Wednesday, 16 November 2011


If you are anywhere near the academia you are at regular intervals required to submit a report of your recent publications and other relevant activities. You are normally asked to do it annually, but every now and then there is a Big Huge Humongous report that determines everybody's life and, frankly, is highly disruptive. All my UK colleagues have lived in its shadow for a couple of years now; it is discussed at every meeting and generates tons of paperwork, and I am sure it costs National Health Service fortunes in antidepressants and counselling. This time round it is called REF, Research Excellence Framework. Last time it was called something else, but it was before I came to the UK, and in Sweden they haven't yet invented this elaborate torture, but wait, they will soon.

For the uninitiated, you are asked to submit at least four publications since the last Whatever-It-Was-Called that meet the vague and subjective criteria of research quality of international standard. It is said that the journal or publisher makes no difference as long as your publication is of high quality, but who decides what is quality? How can you measure quality of research? Because measuring it what it is all about. There is a ranking list of journals, and if you have a rotten, derivative and boring article in an A* journal (and who gave them the A* if I may ask?) you are better off than if you have a brilliant article in a journal that according to somebody is not of similarly high prestige.

To make it worse, in humanities we tend to write books and chapters in books, and these are not worth anything in such reports. Books and chapters do not feature in databases; they are not measurable in terms of "most downloaded", and there is no software to trace who has quoted whom and how much. No matter how often my vanity is satisfied by seeing my name in somebody's bibliography, it's all just vanity. A couple of years ago I searched myself in the most prestigeous database Web of Science and was very upset, because of all of my 400+ publications, I only found a couple of book reviews in a journal ranked as C (I won't name the journal not to hurt their feelings). From the point of view of this database I have never published anything other than a handful of book reviews that haven't been cited in any other publications. So much for international reputation.

Well, that time I could $£&%!!*&$ Web of Science and submit my impressive list of publications in the old-fashioned way. Not anymore. This year we are required to submit our report electronically, through software that - yes, you've guessed it! - searches Web of Science and picks up all your precious publications. You just need to click and confirm that you are the author. I must say that I firmly denied the authorship of my book reviews, especially since they were published long before the current REF period. 

When I created an account on (a strictly academic network I warmly recommend), it did a search for me and picked up most of the books, including those in Swedish and other languages, and about fifty papers, of which just a couple were inaccurate. The software asked me, very politely, whether I was the author of the publications, which I admitted, in a couple of cases reluctantly. The rest I added manually. The platform updates my stuff and adds buttons where direct links or downloads are available. (It does many other great things, but that's another story). I get about 400 hits a month - I have no idea how it compares with colleagues, but it's definitely more than Web of Science will ever acknowledge.

The bottom line is that my REF report is terribly depressing. For the past four years - and actually for my whole professional career - I haven't published anything worth including in a respected database. How did they give me a chair in Cambridge? Certainly not for my beautiful blue eyes.


Anonymous said...

I can at least answer the "who ranks them?" for other places ... we do, as in we academics. I asked this in Luleå and they told me how to add journals to the lists used in Norway and Denmark (which Luleå uses). I need to IRCL to the list, but otherwise the ones you'd be publishing in are there. But the ranking within the list is simply madness. Lydia

Cornelia Rémi said...

But all around the mystery cosmos that remains invisible for the blunt and myopic eyes of this "Web of Science", your scholarship is being read and used and worked with and quoted and loved.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

That's helpful, Cornelia, thank you. I need all encouragement I can get. :-)

Maria Nikolajeva said...

To boost my ego, I have just created an account on Google Scholar (possible since 16 November). It has found all my books, chapters in books and journal articles, and offered highly satisfactory citation statistics