October 08, 2008
By Robert B. Townsend
Should the journal your article appears in be a factor in assessing the quality of the article itself? A number of European institutions are apparently pushing in that direction and that mindset may be coming to a campus near you.
This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education discusses recent European efforts to rank humanities journals, as a means of measuring an article’s value in tenure and funding decisions. This new program (called the European Reference Index for the Humanities) is apparently part of a sincere effort on their part to promote European scholarship, but as a practical matter it seems quite dubious for journals in the humanities disciplines.
Science and social science journals have been using similar measures for some time now, but they can rely on comprehensive citation indexes to provide some hard data in those fields. But the humanities lack similar indexes, so efforts in our fields tend to be highly distortive. As a case in point, in 1993 a National Science Foundation survey of doctorate programs tried to use citation indexes of history journals as a measure (http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2002/0209/0209aha1.cfm ). But since the larger database consists disproportionately of science journals, their measurements unsurprisingly produced results that were heavily skewed toward scholars in the history of science and medicine.
The European system tries to mediate such deficiencies of quantification by supplementing their information with advice from panels “of four to six experts.” This seems a poor way to measure significance of particular articles to the discipline (even if, as the Chronicle reports, the American Historical Review comes out at the top). Our database of history journals currently contains 379 peer-reviewed English-language journals in the discipline, so it is difficult to imagine skewed citation indexes and a handful of specialists delivering a fair or equitable system of ranking that encompassed the parts, as well as the whole.
Sadly, the problem is not likely to remain an ocean away. Over the past month the deans’ offices at two universities have contacted me, asking where they might look for domestic rankings of history journals. Given the urge to quantify and assess all aspects of higher education by precise statistical measures, it is hardly surprising that similar tests and measures are making their way into the faculty ranks. But scholars in the humanities have good reason to be wary of this impulse, as there is every reason to think these rankings would be a poor measure of the full range and diversity of our journal scholarship.
History faculty and department chairs should be on the lookout for such efforts on their own campuses, and reach out to their colleagues in other humanities fields to develop a common response. As administrators try to impose standards of assessment in all areas of their institutions, it may soon be incumbent on departments and the profession to offer new methods for articulating the value of particular journal articles to those outside the field.