Against Rank

Humanities scholars should celebrate and preserve the lack of a clear hierarchy for journals in their disciplines, writes Jeffrey R. Di Leo.

June 21, 2010

The practice of ranking scholarly journals is widespread in the United States for just about every discipline except those in the humanities. It is one sign of the good health of the humanities that they have not caught rank and brand fever like many of the other disciplines in the American academy. Whereas one can readily find rankings of science or business journals, there is silence when it comes to rankings of humanities journals. Why?

For one thing, unlike in business and the sciences, where accreditation and funding are directly linked to publication in highly-ranked journals, in the humanities there is little accreditation and even less funding. If a business professor in an AACSB accredited program does not publish in highly-ranked journals, she does nothing to help her program stay recognized. However, if comparative literature professors publish in a little-known journal, they are neither putting their program’s accreditation at risk (even though some believe that they are putting their program’s reputation at risk) nor jeopardizing its funding (which is meager to begin with). The only real danger of the comparative literature professor publishing in a lesser-known journal is that it has a lower chance of being read.

Compared to other disciplines, where funding and accreditation are linked to journal rank, publishing work in the journal Comparative Literature (one of the more well-known journals in the field) as opposed to say the South Texas Journal of Comparative Literature (an imaginary little-known journal) is more a matter of preference than of professional necessity. I’ve been a journal editor now for almost 20 years, and in that time, I have only come across one person who refused to publish because he viewed the journal I was editing as not befitting his “stature.”

Another reason for the roaring silence regarding the ranking of humanities journals regards the high level of sub-disciplinary specialization. In philosophy, there are journals devoted to general areas of philosophy (e.g., logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, etc.), to sub-areas of general areas of philosophy (e.g., medical ethics, business ethics, bioethics, criminal justice ethics, metaethics, environmental ethics, Buddhist ethics, etc.), to the work of individual philosophers (e.g., Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Charles S. Peirce, Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, etc.), to the work of historical periods (e.g., ancient, medieval, modern, etc.), to various philosophical approaches (e.g., phenomenological, analytic, pragmatic, Marxist, historicist, continental, etc.), and so on. Given the heterogeneity of types of philosophy journals, while there is a high chance of at least some agreement on the top 10 journals in each of the areas or sub-disciplines, there will be very little chance of much agreement beyond this.

A scholar of the 19th-century American pragmatist philosopher, Charles S. Peirce, must list the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society as one of the top journals in the discipline. However, this will probably only be the case for someone who works on Peirce in particular, or American philosophy in general. A scholar of the contemporary French continental philosopher Gilles Deleuze will have little use for or interest in the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society and would probably not even consider ranking it as one of the top journals in his discipline. There are plenty of very good French and continental philosophy journals that would quickly take up any ranking slots possibly left over for Transactions.

The majority of the philosophy journals in print speak more strongly to sub-groups of philosophers than to all professional philosophers. The scholarly narrowness or philosophical focus of these journals is necessary to advance scholarship in their sub-field or sub-discipline – which in turn, advances scholarship in the discipline of philosophy at large. However, this situation makes it very difficult (if not impossible) to provide a general ranking of philosophy journals that has any real merit or validity for all professional philosophers. As such, journal ranking within philosophy is of little value if it cannot account in any robust way for philosophical specialization.

Moreover, this situation is not even solved by simply ranking philosophy journals by specialization because rankings of philosophy journals in this way only leads to more splintering into sub-groups and sub-specializations: even within Peirce studies, there are logicians, ethicists, phenomenologists, mathematicians, historians, metaphysicians, epistemologists. Each will have their own highly idiosyncratic list of journals based on their particular philosophical interest in Peirce. Consequently, journal ranking is not very useful in academic philosophy – or for that matter, in the humanities in general.

In the humanities, whereas one’s views on Friedrich Nietzsche may find a larger immediate audience in one journal over another, if they are worthwhile ideas, it really makes little real difference if they are publishing in journal A as opposed to journal B – assuming of course that the quality of the scholarship is sound and the journal is well edited. With no accreditation or funding implications hanging in the balance, one humanities journal is arguably just as good a home as the other for a paper on Nietzsche.

There is, however, a high level of prestige associated with publishing in some journals in the humanities rather than others. For example, all things being equal, publication in the Journal of Philosophy, which has been around for over a century, is much more prestigious than publication in (and no disrespect is intended) Auslegung: A Journal of Philosophy, which is “primarily interested in publishing the work of new Ph.D.s and advanced students pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Philosophy.” Nevertheless, I am fairly confident that Auslegung would not reject an article accepted by the Journal of Philosophy (even if the reverse is not true).

What this means is that even though publication of the same article in the Journal of Philosophy would be more prestigious than its publication in Auslegung, the content of the article would be the same. Therefore, determinations of quality based only on the rank, brand, or prestige of the journal would in instances like this be empty or inaccurate. Just as one cannot necessarily determine the quality of faculty members based on the rank, brand, and prestige of the university where they teach, so too can one not determine the quality of a scholarly article merely by the rank, brand, or prestige of the journal in which it is published.

Nevertheless, rank, brand, and prestige have to speak at least to tendencies toward quality lest they lose their meaning and value entirely. If the Journal of Philosophy all of a sudden began publishing articles rejected by Auslegung, then one would begin to lose faith that an article published in the Journal of Philosophy is one that would for all intents and purposes is publishable in just about any philosophy journal. The JP brand is high-quality philosophy scholarship – and its rank, if such a thing were viable and available, would hopefully reflect this. But even this argument has holes in it.

The Journal of Philosophy, for example, regularly publishes high-quality works of analytic philosophy (in addition to articles employing other philosophical approaches). However, such articles would probably not even be considered for publication in philosophy journals such as the Continental Philosophy Review, the Journal of French Philosophy, or Deleuze Studies. Now does, for example, the fact that Deleuze Studies does not publish high-quality works of analytic philosophy make it a low-quality journal? Of course not – and any ranking that would reveal a bias against “specialty” journals or journals that delimit the range of works published by area or specialization is not very useful or valuable.

Aside from providing a resource for philosophers to determine possible venues for publication, ranked journal lists in philosophy are not very worthwhile endeavors. Consequently, similar arguments and cases can be extended to the other disciplines and sub-disciplines in the humanities as well. Humanities scholars in the United States should be proud that they have to date avoided rank and brand fever.


Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston at Victoria. His next book, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education, is to be released in November by Paradigm Publishers.


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