2008 Archives

New Ratings of Humanities Journals Do More Than Rank — They Rankle


The following is from the Oct. 10, 2008, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Expertise for this story was provided by Bonnie Wheeler, an English professor in SMU's Dedman College, director of SMU's Medieval Studies Program, editor of the journal Arthuriana and president of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals.

October 10, 2008


A large-scale, multinational attempt in Europe to rank humanities journals has set off a revolt. In a protest letter, some journal editors have called it "a dangerous and misguided exercise." The project has also started a drumbeat of alarm in this country, as U.S.-based scholars begin to grasp the implications for their own work and the journals they edit.

The ranking project, known as the European Reference Index for the Humanities, or ERIH, is the brainchild of the European Science Foundation, which brings together research agencies from many countries. It grew from a desire to showcase high-quality research in Europe. Panels of four to six scholars, appointed by a steering committee, compiled initial lists of journals to be classified in 15 fields. Each journal was assigned to a category — A, B, or C — depending on its reputation and international reach.

The denunciation of the project as dangerous appears in an open letter signed by more than 60 editors of journals devoted to the history of science, technology, and medicine. They also ask to have their journals removed from the rankings. The letter will be published in the first 2009 issues of those journals, which include Centaurus, Perspectives on Science, Isis, Annals of Science, and the British Journal for the History of Science.

"We now confront a situation in which our own research work is being subjected to putatively precise accountancy by arbitrary and unaccountable agencies," the editors write. They call the project "entirely defective in conception and execution," and argue that it could unfairly penalize good journals and even affect professors' tenure applications. . .

American scholars, even if they are not aware of it, are already involved, Mr. (Craig) Howes (of the University of Hawaii-Manoa) said. Many of the ERIH-listed journals are published in the United States or have U.S. contributors and editorial-board members. Scholarly work and the journals in which it appears transcend national boundaries.

"It's now becoming a global phenomenon," said Bonnie Wheeler, president of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. Ms. Wheeler, a professor of English and medieval studies at Southern Methodist University, edits the journal Arthuriana. The general feeling in her group, she says, is that ranking humanities journals according to external standards of value is "intellectually irresponsible," but "since accreditation agencies like to be able to count things and grade them, I expect we'll see the phenomenon here soon."

This is, after all, the culture that produced the Spellings Commission's report on accountability in education and the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges. Journal editors would do well to "think these things through," Ms. Wheeler said, "before we get hit in the teeth by a directive from an underling of Margaret Spellings."

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