibility of researchers, and I suspect that without additional resources, the task is also beyond the scope of the library.

In my opinion, publishing research findings in forums that have the highest scientific and social impact is crucial for promoting science.  A journal with a high Publication Forum classification doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best impact.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

Reputation is a long-term project

Years ago, I participated in a world conference on environmental history at St Andrews. To my surprise, the train from Edinburgh did not arrive at St Andrews town centre, but at a stop in the middle of a vast field. The silhouette of a small coastal town located on a cape opened up in the horizon.

Was this really the home of the well-known educational institution found among the UK’s top six universities? The combination of a small town with less than 20,000 inhabitants and a university with 8,000 students seemed unreal. The University of St Andrews has turned its small size and remote location into attraction factors in its marketing, as can be seen in the following passage taken from the university’s website: “Why study at University of St Andrews? A small place, where you can get to know almost everyone – but with big ambitions in every shape from teaching and research to sport, music, drama, volunteering and charities.” St Andrews places emphasis on tradition and quality by reminding us that it is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Globally, there are several similar examples of small yet well-known universities, and perhaps we could learn something from them.

In university rankings, our performance is negatively affected by the fact that we are not particularly well-known. Within the scientific community, the quality and extensiveness of our research and the level of our research environments are factors through which we can raise awareness of our activities. Active publishing, working abroad, networking and participation in international conferences are excellent ways to spread the word about us. The decline in the interest of first- and second-degree students and doctoral students to study and work abroad is a concerning recent trend.

In the recently closed admission round, the attractiveness of the University of Eastern Finland as a place to study in continued to grow. However, we could do much better by using the positive images related to our education provision and our campuses to make up for the negative images related to our location. Without proper understanding of who we are and what we do, the location of our campuses gets more attention than our education provision. This is my conclusion of the results presented in the Kun koulu loppuu (Once School is Out) report by the Economic Information Office of Finland charting upper secondary school students’ future plans and images of Finnish higher education institutions. On a positive note, those interested in the University of Eastern Finland were clearly thirstier for knowledge and more appreciative of education than those interested in the other universities included in the survey.

Based on this survey, a rapid improvement of our national reputation is a challenging task. Over the past year, we have sought to raise awareness of who we are and what we do through UEF student ambassadors visiting upper secondary schools. Alongside students who are happy to study with us and positive media coverage, the development of alumni activities gives us tools to disseminate up-to-date information about our university to prospective students, their parents and main stakeholder groups alike. Our alumni constitute a resource we haven’t fully used yet.

The University of Eastern Finland, even when taking the history of its predecessors into consideration, is a young player in the international field. Standing out from the mass through determined definition of profile is a way to promote our reputation among colleagues, decision-makers and the general public. This makes location less important than knowledge and expertise, which are something students and researchers have been attracted by throughout centuries.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen