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No to hierarchy

Index to classify journals covering the humanities provokes a rebellion among editors

hierarquia_abreBRAZEditors of academic journals linked to the fields of humanities rebelled against an attempt to fit them under acknowledged evaluation criteria in the fields of science and engineering. A joint manifesto signed by editors of 61 history and philosophy of science journals – among other disciplines – proposed a boycott of the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH), an index created by the European Science Foundation, whose intention was to classify approximately 12 thousand European publications under three categories, according to their impact and dissemination:  A (high impact), B (standard international level) and C (publications of regional importance).

According to one of the signatories – Michael Lynch, from the Social Studies of Sciences journal, adopting such an index is inappropriate for two main reasons. The first reason is the lack of enough representatives from the academic communities that would be put in charge of classifying the journals. “None of the academic organizations that represent our fields, such as the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, the Philosophy of Science Association or the Society for Social Studies of Science were consulted about this”, states Lynch.

But the big issue is the adverse effect that this initiative would have, according to the signatories, on the diversity of European scientific journals. “Our periodicals are diverse, heterogeneous and distinct.  Some of them focus on broad, general and international groups of readers, while others are more specialized in terms of content and target audience. The ERIH is confusing internationality with quality in a manner that is particularly harmful to specialized journals published in languages other than English”, states the joint editorial signed by the publishers of 61 journals. “Initiatives such as the one fostered by the ERIH can become self-achievable prophecies.  If they are adopted as the basis for the decisions of funding agencies, many researchers will come to the conclusion that they have very little choice and will limit their papers to first-rank periodicals. Fewer periodicals will exist, resulting in less diversity, thus impoverishing our disciplines”. According to Robin Osborne, a professor of ancient history at Cambridge University, the model proposed by the ERIH will also jeopardize the class A journals, because the desks of their publishers will be swamped by a disproportionate number of papers being submitted. “The excess number of papers will make it more difficult for adequate analysis to be made by the authors’ peers”, he states.

Under pressure, the European Science Foundation was forced to back off. At the end of January, the foundation announced that it had renounced its three-category classification in order to develop a more flexible model. Michael Worton, member of the steering committee of the ERIH and deputy dean of University College London, said that the initiative is the target of a huge misunderstanding. “There was no intention to create a hierarchy of journals; the intention was to distinguish the major characteristics.  This change will make things clearer”, he stated. In his opinion, the fact that a periodical has only a regional scope does not imply anything judgmental about the quality of what it divulges, as there is good research being divulged on a regional level. Worton defends the ERIH as a way of measuring the diversity of the research projects in the field of the humanities, fragmented into publications in various languages, and more than 12 thousand periodicals, and the adoption of a variety of methodologies and practices. “The objective of the ERIH is to increase the visibility of the work being done by European researchers”, he says.

Rhetorical boycott
In the manifesto, the publishers demanded that their publications be taken off the lists of the ERIH. This is merely a rhetorical boycott.  As the publications are in the public domain, the most the signatories could do would be to refuse to cooperate with the project, refusing to provide complementary information. The fact that the European Science Foundation backed off is explained not only by the threat of the boycott, but also because of the damage that the manifesto may have had on the credibility of the index.   “The funding agencies are not going to put their relationship of trust with the academic community at risk to adopt a controversial index”,  said John MacColl, from Scotland’s St. Andrews University, and member of OCLC, a research organization focused on connecting libraries and reducing the costs of academic information. According to MacColl, there is also the concern that the ERIH debacle may contaminate the debate on the expected changes to be conducted at the universities in Great Britain, which in 2011 will adopt a broader set of bibliometric criteria, to substitute the current ones.  The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is preponderantly based on peer review (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 156).

The European resistance to the adoption of bibliometric criteria in the field of the humanities is not surprising. In many European countries, researchers still have the habit of publishing their texts in books and annals rather than in academic journals – which is the same in Brazil. “In the United States, there is a lot less resistance among researchers in such fields as sociology and anthropology, who publish many articles in scientific journals”,  says Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the electronic library SciELO Brasil and a specialist in scientometrics, a discipline that seeks to generate information to encourage the overcoming of the challenges posed by science. “European researchers in the fields of the humanities hold a persistent view according to which bibliometric criteria, such as numbers of articles and quotations, are not solid enough to attest to the quality of their academic production”,  he states. The text signed by the 61 publishers makes this doubt very clear, when it mentions – an allegedly accurate accountability – or when it states that the “the ERIH is based on a fundamental lack of comprehension of the conduct and the publication of  research  in the field of the humanities in general”.