I am sure that I’m behind the curve on this, but I’ve become fascinated with the Australian Government’s effort to list and rank journals in each discipline. (The list was the topic of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week). I understand the evils that this kind of system can create and the problems and issues associated with any effort to standardize the creation of knowledge. At the same time I also appreciate these kinds of lists as historical artifacts that can tell us something about how our fields are understood.
So, as I attempted to avoid grading that angry stack of student papers staring at me from across the office, I began to mess with the list of journals. The Australian Research Council evaluation system seems very complex, but it distills its finding down into a four tiered ranking (here is the guide in .pdf):
Typically an A* journal would be one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions.
The majority of papers in a Tier A journal will be of very high quality. Publishing in an A journal would enhance the author’s standing, showing they have real engagement with the global research community and that they have something to say about problems of some significance. Typical signs of an A journal are lowish acceptance rates and an editorial board which includes a reasonable fraction of well known researchers from top institutions.
Tier B covers journals with a solid, though not outstanding, reputation. Generally, in a Tier B journal, one would expect only a few papers of very high quality. They are often important outlets for the work of PhD students and early career researchers. Typical examples would be regional journals with high acceptance rates, and editorial boards that have few leading researchers from top international institutions.
Tier C includes quality, peer reviewed, journals that do not meet the criteria of the higher tiers.
In other words, there is are a bunch of things going on here and some of it involves the extent to which a researcher “boasts about getting accepted” and “lowish acceptance rates”. Journal rankings not only reflect the quality of the journal, but also its scope (and indirectly the extent to which the field is fragmented or specialized).
Just for fun, I decided to look at my field of archaeology. I imported the journal ranking list to Access and started to crunch the numbers. First thing that I noticed is that there are a tremendous number of archaeology journals. In fact, with 297 journals, the discipline ranks in the top 25 of the 700+ investigated 135 disciplinary groupings produced by the ARC. (I did not really consider journals with archaeology listed as a second field… I have to eventually get grading done!) Those journals listed with archaeology as their primary field represent a combination of world, Classical, and regional archaeological publications. Among these journals 5 earned the rank of A*: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, American Antiquity, American Journal of Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, and Britannia: A journal of Romano-British and kindred studies. With a mere 1.68% of its journals earning a A* ranking, Archaeology ranked 6th lowest among the disciplines listed. When you control for disciplines with fewer than 100 journals, it ranks 4th behind only Social Work, Zoology, and Geology. To make up for this, just under 20% of archaeology journals received an “A” ranking and this places the field in the top 10 of fields with more than 100 journals between Historical Studies and Political Science. 42% of archaeology journals received a B ranking placing the field in the top 5 of disciplines. Relatively few archaeology journals received a C ranking. It ranked in the bottom 5 of disciplines with C ranked journals at 36%. Studies in Creative Arts and Writing found a stunning 86% of this fields journals received a C ranking and 77% of Zoology journals.
First, whether one buys into the logic of these rankings or not, I think the distribution of journals in the field reflects more or less my impression of the quality and character of journals in the field. The disciplinary divisions in archaeology ensure that we produce very few A* journals that are universally recognized as high quality outlets for publications by every scholar identifying oneself as an archaeology. The significant quantity of A and B ranked journals most likely represents the fragmentation of the field into thriving and competitive subfields which, in turn, produce good quality journals for their constituencies. Hesperia and the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology received A rankings, the International Journal of Historical Archaeology received a B. An important journal (to me) as the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus earned a C ranking which considering its regional scope and sometimes uneven quality of submission seemed fair, although in my field the RDAC is still an important journal of record for archaeologists working on the island.
Of course, the disturbing thing for someone in the field of archaeology is that, if the day would come when we pitted against our colleagues in other fields and judged by the number of publications in A* journals, archaeologists might well come up short. Of course, access to A* would be mitigated by the number of publishing scholars in a profession, the rater of publication, and the number of articles published by each journal annually. At the same time, it is curious that some fields like Biological Sciences (16), Microbiology (10), and Cultural Studies (13) could find 10% of their journals ranked A* whereas archaeology would find only 1.68% (5). (My poor colleagues in Social Work have only 1 journal of 112 ranked A*!).