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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