Journal metrics and linguistic hegemony

Geography is a uniquely international discipline. It is concerned with describing and explaining the world in all its infinite variety. Geographical societies and university departments can be found in all corners of the globe, and the discipline’s practitioners often build careers on internationally collaborative research focused on distant places. Why, then, is the world of geographical publishing and performance measurement so skewed towards the publishing cultures of North America and northwest Europe?

This is the question which arises from a recent paper in Geo: Geography and Environment by Michael Meadows, Ton Dietz and Christian Vandermotten. The authors note the rise and the apparent embedding of a metrics culture in higher education (see for example recent discussions about the role of metrics in the UK’s assessment exercises for research and teaching). Metrics, such as journal impact factors and personal H-index values, have not only become popular ways of trying to describe the impact of publications and their authors – they have also become key adjudicators of academic careers, with measures such as the H-index seemingly holding ever greater sway over promotion and funding decisions.

When metrics become performative, when efforts to describe a system become part of the means by which that system is run, then pre-existing hierarchies and power structures tend to get reinforced. Meadows and colleagues argue that this is particularly the case in academic geography. They point out how the key databases from which the main metrics are derived – Web of Science and Scopus – massively underrepresent research being published outside of the networks of the major commercial publishers, and in languages other than English. Using a newly developed database of geography journals developed by the International Geographical Union, they present some disturbing statistics – of the more than 200 geography journals published in China, not one appears in the international journal rankings produced by these western organisations. Of the 27 geographical journals published in Germany, fewer than ten are represented on Web of Science.  Of the 108 geography journals published worldwide in Spanish, just three appear on Web of Science.

These huge disparities in how ‘quality’ academic research is identified, measured and ranked have significant implications not only for individual career trajectories, but for the discipline as a whole. The concerns and interests of Anglophone geography will continue to dominate so long as metrics and rankings reinforce the dominance of certain publication outlets, at the risk of marginalising alternative paradigms, arguments, or ways of working. As the authors note, “ranking and the dominance of particular leading journals may undermine innovation and alternative and critical thinking” (p5).

What is to be done? The authors note a number of positive developments, including alternative, more inclusive ranking systems such as that being developed at CERES in the Netherlands (see here in PDF). Open access is certainly part of the story as well, with the authors identifying something of a ‘Latin reaction’ to Anglophonic dominance with a widespread move to online, ‘green’ open access publishing models. How to fund open access publishing is still a live question of course, with different initiatives emerging to allocate costs for ‘gold’ open access publishing between research funders, institutions, and individual authors. Geo can be considered part of this broader experimentation.

But returning to the discipline geography more specifically, the authors conclude by addressing the IGU, whose new database underpins the authors’ arguments. They urge the IGU to explore the kind of multi-lingual publishing options being innovated in settings like Conservation Biology, with the organisation’s international reach potentially making it a powerful vehicle for new efforts to promote working and publishing practices which help to break down linguistic barriers. More broadly, the article prompts geographers to reflect on how a discipline so international in reach can make its publication practices more inclusive of linguistic, cultural and intellectual diversity.

Martin Mahony is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He also edits the Geo blog.

Drawing, remembering, knowing: natural history and the ecological imagination

By Meredith Root-Bernstein (Aarhus University)

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published my personal essay about how natural history practices have helped me to think about interdisciplinary research and collaborations.  I emphasize in the essay how developing and sharing habits of observing, interpreting, and considering the human contexts of nature can help form shared understandings as the basis for exchanges about social and natural sciences of the environment.  In that essay, I discuss seeing an espino (Acacia caven) with a liana growing on it in central Chile.  My research involves searching for the key problems and solutions for the conservation of a silvopastoral system (“espinal”) and the surrounding shrub and forest habitats in this mediterranean-climate zone.  The most common species in espinal is the espino (Acacia caven).  Yet, I had never seen an espino with a liana, and I became intrigued by trying to understand the potential ecological and social meanings of this unusual species assemblage.  Here, I expand on that essay with a discussion of a sketch of the liana and the espino.  While looking for something else I came across this drawing I made of the espino and its liana:

Bernstein image

I had forgotten about the sketch, and I have also forgotten the exact circumstances of making it.  I am sure that I didn’t make it in situ, and a few days probably elapsed between seeing the tree and making the drawing. The structure of the trunk is hard to read.  First I thought it suggested that the tree is old and perhaps has ridges or hollows, but this doesn’t match the photograph.  I also couldn’t think of any example of thick, undulating or textured espino trunks.  Something was wrong, either with the drawing, my memory, or my knowledge of espinos.  Then, while walking past some trees here in Denmark with ivy on them, I realized by analogy that I had drawn the vines of the liana descending to the ground.

The liana seems to be partly imaginary.  I remember seeing red stems and green leaves, but I am fairly sure that there were no black drupes at the time and that I only saw images of them by looking up the species on the internet.  The drawing thus knits together memory and imagination to represent the way I was thinking about my observation.

