Tried but not yet trusted

Reputation and trust are closely related and hard won. Two snippets dealing with the evolving landscape of reputation capital in universities caught my eye in this week’s Times Higher. The first relates to the proposed European Reference Index for the Humanities, funded by the European Science Foundation, which had announced it would grade journals into categories A (‘high-ranking international publications’), B (‘standard international publications’) and C (‘publications of local/regional significance’). Rather as has happened in Australia whose league table of journals I mentioned in a previous post, there has been opposition to this idea – chiefly from academic editors of journals. So many of them have now threatened to boycott the index that the steering committee has been forced to drop the idea of the classification. It is doing so reluctantly, claiming that the classification was never intended to denote hierarchy. This might be indicative of a certain naïveté, or it may reveal, ironically, just how deep the concern about reputational damage potentially caused by rankings now runs, particularly in the UK where bibliometric measures of various kinds are being considered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for the new Research Excellence Framework (REF). Academics worry about any new measure which might be tossed into the bibliometric mix – and it is rather difficult to see how publication in a journal deemed of important local/regional significance but explicitly not of high-ranking international significance is a category judgement rather than a value judgement.

The second reveals that Evidence, a UK data analysis consultancy which has been working with HEFCE as it designs the REF, has been acquired by Thomson Reuters with whom it previously had a ‘strategic alliance’. Since HEFCE was making use of Evidence to test the value of Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge data relative to Elsevier’s SCOPUS data for the purposes of bibliometric analysis, it seems rather like a clear case of gamekeeper turned poacher. Evidence reject this, but HEFCE have confirmed that Evidence will now be confined to the use of Web of Science data, and

we will conduct an in-house analysis to compare the databases … taking independent external advice as we do this.

This sounds rather like an unexpected and probably unwelcome cost increase, but it is probably wise of HEFCE to do so. Employ a company to provide an impartial report upon its own products? That could tarnish its own reputation. As the landscape continues to shift, there are a few authoritative bodies whose products or services are coming to be trusted – albeit very cautiously in some cases. The Times Higher list of the world’s top 200 universities is one. The Shanghai Jiao Tong University index is another. University funding agencies cannot risk losing the trust of the academic community whose funding they administer. But ERIH’s task of earning the trust of European humanities researchers must now be a difficult one.

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