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.