How Can Anthropologists Break Free of Citation Indexes?

April 12, 2012

All over the world today, we see anthropologists struggling to publish in journals that are ranked highly on global citation indexes. Not every anthropologist in the world has to do this yet, but increasingly anthropologists from East Asia to Eastern Europe to Australia to Latin America are pressured in this way. One problem with this pressure is that the overwhelming majority of journals ranked highly on the global citation indexes are Anglo-American. These are often excellent journals. Still, global anthropologists are thereby in effect sucked back into the realm of Morgan and Tylor: “The West is Best! Conform to its standards or lose your job!”

Is there any way to escape this tyranny of citation indexes? In an immediate sense, no: if your job is on the line, then by all means do your best to publish in these journals, since the alternative may be driving a taxi or starving. From a longer view, though, there are indeed alternatives.

One alternative, if your native language is not English, is to have parallel writing tracks: write the stuff you need for your career in English, for the international journals, and write the stuff that is closest to your heart in your native language. As a Hong Kong ethnographer once told me, “I write articles in English that help my scholarly career but that no one reads; I write books in Chinese that many people read, but that have no relation to my scholarly career….At the end of the day, if I don’t have any journal publications with high impact factors, so what? If people in Hong Kong still read and learn from my writings, I’ll happily close my eyes and go to heaven.”

A second alternative is to write books rather than articles. Books are refereed in a different way than articles: if you can write only 8000 words, then you’ve generally got to conform to Western standards if you seek to publish in the Anglo-American core, but if you write books of 80,000 words, you’ll probably be given more leeway by referees to develop your own arguments and present your own ethnography in full. In our citation-index-driven anthropological world of today, books don’t count as much as articles, but they are read, and may allow you the freedom to be yourself. This is apparent in the books of Scandinavian anthropologists such as Ulf Hannerz and Thomas Hyland Eriksen, who have made their names largely through books published in the Anglo-American core.

A third alternative is more radical: forget about the pressures to write in top-ranked journals, and put yourself on line. Today there are some excellent websites where you can place your work to be read by other anthropologists, websites such as and, among others. Many anthropologists place their previously published work on these sites; but these sites can also be used to forego the publishing process altogether: put your work online instead of at the mercy of a journal. Perhaps the critiques you will receive from on-line readers will be more intellectually trenchant than those you might receive from referees! Don’t take this step if your career is on the line, for it may be suicidal. But if you can afford to, jump in.

Eventually, the world of anthropological publishing, as now driven by citation indexes, will collapse: we will all be on-line. That step will be the single most important step for the creation of a global anthropology. I suspect that won’t come for another twenty or thirty years, though. Meanwhile, let’s all do as much as we can to help erode the power of global citation indexes, which are in effect Morgan and Tylor risen from the dead.


Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bill Chapman  |  April 12, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Dare I suggest a radical solution to the language problem? Perhaps the WCAA could promote the wider use of Esperanto, a planned language which has (almost) no native speakers.

    • 2. Gordon Mathews  |  April 15, 2012 at 4:09 am

      Bill, I agree, that would solve the problem! But for now, if WCAA published in Esperanto, would anyone ever visit the site? But this is an interesting idea that WCAA members should think about–

  • 3. Peter Jones  |  April 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I agree with most points, but there are some journals such as JONA that is not in any of the top citation indexes, but is the most cited journal for anthropology in the Plateau and Northwest of the US. Also, some websites are indexed in some of the top citation index databases, and they do not have the long time lag that many journals have. It is too bad that academia is tied so much to these journal rankings. Our site, IPIR, is indexed in some of the top databases, and also allows you to reach a MUCH wider audience. Within one day, your article can be read by over 10,000 people. I don’t know any journal that provides that kind of audience/readership.


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