The politics of science and all that…

The CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – National Center for Scientific Research) has just published in June 2008 his revised ranking of journals in economics (it is important to note that, in principle at least, only the journals that are publishing mostly in the economics area are ranked). This ranking is significant since most of the French universities and research institutions in economics are using it as their principal tool to assess the quality of candidates. Journals are set in several sub-fields, such as for example “Agricultural, Environmental and Energy Economics” or “History of Economic Thought, Economic History, Methodology”. The ranking is set in 5 categories: category 1* is for top general journals (like AER), category 1 is for top journal is each sub-category (HOPE in History of economics), and so on to category 4. The ranking is made by the economics section of the national commitee of the CNRS after a long process of expertise and reporting by both French and international scholars.

What is odd is that this ranking, first published in 2004, had already been revised in October 2007. We were not expecting another round of revision before 2010. Why things went differently this time? This is where it gets interesting. The ranking of 2004 was the first of its kind. Some publishers and chief-editors might have been at that time unhappy with the ranking of their journals, but since nothing had never been done that looks like it, they had very few arguments to induce the national committee of the CNRS to modify ex-post the ranking, so it went unchanged for three years. The ranking of 2007 was a very different thing: while several journals did not move rank, some were upgraded, some were downgraded. The first ones were quite happy about the changes while the latter were sore. What they did is quite simple, they campaigned to have their journals restored to their “natural rights”. The consequence was that several of the downgraded Journals from 2007 were reintalled in their previous categoryin the June 2008 ex-post revised ranking. Moreover, the experts chosen by the CNRS to make the 2007 ranking were not associated with the ex-post revision, which was obviously implemented at a higher and more political level.

In the HET category, the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought (from category 1 to category 2) and Les Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales (previously category 1, moved out of the ranking) were among the losers in October 2007. They were both reinstated in their previous rankings thanks to active campaigning from the European Society for the History of Economic Thought (for the EJHET) and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (for the Annales). It is interesting to note that in either cases, these institutions are not formely linked to these journals, although they have a long history together. Moreover, these two institutions have chosen to campaign for their champion at the expense of other likely candidates: the Journal of the History of Economic Thought (which stayed in category 2 in all rankings, the Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine which never integrated the ranking).

Using the tools of the historian of economics, this can be subject to two rough interpretations. First, the EJHET more focused program of research on HET as contributing to economic theory or at least interacting closely with recent economics is better science than the more open (in particular to SSK and contextual history) approach devised by the JHET. Second, Georges Stigler was wrong and the inner scientific quality of scientific programs says very little of the actual reasons why some individual or group of theories and scientists (and journals in this case) gets more scientific credit than others (I like this one better).

Footnote: the issue of the CNRS ranking of journals is of particular pertinence to the participants of this blog since it influences the choices of young researchers in submitting to one or another journal as well as having a differential impact on the careers of those who are publishing in the EJHET versus those who are publishing in the JHET (or any history of economics’ journal).

Here you can find the three different rankings:

http://www.gate.cnrs.fr/spip.php?rubrique31

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One thought on “The politics of science and all that…

  1. I want to try out for size a few more interpretative frames.

    Take an Actor Network Approach (ANT) to the problem. What makes EJHET an “obligatory point of passage” of CNRS? This raises the question of who has to be interested to produce the change? Is it only the heads of the institution? How do you interest and speak for the ranking (nature) itself? Maybe giving the ranking a status of a democracy and the journals “natural rights” within it.

    Take a boundary work version of this. How did the ESHET protesters bound the issue to produce this change? I think I can guess the details on this one, since the familiar discourse is to suggest any attack on HET as repression of free speech within economics, attributed to the dominance of mathematics and America. This is a discourse that might work well within administrative circles where national identity is valued and political controversy abhorred.

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