The ambiguity of the sketch forced me to think about the visual and structural patterns that things make, and how those map onto our other kinds of knowledge and memory.   There are really two issues here: one is that the sketch was by nature approximate, hasty, and in this case not based on direct observation but rather memory and its own approximations.  All of these aspects confer an abstract nature on the sketch.  It excludes the inessential and retains only an impression, just enough to reconstruct what was seen.  The second issue though relates to my lack of experience thinking about and observing lianas.  This led to what might be a not-so-clear abstraction of a liana growing up a trunk, and certainly created ambiguity in interpretation.  But the ivy I saw that helped me to understand the sketched pattern of something I had only seen once before—a liana on an espino—taught me about lianas and vines in general.

An important part of natural history is personal memory, the accumulation of implicit and tacit knowledge.  How do we make these memories relevant to interpreting the future as well as the past?  Writing, sketching and showing others are all important means of communication, that emphasize different aspects of nature—the narratives and cycles, the structural patterns, the kinaesthetic and embodied knowledge of where, when and how.

It is well-known that natural history drawings have features that photographs do not: they can represent a general or ideal example of something, facilitating recognition, and they can bring attention to particular features or patterns through emphasis, selectivity and abstraction.

As I mention in the article, I think of natural history as seeking patterns, which can be used to interpret the past, but also potentially the future.  In my drawing, I imagined the visual effect of the liana on the espino in a season when it had fruit. In the Anthropocene, it might be interesting to think more about the natural history of the future.  How will places look, behave and feel under climate change? How will we read the landscape of abandoned infrastructures in the future?  What unexpected species pairing will we find somewhere next year, testimony to some casual event yesterday?  These visions don’t have to be apocalyptic—and they don’t have to be written.   Drawings can often be both more subtle and more complex than words.  They have their own logic of organization and representation.

I recently saw a short article in the ESA Bulletin about how ecologists can avoid midlife crises and burnout.  Going into the field from time to time was one suggestion.  I would also add to that that the practice of natural history, and the attempt to communicate it, if only to oneself later on, can be both enjoyable and meaningful.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this sketch that I had forgotten about, and it brought a new angle to what the liana and the espino taught me about the socioecological interactions of central Chile.

Who knows, practicing a little natural history on your days out might even inspire a new line of research, maybe an interdisciplinary one.  You don’t have to try to be serious and professional about natural history, which might take away the enjoyment of being in nature.  Play is an important way to explore the world, and its not just for children.  Many accomplished scientists, among others, take time to have fun with no clear purpose as a way to think better (see here  and here).  Later on, accumulated memories will certainly make something useful out of what you observe in nature for fun, whether it’s a publishable research project or some extra emotional attachment helping you to find satisfaction and motivation.  Indeed, my paper in GEO: Geography and Environment, and this blog post, were written just for fun and have helped me to recognise how important natural history is for my enjoyment of my job.

Meredith Root-Bernstein is a postdoctoral researcher in the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project, based in the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

Open for collaboration

This week (Oct 19th-25th) is Open Access Week, with the theme of ‘Open for Collaboration’. Open Access Week is organised by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and this year’s theme aims to inspire conversations about how cooperation between stakeholders in the academic enterprise can lead to new forms of collaboration – whether that’s collaboration in research, collaboration in new publishing platforms, or collaboration between academic and policy communities in discussions about how open-access can become the new norm in scholarly publishing.

Here at Geo we are engaged in all of these types of collaboration, and we hope that our blog can become a springboard for new working relationships of all kinds.

In the first instance, the blog can offer authors and readers of our journal the opportunity to reach out to wider audiences. We are publishing blog posts alongside published Geo articles, which can be a great way of drawing attention to the topical relevance of an article, of situating it within wider scientific, political, environmental or cultural debates, or of telling some of the story behind the research which might not have made it into the journal article itself.

Evidence is growing that journal articles which are open access and which are publicised through social media such as blogs and Twitter can receive a greater readership which in turn can lead to more citations.[1] With our blog and social media presence, Geo can help scholars to take advantage of these new routes to wider research engagement (find us on Twitter and Facebook).

We also believe that these new opportunities can help develop connections which, in time, may lead to important new collaborative ventures. While we invite journal authors to comment on their own published papers, we often also seek out comments from interested readers – see for example the posts published along with Sabina Leonelli and colleagues’ paper on encouraging open science (see here and here), or Werner Krauss’ commentary on Mike Hulme’s piece on climate and culture. In this way, we hope that the Geo blog can spark new intellectual conversations and connections, opening up space for new collaborative relationships.

We hope that the Geo blog can also become a site for debating the shifting policy environment of open-access publishing. As open access becomes a key requirement in research assessment exercises in the UK for example, new questions are emerging about how access to open access – through the availability of resources to fund ‘gold’ open access publishing – is distributed across the academic landscape. We’re keen to encourage reflection on these and other issues, so if you have ideas for a post, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Academia is inherently a collaborative enterprise – not just in the shape of research teams and multi-author publications, but in the relationships between individuals, institutions and policies, between researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, and in the deep well of knowledge from which we all draw in building our arguments and research programmes (for an example of this collaborative landscape, see this blog post on crowd-sourced geographic information). In making new knowledge, we collaborate with those who have gone before us, and with a diversity of people around us. Journals like Geo are part of this story of changing collaborative relationships within and beyond the academy, and we hope the blog can be a place to tell this story in new and exciting ways.

[1] See for example Gunther Eysenbach, ‘Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact.’, Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 4 (2011); Melissa Terras, ‘The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment’, Journal of Digital Humanities, 1, 3 (2012).