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.

A response to Mike Hulme’s “Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisal”

By Werner Krauss, University of Hamburg, Germany

A cultural appraisal of climate and its changes is more than only adding social sciences and humanities to climate research; it fundamentally changes the concept of climate change and, as a consequence, the nature of climate politics. For a long time, culture has been considered as the object of analysis for social sciences as their contribution to successfully implementing science-based climate policies. But Mike Hulme (2015) reminds us in a friendly fashion that climate is more than the statistics of average weather or a system of interconnected spheres and global thresholds. For him, climate is first and foremost an idea that helps to stabilise the relationships between cultures and weather, with climate change as the latest step in the cultural evolution of this idea. His approach fundamentally differs from the conception of global climate politics framed by planetary boundaries and aiming at stabilising climate at 2-or less degrees above preindustrial levels; his cultural appraisal suggests an alternative to the regime of experts and the fantasies about the magic of big data and technological solutions.

The anthropologist Melissa Leach once coined in an interview with the Guardian (2007) the drastic term “bullshit research”. She conducted ethnographic research in hot spots of environmental and climate change in Africa, and there the reality she encountered differed profoundly from scientific scenarios. Explaining the causes of drought, of migration or conflict as a result of climate change was more often than not plain wrong; the causes were complex, the scientific attributions were prematurely drawn from model calculations and not based on empirical evidence. Together with James Fairhead, in their book Misreading Landscapes (1996), they documented how scientists and environmentalists had interpreted desertification in the savannah as a result of deforestation by the indigenous population; in reality, it was indigenous people who had planted the existing trees to fight desertification. This case is not unique, and in many case studies, ethnographers find complex realities instead of simple and mono-dimensional explanations like water- or climate-wars.

While Mike Hulme’s article focuses on making a general argument for introducing culture into the debate about a changing climate, there remains the question of what a no-bullshit research agenda might look like. I doubt that “culture” is an appropriate entity for research; while it makes sense to say that “other cultures” have differing concepts of the culture-weather nexus from our “modern” ones, it is impossible to single out specific cultures as consistent and autonomous, even less to delineate a geographical space identical with cultures (even though in climate research, outdated conceptions like culture areas or climate determinism come to life again). But how to conduct climate research and avoid the pitfalls of current top-down conceptions?

In his article, Mike Hulme introduces the concept of landscape to illustrate the “dyad of climate-culture”. Landscapes are far more than visual or aesthetic representations, nor are they static formations frozen in time and space. Instead, they are social practices and designate the process of making space. They are the result of the interaction of nature, culture and history, but also of symbols, perceptions and imaginaries; or, in the terms of Latour’s actor-network-theory, they are networks animated by human and non-human interactions. It is here where we can observe and critically analyse the transition from land- into climate-scapes, with climate politics as one of the main drivers. Landscapes are political assemblies where matters of concern are decided, such as questions concerning property, access to land or weather-related issues like coastal protection or the transition of former rural areas into emerging energy landscapes. To manage landscapes successfully needs the consent of those who inhabit, shape and administer them; only then, climate change indeed means the “re-negotiation of cultural relationships between humans and their changing weather”, and climate change finally becomes an emergent form of life (Callison 2014).

Thus, Mike Hulme indeed offers an approach to climate change that profoundly differs from the current science-based understanding. There is more to his cultural appraisal than simply adding social sciences and humanities to climate science; the question is about differing ideas of governance, of democracy and about power relations, inside science and in the relation between science, politics and society. Conflicts and frictions are unavoidable where expert regimes rub with societies and cultures; instead of dreaming the impossible dream of stabilizing climate, a cultural appraisal of climate offers insight into the potential of specific landscapes to deal with changing climates.

About the author:

Werner Krauss is currently a fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “CliSAP” (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction), University of Hamburg, project “Understanding science in interaction” (USI). As a cultural anthropologist, his main focus of research is on human-environment relationships, the anthropology of landscapes and heritage, and climate change. He is an editor of the climate blog Die Klimazwiebel.

References:

Callison, Candis (2014) How Climate Change Comes to Matter: the Communal Life of Facts. Duke University Press.

Fairhead, J. and M. Leach (1996) Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian (2007) Melissa Leach: The Village Voice. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/jul/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts (accessed 07/17/2015).

Hulme, Mike (2015) Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisalGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.5

Geo: Geography and Environment. Open.

