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

By JENNIFER HOWARD, Chronicle of Higher Education

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. (See box below.)

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.

. . . So far nobody in the United States has tried to set in motion a large-scale ranking system of humanities journals, but editors here have begun to take note of what’s happening overseas — and to weigh the implications of rankings for homegrown research.

American scholars, even if they are not aware of it, are already involved, Mr. Howes 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. “The rankings systems in these various countries never asked us whether we wanted to be ranked or not,” Mr. Howes said. “They’re going to do it anyway.”

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