Australian academia is again in the throes of a journal ranking exercise. We went through this last year in preparation for the previous government’s Research Quality Framework (RQF), but the new government wants to redo things for its Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA).
Again the journals must be placed into four tiers — the top 5% into tier A*, the next 15% into tier A, the next 30% into tier B, and the last 50% into tier C. However, this time the Australian Research Council has done the ranking; they have re-ranked all the mathematical sciences journals. This has involved
- a substantial reduction in the total number of journals that the ARC will currently accept (they have, of course, correspondingly reduced the number of journals we can place into bands A* and A); and
- the use of impact factors to rank journals in applied mathematics and statistics, and apparently also in mathematical physics.
Regarding the number of “research outlets” that the ARC is currently willing to regard as mathematical science journals, let me try to give you a sense of the scale of the changes. According to my calculations, the new ARC list of ranked journals allocates 538 journals to pure mathematics, 211 journals to applied mathematics, 28 journals to mathematical physics, and 169 journals to statistics (including probability), making a total of 946 journals for the mathematical sciences. However, the list produced last year allocated a total of 1369 journals to the mathematical sciences. (These journals were a subset of those currently covered by MathSciNet.) That is 45% more than the ARC list. On this basis, and making some assumptions about uniformity of distribution among the four research areas, we should expect the ARC’s list to contain only two-thirds the number of journals in tiers A*, A and B as the previous list; and it does.
A number of important journals have disappeared entirely from the earlier mathematical sciences list; they appear nowhere on the ARC list. In my field, the journals Bioinformatics and Biostatistics are extraordinary omissions. One reason for this change (although not one that applies in the above two cases) may be that some of the ARC’s advisors have an aversion to journals that are not covered by the on-line citation index, the Web of Science (usually accessed through the Web of Knowledge). Another major reason for the reduction in the number of journals on the ARC list has been the ARC’s resistance to listing, in two or more different categories (or, equivalently, against two or more four-digit Field-of-Research, or FoR, codes), the journals where mathematicians publish. For example, a journal where mathematicians publish their work in mathematical biology, and which is classified as a biological sciences journal, might be ranked low by biologists but high by mathematicians, but will have to keep the low ranking as far as mathematics is concerned. In the previous list a journal could be ranked differently by the two groups.
Apart from reducing the number of journals we can have, and therefore also the number of journals we can have in the A* and A categories, the disallowance of dual rankings strongly inhibits multidisciplinary work in the mathematical sciences. The fact that mathematicians and statisticians publish in many non-mathematics journals should be seen as a strength, not a weakness, especially in an age where first-rate work in science and technology is increasingly multidisciplinary. Therefore dual ranking should have been encouraged.
The ARC’s use of citation-based journal-ranking methodology is also a serious problem. The international community of mathematical scientists has expressed significant concern about the use of citation data to infer journal rankings, or to determine the performance of mathematical scientists. In particular, the International Mathematical Union, the International Council on Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics have recently produced a joint report addressing the shortcomings of citation analyses; see also the IMU’s press release.