Recognising the impact of research in the Arts and Humanities

3 March 2016

By Jane Ohlmeyer, Professor of Modern History, and Director of Trinity Long Room Hub

Some of the biggest issues of the modern world and contemporary Ireland are the concern of the Arts and Humanities (disciplines that include classics, drama, film studies, history, languages (ancient and modern), literature, cultural studies, music, religions, philosophy, peace studies, law and education). The Arts and Humanities both celebrate and challenge the expression of the human condition in its numerous manifestations and place human values at the centre of our world.  They are at the heart and soul of a civil society. 

As a nation we are passionate about these subjects, something that our on-going engagement with the decade of commemorations underscores. Local historical societies flourish, literary and cultural summer schools proliferate, the appetite for archaeological, classical and historical drama and documentaries is insatiable, public lectures and extramural classes attract sizeable audiences and the reading public engages with serious works of scholarship.

University courses in the Arts and Humanities continue to attract excellent students.  We invite our students to think critically, to ask awkward questions, to challenge orthodoxies and to explore what is - and what has been - distinctive about Irish, European and global history and culture.  Skills like critical thinking, an ability to communicate effectively and high levels of emotional intelligence ensure our graduates are highly employable.

While our society continues to value the role of the Arts and Humanities and the Arts and Humanities outperform all other subjects in the international rankings, their impact in terms of research in our third level institutions is being undervalued by the most commonly used research evaluation tools.  So how do we measure the impact of research in these disciplines?

Colleagues in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and in Health Sciences conventionally employ as an indicator of research quality the frequency with which an academic article is cited in other academic articles (i.e. ‘citation impact’). Figure 1 provides an overview of the number of times, over the past 5 years, an Irish publication was cited per discipline, as measured by Thomson Reuters InCites, one of the world’s major bibliometric services

On the face of it the Arts and Humanities do not feature.  Yet a number of factors, rarely acknowledged, explain this. First, less than 25 per cent of Arts and Humanities journals are covered by the Thomson Reuters database compared with over 80 per cent of journals in the Life Sciences. Second, there is a strong English language bias and Anglo-American publisher dominance.  Finally, the coverage of books and book chapters is so low as to be unusable as an indicator.  This is particularly unfortunate since most scholars working in the Arts and Humanities prefer to publish books, rather than articles, and these can take years to research and write and tend to be single authored. Thomson Reuters’ competitor, Elsevier’s Scopus database, has broader coverage, but also suffers from omissions and patchiness, particularly in Arts and Humanities and particularly with books and book chapters.

The statistics underpinning Figure 1 are thus deeply misleading.  Even taking the aforementioned coverage issues into account, when the results presented in Figure 1 are presented per paper and normalised (by type of publication, subject area and date) a very different picture emerges in which the Arts and Humanities compete on a more equal footing (see Figure 2). Should a greater proportion of Irish Arts and Humanities publications be included in the bibliometric databases and presented in this way, our understanding of their performance can only be enhanced.

The other thing to bear in mind is that any citation impact metric measures activity, rather than quality.  Peer review is the only effective means of measuring the quality of research in any discipline. Here the global rankings, which are driven in large part by reputation (as determined by a global community of scholars and employers), serve as useful indicators of the quality of research undertaken across Irish universities.

Consider the QS Global Faculty Rankings for 2015, where academic and employer reputation together account for at least 40% of its scoring system (depending on the subject area. See here), Figure 3 shows that the Arts and Humanities is the faculty area that ranks highest in our two top-ranked universities. Moreover the Arts and Humanities is the only faculty area in which an Irish university ranks amongst the top 100 universities in the world in both the 2015 QS Faculty Ranking (TCD ranks at 61) and the 2015-2016 Times Higher Education World University Ranking by Faculty (TCD ranks at 74).  It is estimated that there are around 20,000 universities in the world, which means that any institution in the Times Higher Education top 100 may be considered to be amongst the top 0.5 per cent of universities in the world. 

Given the chronic underfunding over the past decade of basic research and of our universities, our current position in the world rankings is a remarkable achievement.  Global rankings should not drive governmental or university strategies, but we must acknowledge that our position in the global rankings is important. Potential international recruits, both staff and student, examine the rankings before deciding to move to Ireland.  Global collaborators and funders – academic, corporate and philanthropic – consider the rankings as they decide whether they will collaborate with our universities or invest in Irish companies.  That the Arts and Humanities have performed as strongly as they have is something to celebrate and on which to build.  Just imagine what, with appropriate investment, might be achieved.

An edited version of this article was published in The Irish Times on March 1, 2016: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/the-stem-obsession-does-a-disservice-to-arts-and-humanities-1.2548342