The Journal Citation Reports (JCR)TM 2022 were released a few days ago. In sociology as in other disciplines, they re-adjust the rankings of journals perceived to be leading in their respective fields. In a blog post published alongside the JRC’s release, Dr. Nandita Quaderi, editor-in-chief and vice president editorial of Web of Science, the commercial online platform that compiles and publishes the data that underpin the JCR, summarizes its achievements as follows:
“The annual JCR release enables the research community to evaluate the world’s high-quality academic journals using a range of indicators, descriptive data and visualizations. The reports are used extensively by academic publishers across the globe to understand the scholarly impact of their journals relative to their field and promote them to the research community.
This year’s JCR release is based on 2021 data compiled from the Web of Science Core Collection™, the leading collection of quality journals, books and conference proceedings in the world’s largest publisher-neutral global citation database. Publications are evaluated by a global team of in-house editors at Clarivate™ using rigorous selection criteria. The data from selected content are then carefully curated to ensure accuracy in the JCR metrics, together with a wide body of descriptive data. These insights enable researchers, publishers, editors, librarians and funders to explore the key drivers of a journal’s value for diverse audiences.”
The release of the new Journal Citation ReportsTM will have significant implications for the way sociologists work, determining their selection of up-and-coming journals to publish in and in some cases even having a direct bearing on their income. For example, in Chinese academia, it is common to combine typically low academic salaries with publication bonuses tied directly to the JCR ranking of the journals academics have published in. Thus, obsessive poring over JCR rankings, impact factors, and other journal metrics may be a matter of career strategy as much as of financial survival. One way or another, the Journal Citation ReportsTM today play an outsized role in determining whose careers thrive and whose careers whither and which journals flourish or fade away. At the international level, journal editors whose journals feature in the Journal Citation ReportsTM will likely spending much time assessing how their publications have fared this year.
So what does all this mean for sociology?
Several points come to mind. First of all, the current standing of the Journal Citation ReportsTM demonstrates in a truly remarkable way the extent to which academic sociology has been colonized by commercial interests, with tech companies like Clarivate, the corporation that owns Web of Science and the JCR. From their early days in the 1970s onwards, the citation indices and journal rankings that are today owned by Clarivate have had a remarkable impact on the way sociologists – as much as academics in other fields – work. No longer do we do research and write about research to be read, to have an impact on academic or public debates, or perhaps even to change the world. We do research and write about research to publish in highly ranked journals with top impact factors and to accumulate lots of citations, alongside whichever other ‘metrics’ supposedly suggestive of the supposed success of our work. What we actually write is by the by. As I have suggested before, a photo of my cat will do, as long as it appears in the Journal of Excellent Sociology (impact factor 525.986) and is cited abundantly. My contract renewal, promotion, and income will likely hinge on this. That is the foundational logic of contemporary scholarship, in sociology as in academia at large.
Of course, many of us still do research and write about research to be read, to have an impact on academic or on public debates, and even to change the world a little. But this matters less and less to higher education as an institution, in determining who is a good scholar and who is not. What matters is what is in the JCR.
The fact that the JCR matters so much brings me to another point: the way in which the metricization of scholarship is implicated in academic sociology becoming a deeply conservative enterprise. If the success or failure of academic journals depends on their impact factors and other ‘metrics,’ then those journals will do well to game the system, by selecting papers they expect to be cited frequently, or even by artificially inflating citation scores. Even the aforementioned blog post briefly acknowledges this, when it points to a “new type of anomalous citation behavior”:
“In addition, this year the editorial integrity team at Clarivate identified a new type of anomalous citation behavior: self-stacking. This is where the journal contains one or more documents with citations that are highly concentrated to the JIF numerator of the title itself. This is the first year we have formally defined the criteria for self-stacking suppression, and as such we have made the decision to issue a warning to six journals rather than suppress the journal’s JIF. Going forward, continued journal self-stacking will result in suppression of JIF.”
In turn, to be published in journals with prodigious ‘metrics,’ sociologists will do well to select research topics that are currently fashionable or at least widely accepted as central to our discipline. Writing in areas that are too ‘niche’ or too new entails the risk that you will not be cited. So why take the risk? (I am not making this line of reasoning up, by the way; I have heard exactly this more than a few times from colleagues at quite different types of universities at the international level.)
I do not mean to say, of course, that the room for intellectual innovation and creativity has entirely disappeared in sociology. What I do mean to say is that the institutional logic of metricization militates against it in powerful ways, driven by commercial interests that, to begin with, seem entirely extraneous to what sociology as an academic discipline should be about. A classical example of the tail wagging the dog surely. It still surprises me that universities have proven themselves so susceptible to colonization by commercial interests. Shouldn’t we know better?