Philosophers in ranking protest

August 28, 2008

International scholars take Australian Government to task over assessment plan, reports Zoe Corbyn

The Australian Government's move to create a ranking of academic journals in order to assess the quality of universities' research has prompted an international protest.

A group of 24 leading philosophers, which includes three UK academics, wrote to the Australian Government earlier this month to say that the list proposed in relation to philosophy was narrow, overly simplistic, parochial and risked "undermining the capacity for high-quality and innovative humanities research".

The letter, whose signatories include Harvard-based Hilary Putnam - one of the best-known figures in 20th-century analytic philosophy - along with Sebastian Gardner from University College London and Stephen Mulhall from the University of Oxford, calls on the Australian Research Council to adopt a more "outward-looking and inclusive approach" to judging the quality of Australian philosophers.

"(The journal ranking) appears to embody a narrow and overly simplistic view of contemporary research that privileges English-speaking research in a dangerously parochial fashion and is likely to undermine interdisciplinary and international collaboration," reads a joint letter to Kim Carr, the Australian Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

They argue that quantitative, mechanical tools should not be used to make judgments about research quality in disciplines such as philosophy. "Publisher and journal rankings are no substitute for direct assessment of a scholar's work by knowledgeable peers," they argue.

They particularly criticise the "omission" of large numbers of journals and publishers from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America in the philosophy list. "(It) suggests a shrunken view of the world that belongs more to the 19th than to the 21st century," they say.

The Australian Government announced plans to develop a new system for evaluating research quality in its universities based on a combination of metrics and expert review in February. One of the indicators in the new Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system is to be discipline-specific journal rankings, and draft lists are currently being finalised.

In Europe, a similar ranking system for humanities journals, the European Reference Index for Humanities (ERIH), being drawn up by the European Science Foundation, has come in for similar criticism.

The UK is also developing a new system to assess university research based on metrics but has not indicated an intention to use journal rankings to judge research quality.

The Australian organisers of the letter said the developments in Australia were likely to have an impact on similar moves elsewhere in the world. They added that they expected the criticism of the philosophy rankings to be echoed in other arts and humanities subjects.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

Read the academics' letter to the Australian Government at www.academics-australia.org.

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