International scholars agree on standing of top journals

Study says consensus in political science makes rankings useful tool for RAE. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 3, 2008

Rankings of political science journals can be used to determine the quality of research and should be used in the research assessment exercise.

This is the controversial message from Iain McLean, a professor of politics at the University of Oxford, who presented his study Comparative Journal Rankings: A Survey Report at the Political Studies Association annual conference this week.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has barred RAE panels from using journal rankings. Instead, the panels assess quality using peer review.

One of the biggest criticisms of journal rankings as a measure of research quality is that they are too country specific.

Professor McLean's work shows that academics in the three biggest countries for political-science research have a similar opinion of the field's journals in terms of their impact.

"Much has been made of different national styles in political science ... there are those who say you shouldn't use international journal rankings (to assess research quality) because of them," Professor McLean said. "Yet the results show that the political science profession has a stable collective view on what the top journals in our subject are."

"These findings matter for the RAE that is in progress now, and for discussions between universities and governments about what form of assessment should replace the RAE in future."

The study asked all political science academics at PhD-awarding universities in the UK, Canada and the US how they would rank a list of 92 political science journals. The academics - 432 from the UK, 1,134 from the US and 196 from Canada (between a third and a quarter of those approached) - ranked them in a "very similar" way.

Seven journals were common to the UK and US "top ten" lists and US and Canadian political scientists ranked the American Political Science Review top, with the British ranking it second after the British Journal of Political Science.

Hefce has ruled out the use of rankings in the system that will replace the RAE. Instead, the panels will use the number of times an academic's work is cited by peers.

But Professor McLean said journal rankings were superior to citations because they avoided pitfalls such as confusion with common surnames and the effect of bad research being heavily cited.

Jonathan Tonge, chair of the PSA, said the association supported the decision not to use journal rankings in the current RAE "while not necessarily opposing" the use of them alongside peer review in the more distant future.

Some RAE panel members are thought to be keen to use journal rankings to simplify the task of peer reviewing the mountains of submissions currently before them.

Critics of rankings believe their use would undermine quality and skew the system.

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