Prospects of humanities bibliometrics? – Part 2

In the empirical chapters of this PhD thesis Following the Footnotes,  Björn Hammarfelt tries out several methodological innovations. In a particularly interesting chapter, Hammarfelt traces the citations to one book, Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, and he tries to map the disciplines that cite the book. But he goes further and even teases out the specific parts of the book that are cited. He calls it Page Citation Analysis which basically is a form of Citation Context Analysis as proposed by Suzan Cozzens (1985). Alternatively, one could see this as going back to the very old philological tradition which was also engaged with the precise location of particular textual phenomena. Historically, bibliometrics is humanities research. In a preceding chapter, Hammarfelt analyzes the intellectual base of literary studies by analyzing the references from 34 literature journals. The way he collected these journals is interesting because he departed from the point of view of the literary researcher (and not the available database, a mistake often made in bibliometrics). He advocates the mixed use of citation analysis and library classifications, also an issue underdeveloped in the field of bibliometrics. Another interesting innovation is in the last empirical chapter where Hammarfelt analyzes research grants and compares them with journal publications. He argues that research grants are increasingly important in the life of a scholar and hence it would make sense to use them much more as a data source. He also notes the partly different role of references in grants compared to journal articles.

The various analyses in Hammarfelts thesis confirm what we generally know about the humanities as a set of disciplines. He tries to characterize the nature of the humanities by drawing upon theories from the sociology of science, in particular the theories that try to explain the social structure as well as the intellectual structure of working practices and communication patterns in these fields. His theoretical exposé focuses on the theories proposed by Richard Whitley and Becher and Trowler, but he also uses various theories that can be captured under the umbrella of “mode 2 knowledge production”.

Hammarfelt’s thesis confirms that the humanities can be characterized as divergent (rather than convergent), as very wide ranging and interdisciplinary (proven by the reference analysis performed by Hammarfelt), as rural in the sense of sparsely populated villages of researchers focusing on a particular topic (rather than busy laboratories that are more like bustling cities), and as fragmented (scholars are quite independent of each other which gives them a lot of freedom, but also makes it more difficult to speak with a common voice regarding resources). The interdisciplinary nature of literary studies seems to be rising, and Hammarfelt even detects a turn to the social, because he sees more connections between the humanities and specific fields in the social sciences such as gender studies, and post-colonial studies. So there might be a social turn after the linguistic turn some decades ago. Overall, the thesis concludes that three features are most important to understand referencing and citations in the humanities: the strong independence of humanities scholars; the rural organization; and the diverse audiences of the fields. The latter goes together with a rather low codification of the literature because it needs to be understood by a wide range of people.

What does this mean for the ways humanities scholars are being assessed in evaluation protocols? This topic is discussed in a variety of ways in the thesis. In the last part, Hammarfelt brings it together with a sketch of how bibliometrics could further develop to be of use in this more policical sense. He advocates a role here, because bibliometrics can help unsettle existing power structures, like the lack of diversity in the universities. He specifically mentions the gender bias, the need to support interdisciplinary research, and the problems with the current peer review systems. But bibliometrics needs to change in order to play this role.

Reference:

Cozzens, S. E. (1985). Comparing the Sciences: Citation Context Analysis of Papers from Neuropharmacology and the Sociology of Science. Social Studies of Science, 15, 127-153.

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Prospects of humanities bibliometrics? – Part 1

Humanities scholars are often confronted with the limitations of citation analysis in their fields. Often, the number of articles is too low to do any meaningful statistical analysis of publication or citation patterns. Moreover, many forms of publishing in the humanities (books, national journals, movies, dance performances etc.) are not covered in the bibliometric databases. As a result, both humanities scholars and bibliometricians often advice against using citation analysis in most fields in the humanities, in particular for evaluation.

So does this mean that a form of bibliometrics better fitted to the humanities is impossible? Not so, says Björn Hammarfelt, who recently received his PhD degree at Uppsala University for this thesis “Following the Footnotes”.

In this well written and innovate thesis, Hammarfelt combines three different intellectual, and I would say also political, interests: literary studies, bibliometrics, and the sociology of science. His title “Following the Footnotes” has three different connotations. First, he tries to trace the creation, role and institutionalization of the reference, a specific element of a scholarly publication. Examples of references are footnotes, but one can also mention a document by putting the author’s name and the publication year in brackets and then summarize these documents at the end of the article, and one can also have references as endnotes. Hammarfelt argues that these seemingly technical differences have an important meaning and that we should pay careful attention to their format and position in the text. He also claims that reference practices in literary studies and in the humanities more generally have a partly different character than these practices in the natural sciences because the act of writing has a different role. To put it a bit bluntly, in the natural sciences an author is supposed to report “facts of nature” and obliterate herself from the text, in the humanities a scholar is expressing herself as a creative persona, and very visibly so. Both are rhetorical strategies, neither of them is a simply reflection of the reality of scholarly practice.

In the second meaning of the title, Hammarfelt tries to give us a glimpse of what will follow the footnote now that the landscape of scholarly publishing is developing so fast. Although his thesis does not focus on new forms of referencing (such as in Facebook, Twitter, or Spotify), it does give us insight in the current practices on which the future will build. The third meaning of the title is more fully developed: what follows the footnote if these are translated into citations and into academic reputation for the author. Here the thesis deals with the very important topic of research evaluation and how the humanities are currently subjected to regimes of evaluation and evaluation cultures that do not always seem to be aware of the specific epistemic and social characteristics of the humanities. In the concluding chapter of the thesis, Hammarfelt comes back to this with a number of suggestions regarding the application of bibliometrics in the evaluation of the quality and impact of humanities research. His thesis is an exercise in how a humanities bibliometrics might look like and what methodological and theoretical issues are important to develop a humanist oriented bibliometrics.

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