Excellence in diversity

The European Reference Index for the Humanities seeks to highlight research, not criticise it, says Michael Worton

November 27, 2008

Why is the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH) at the centre of heated debate in the UK when it was created with the admirable aim of improving the visibility of the publishing activity of European researchers?

The full diversity of European humanities research is still insufficiently recognised. Humanities scholars publish in many different languages and follow a variety of methodologies and publication practices. Furthermore, the life cycle of published research is longer than in the sciences since research findings tend to be reinterpreted rather than superseded. So when the 15 discipline panels of the ERIH were set up to review the 12,000-plus journals proposed by member countries, it was important to consider not only subject specialisations, but also the need to cover Europe's geographical and linguistic areas and to offer an online feedback mechanism.

The categorisation process is therefore now highly participatory, and hundreds of stakeholders are already involved. Indeed, one key benefit of the ERIH is the way it helps humanities researchers in Europe and beyond to better understand each other's methodologies and presuppositions, thereby bringing closer the vision of a viable European Higher Education Research Area.

The ERIH methodology used is firmly rooted in peer review, and this process has resulted in a series of categorised lists of journals that will be updated over the coming years. However, what has caused much anxiety is the categorisation scheme. Throughout the process, we have insisted that this is a series of category differences rather than a ranking, with categories defined by scope and audience rather than being value judgments of quality.

Protesters argue that our use of the letters A, B, C for the three categories means we are creating a ranking; they fear that the categorisations will be used in areas where ERIH project leaders insist it should not, such as appointments, promotions and research grants.

But in the UK at least, these processes are all driven by peer review, where scholars make the key value judgments, even although these are sometimes informed by metrics. Can we not trust those involved in these processes to decide which tools to use and when?

Another reason why sections of the UK humanities research community are so exercised about the ERIH is because of the proximity to the research assessment exercise (RAE) and the fear of the metrics that may dominate the research excellence framework (REF). However, the aim of the ERIH is not to assess the quality of individual outputs but to assess dissemination and impact. It can therefore provide something that the RAE cannot: it can be used for aggregate benchmarking of national research systems to determine the international standing of research carried out in a particular discipline in a particular country.

The RAE does not provide this because it seeks to identify research of international quality carried out in the UK and does not give results that allow comparison with research done elsewhere. The ERIH is therefore a competitor neither to the RAE nor the REF, but it can provide useful information to governments, funding agencies and researchers.

The ERIH has highlighted the multilingual nature of humanities research. And by encouraging publishers to meet editorial threshold standards and to establish websites so that the editorial policies and practices of each journal are made transparent, it hopes to contribute to the open-access movement.

So what is manifest is that the ERIH not only has the backing of scholars and research organisations across Europe, but is also having a considerable impact on the way research is disseminated and accessed. As the ERIH project refines and updates the journal lists and as it develops a methodology for considering monographs and collected volumes, it is vital that UK stakeholders contribute creatively (and critically) to the process.

The RAE and REF are central to funding decisions and to our self-perceptions as research communities. However, this should not prevent us from engaging in the very different but complementary exercise that is the ERIH, to demonstrate the excellence and diversity of European humanities research.

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