November 2014 has seen the celebrations for the 8th annual Open Access Week, seeking to promote open access as a new norm. It has also featured the announcement of the Anthropocene as the theme for the 2015 Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) annual conference in Exeter. Both raise questions of the relations between academic communities and academic communication, and the links between the practices of naming and the practices of research. These further prompt the question: why Geo? And why now?

Geo is the fourth geography journal, encompassing the breadth of the discipline, published by the RGS-IBG, in association with Wiley[1]. It joins three other successful Society journals, all established in different contexts, which, at their launch, drew different relations between academics, audiences, publishers and the learned society.  The Geographical Journal was launched in 1831 as the main forum for news from the RGS. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers was set up in 1935, facilitating academic communication amongst the growing group of university-based geographers.  Area followed in 1969, as a newsletter for the Institute of British Geographers (IBG), with the primary remit to share research group news.  All three have changed substantially as the institutions (RGS and IBG) have merged and evolved, and they now contribute in distinctive and complementary ways to further the work of the RGS-IBG, serve the community of academic geographers and connect readers in cognate disciplines, policy communities and the wider audience for geographical research.

These echoes appear in their names as well as their printed forms. The Geographical Journal was the regular and official record of a learned society, which both carried, and at times challenged, the structures privileging certain groups to produce authoritative geographical knowledge.  Transactions indicates the processes of exchange within an increasingly professionalised of scholarly community, building up Schools of Geography in universities in the UK. Area indicates location, but also a space allocated for a specific purpose: in this case the growing vibrancy of the research groups of the IBG, working in different sub-disciplinary areas. The scope and remit of these journals and the RGS-IBG have changed enormously since these publications were first introduced, nonetheless the geographical imaginaries in these journal titles say much about the changing sites of knowledge production and the means through which research has travelled to shape the complex disciplinary conversations that constitute Geography.

Geo joins this trajectory, but its launch indicates the landscapes of academic publishing are shifting once more.  The name Geo points towards at least three different aspects of these transformations. First, there is its own contemporary moment in the increasing ubiquity of ‘geo’ as a locational prefix to be found in the everyday landscapes of data production, circulation and dissemination. This appears in generic terms, such as the geotagging of data, geospatial analysis, or the potentials of the geoweb; but it also points to more proprietary practices such as ‘geofencing’, or popular pursuits like ‘geocaching’. It is a term which is both associated with and overspills geography’s disciplinary identity. There are a series of epistemic, as well as political, social and economic questions about how these now routinely recorded traces of location are mobilised, accessed and analysed by a wide variety of private and public institutions.

Second, in its earlier usage, and also indicated by the longer title Geography and Environment, there is the ontological aspect to the prefix of Geo in referring to the earth. This also derives its meaning in combination, drawing attention to the ways in which the materiality of earthly processes are increasingly recognised as critical constituents across both physical and human geography. This leads to renewed debates over disciplinary identity, as geography considers its position in relation to the emergence of the ‘Anthropocene’, as well as animating new questions, as a ‘geological turn’ takes root in previously disparate sub-disciplinary areas, like geopolitics or geoaesthetics.  There is more than disciplinary identity at stake in these questions. The proliferation of sites making up the distributed experiments of unintentional, and intentional, planetary geo-engineering raise significant challenges for the place, theory and practice of geographical debate.

Thirdly and finally, the title was almost an acronym; but not quite. Whilst Geography and Environment Open would have bought the two parts of the title together and made the ambitions of this first fully open access journal published by the RGS-IBG unmistakable, we held back on this point. We recognise facilitating the transition from these first steps in open access to more fully open participation across academic communities is going to be a complex part of conversations initiated by and in this new journal. But, there was a sense that as moves towards open access publishing gather pace, internationally and across interdisciplinary contexts, the explicit designation of ‘open’ in a journal title would quickly become redundant. Here we would draw attention to the recent provocations to the geographical community in Jenny Pickerill’s commentary on open access.  She concludes we need to both recognise that publishing is always political and to experiment with what works best in a period of rapid change.

We are looking forward to publishing our papers in progress and to new submissions which pick up questions over data, that progress debates over the geo, and that demonstrate how experiments with open access can contribute to new institutional norms promoting the productive redistribution of expertise.

Gail Davies, co-Editor

[1] The RGS-IBG also publishes the cross disciplinary journal WIRES Climate Change in association with Wiley and the Royal Meteorological Society.