Posts tagged ‘Writing’

How Can Anthropologists Break Free of Citation Indexes?

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 academia.edu and researchgate.edu, 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

7 comments April 12, 2012

International English

Another point brought up at the American Anthropological Association meeting of worldwide journal publishers concerned writing, with several journal editors advocating “international English.”  This sounds wonderful in principle.  If every anthropological writer were to write in easy-to-understand English, then the anthropological playing field would be largely leveled, with native speakers and non-native speakers on a more even standing.

 

However, in all honesty, how many native speakers of English would be willing to write in international English, curtailing their jargon, limiting their circumlocutions, and simplifying their sentence structures?  American academics, not least anthropologists, have a mortal fear of sounding stupid.  One reason why anthropological writing is so often convoluted is to avoid revealing the relatively simple ideas one may be expressing—to avoid sounding stupid.  In some English-language anthropological writing, linguistic complexity is necessary, given the subtlety of the ideas being expressed.  In much more anthropological writing, the complexity seems unnecessary.  Complexity may reflect the fact that the authors are bad writers. Or it may reflect an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome, whereby authors cloak ideas in impenetrable prose because those ideas themselves are unclear, or else all too clear.

If anthropology journals were to mandate that writers write in a standard international English—something that has happened to a degree in medicine and in the hard sciences—the problem of anthropology’s lack of true globality would largely be solved.  However, it is hard to imagine this happening.  Instead, it seems more likely that a two-tiered class structure would emerge, of Americans and other native speakers writing in complex English, and foreign scholars writing in “international English.”

 

Ideally, international English might liberate American anthropology from its rhetorical excesses (a tendency I date from Geertz: earlier writers like Benedict and Boas, read retrospectively, are marvels of clarity).  More likely, it would simply serve as a form of academic distinction.  Those who can write in a complicated way will, and those who can’t won’t—but with only the latter being fully comprehended by many of their readers.

 

Gordon Mathews

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

1 comment December 14, 2011


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