Bibliometric system in humanities

Position Paper | Year 2004
Bibliometric system in humanities
Class of the Humanities

National and European research policy organisations and authorities are presently advocating the elaboration, also for the Human Sciences, of a bibliometrical system as it is already customarily found in the Exact or Positive Sciences. The European Science Foundation (for example) wants to establish a European citation index which would be based on a ranking system of academic journals for all disciplines in the Human Sciences. It is hoped that this system will not only allow more objective comparisons with respect to the scientific output of research groups and individuals, but also that it will lead to the qualitative improvement of research in competition with other international research output.
Of course, the KVAB and KANTL committees set up to investigate these new developments endorse the aims of more objective comparison and of enhancing the quality of research. They do not underestimate the importance, especially for young scholars, of escaping parochialism, and of having one’s research judged by international standards in the field. However, after careful investigation of the new developments, they feel obliged to warn of certain unintended consequences of these new policies, which may turn out to be counterproductive, even detrimental to the quality of research - particularly in some (parts) of the Human Science disciplines. Ultimately, the question is whether bibliometry will be in the service of research or whether research will be done solely as a function of obtaining career-furthering bibliometrical results. (That these worries are also present in the Exact Sciences perhaps escapes certain policy makers; see: Peter A. Lawrence, ‘The politics of publication’, Nature Vol. 422, 20 March 2003, p. 259-261.)
What are some of the major worries of the committees? In the first place, there is the excessive emphasis of present proposals on publication in journals (particularly English language journals). This runs counter to such facts as that books may be as important as, or even more important than articles in certain disciplines, and that, in some disciplines, the ‘forum’ language may rather be French, Italian, or even Dutch, etc. To suppose that research can always be reorganized so as to fit it into the mould of publications of supposed international standing, is to forgo: the very diverse nature of disciplines in the Human Sciences; the absence, sometimes, of a generally accepted methodology or paradigm; the desirability, in some cases, of an essayistic presentation of results; and the intrinsic link between certain (parts of) disciplines and an orientation towards ‘conversations’ in the surrounding culture or society, etc.

However difficult the evaluation of publications may be in the Human Sciences, it would be absurd to think that, in view of the lack up to now of certain measuring tools, judgments about quality of research were absent from the Human Sciences. What is needed is a careful investigation of existing practices of adequate (?) evaluation both in university nomination committees and research councils, and in national and supranational research evaluation committees (there is clearly a need here for more research in this matter, research which inevitably will be the task of certain Human Science disciplines). Bibliometry is of course not to be excluded in evaluation, but it should play a subordinate role, the role of a preliminary test, which should be taken seriously, but which has to be supplemented with other considerations. A good deal of work remains to be done to come up with tools which are sufficiently sophisticated for measuring quality in a valid and reliable way in the fields concerned. Scholars working in the Human Sciences have the collective responsibility to ensure that these tools are really adapted to their task.

Some entertain the wish to establish bibliometrical systems which would allow an objective comparison between the quantity and quality of output of the most diverse
researchers, or research groups, in whatever scientific disciplines. This wish, unjustly, supposes that research output is fundamentally similar in the different scientific disciplines. Unfortunately (?), this is not even the case in the Positive Sciences. Therefore, other ways have to be found to make comparisons and decisions concerning vastly different kinds of research output.

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