Historians decry journal rankings

January 4, 2008

Leading historians have launched a withering attack on a new ranking of academic journals, which they say is "manifestly flawed, crude and oversimplified", writes John Gill.

The group want the Arts and Humanities Research Council to immediately "disavow" the rankings, which they fear may be formally used to assess quality of research and to set funding.

In a letter to Philip Esler, chief executive of the research council, they said the proposed ranking did not have the support of academics and was seen by a majority as "positively harmful".

The letter follows the publication of a categorised list of journals by the European Science Foundation as part of the European Reference Index for the Humanities.

The AHRC says the list will help to identify excellence in history scholarship by "providing, through international benchmarking, an indicator of the standing of arts and humanities research as a whole in the UK".

The group calling for the AHRC to distance itself from the rankings includes David Bates, director of the Institute of Historical Research, Martin Daunton, president of the Royal Historical Society, Barry Coward, president of the Historical Association, and Anne Curry and Virginia Davis, co-convenors of History HE.

Describing the ERIH criteria as "crude and oversimplified", they said excellence in history could not be defined by such a system, which grades journals from A to C, and they warned it would undermine the status of journals regarded as the best in their field.

They wrote: "Journals ranked in category C are frequently ones of central importance nationally and internationally in their fields.

"Research of the highest quality is always likely to appear across the range of scholarly journals."

They said denials that the rankings would be used to assess research "no longer carry conviction ... The categories are so imprecise and crude that any attempt to use them to assess research quality, career progression and funding distribution will be profoundly flawed and totally indefensible."

They stated: "For the AHRC to disavow the manifestly flawed ERIH rankings would, we are certain, be a positive contribution to the development of serious schemes of assessment."

Professor Esler said he was aware of the "deep concerns" of some academics but believed their fears were exaggerated.

He said: "There is no prospect that ERIH will play any role in the development of metrics to replace the RAE. Journal rankings are excluded in the citations exercise currently out for consultation.

"The AHRC/Hefce group that last year looked at a model to replace the RAE for the arts and humanities expressly excluded ERIH as relevant to the exercise.

"ERIH is happening; for the AHRC to disavow it would be a self-defeating exercise that denied our community any chance to improve it."

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