Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have suggested setting up regional research journals, and have agreed in principle to explore an ASEAN citation index to increase the international visibility of research carried out by the region's universities.
The number of times published research is cited by other researchers has become an important measure of research quality and impact, and of universities' research productivity as well as a country's performance in science. Research citations are also a leading measure used to rank universities by all the major international rankings organisations.
"Considering the increasing profile of international research publications in Asia, led by China, Japan, South Korea and India, ASEAN should follow in this direction," said Sumate Yamnoon, Secretary General of Thailand's Higher Education Commission, at the Pioneering ASEAN Higher Education Research Clusters conference in Bangkok from 26-27 November.
"ASEAN universities should unite and cooperate to uplift ASEAN research publications by building up our common higher education research platform," he said.
Sumate referred to the Thai Citation Index set up over decade ago. "We have found that the research profile in Thai universities has improved considerably. This is the time for ASEAN universities to cooperate in establishing ASEAN universities research clusters and an ASEAN Universities Citation Index."
The ASEAN region comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myannmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
"Most performance indicators are focused on citations," said Narongrit Sombatsompop of the Thai-Journal Citation Index Centre at King Mongkut University of Technology, Thonburi (KMUTT) who presented a concept for an ASEAN citation database and index at the conference.
Thailand's national citation index was developed in part to inform research funding agencies in their funding allocations, and citations are also used for academic promotions.
"The international indicators are not fair for us because only a small number of ASEAN researchers publish in international journals. But they publish a lot in local journals, which never get into international research databases. The quality is very good but the citations are not high or are non-existent," Narongrit told University World News.
"It is important to increase the visibility of research work in ASEAN. Citations will come after that. If people can see the work then they will cite it," Narongrit said. "There is a lot of research carried out within ASEAN that has not been recorded and indexed in any database."
Narongrit said it would be easy enough for ASEAN countries to move towards a regional citations index starting with just three or four countries. "The resources are already there, we can put them together."
But he cautioned that this should not be the only measure of research. "We need to be aware of the need for research that helps our own development," he said. "This may not be of interest to international researchers."
Wanchai De-Eknamkul, Secretary of Thailand's National Research University Project Committee, said some countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were interested in an ASEAN index. The Philippines is interested in developing a national citation index similar to Thailand's.
"We would like to share this information among ASEAN countries and encourage countries to have their own citation index, then connect them together to have an ASEAN citation index," Wanchai told University World News.
"We can increase the citation impact and make it more visible to other countries by providing abstracts in English," he said.
It was also important to have journals that published research important to the region. "ASEAN countries should have their own regional journals. We have specific topics and specific research on problems in the region which might not be able to be published internationally," said Wanchai, suggesting an ASEAN journal on biodiversity would be a good place to start.
Inn Beng Lee, based in Singapore as Asia-Pacific head of marketing alliances at the science publishers Elsevier, which runs the global abstract and research citation database Scopus, said the quality of ASEAN research and research journals varied widely.
There are "very few high quality publications and many publications that need improvement to achieve better quality," he said.
"A quick survey of the ASEAN online journals landscape shows that we do have pockets of excellent programmes to support journal development, to improve journal quality and to establish a strong online presence," Lee said, suggesting that ASEAN universities work tougher to "establish an integrated online publishing network" to increase the "probability of being discovered by international researchers."
But Thailand's former science and technology minister Yongyuth Yuthavong cautioned: "We have to be careful. We are just beginning to join the global science research community. We cannot start fooling ourselves that we are strong in research just because of an ASEAN citation index."
However, others believed the result of strengthening research citations and impact would be to push ASEAN countries up international science rankings and university league tables.