Rankings, research styles, and publication cultures: a study of American sociology departments

Abstract

Rankings have become a major form of quality assessment in higher education over the past few decades. Most rankings rely, to varying extent, on bibliometric indicators intended to capture the quantity and quality of the scientific output of institutions. The growing popularity of this practice has raised a number of concerns, one of the most important being whether evaluations of this sort treat different work styles and publication habits in an unbiased manner and, consequently, whether the resulting rankings properly respect the particular modes of research characteristic of various disciplines and subdisciplines. The research reported in this paper looked at this issue, using data on more than one hundred US sociology departments. Our results showed that institutions that are more quantitative in character are more likely to favor journals over books as the dominant form of scientific communication and fare, in general, considerably better on the National Research Council’s assessment than their qualitative equivalents. After controlling for differences in publication practices, the impact of research style declined but remained statistically significant. It thus seems that the greater preference of qualitative departments for books over articles as publication outlets puts them at a disadvantage as far as quality assessments are concerned, although their lagging behind their quantitative counterparts cannot fully be explained by this factor alone.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It is only from the second half of 2011 that SCI includes a select group of books published in 2005 or later. Google Scholar, which is sometimes recommended as an alternative to SCI, has a more extensive coverage of books and other similar items, but at the price, it seems, of sacrificing quality for quantity. It fairly often produces nonsensical results, such as when people mentioned in the main text are “promoted” to co-authors (for examples, see Jacsó 2008; see also his Google Scholar’s Hall of Shame at http://www.jacso.info/gs-hos/). It should be noted, though, that Google’s service is continuously improving and with the launch of Google Scholar Citations in 2011, researchers now are able to check and correct their publication records before requesting citation statistics.

  2. 2.

    “General Search” does not at all takes references to books into account, whereas “Cited Reference Search” only gives references coming from journals covered by SCI. References coming from other books are completely ignored, which is no small issue, given that, as the study by Cronin et al. (1997) has shown, the list of sociologists most frequently cited in books only partially overlaps that of those most frequently cited in journal articles.

  3. 3.

    Obviously, the presence or absence of a dominant paradigm is just one among the many factors that shape publication habits, albeit clearly a crucial one. Differences in the subject matter and substantive content of individual disciplines probably also play an important role, although their effects can be difficult to distinguish from those of paradigm development. The widespread use of statistical procedures, for example, has been shown to correlate negatively with the “hardness” or “scientificity” of research areas (Smith et al. 2002). Whether this finding indicates the impact of variations, across fields, in the level of scientific “maturity” is hard to tell. It is possible that the more frequent use of statistical methods in “softer” disciplines reflects the fact that phenomena investigated in these branches of science are more stochastic or multi-causal in nature and in the absence of access to controlled experiments, multivariate analytic techniques are needed to separate competing causal mechanisms.

  4. 4.

    While not directly pertaining to publication practices, the studies by Schachter et al. (1991, 1994) are also worthy of mention here, as it illustrates the relationship between paradigm development and the compactness of knowledge expression. Analyzing tape-recorded lectures from various disciplines, the authors found that teachers in the natural sciences used fewer different words on average than their colleagues in the social sciences and humanities and the mean number of filled pauses during lectures was also much smaller.

  5. 5.

    This is true even though authors’ affiliations are used to make some institutional comparisons, mainly between private and public universities. These comparisons, however, do not involve research styles as a separate variable.

  6. 6.

    The list of these institutions was taken from Julian Dierkes’ web site at http://www.sociolog.com/links/index.html.

  7. 7.

    In this part of the study, 54 of the 113 departments were rated independently by three persons, based on variables such as the topics of Ph.D. theses and the characteristics of special programs offered by departments. The three ratings were then subsumed into a single overall assessment, distinguishing quantitative, qualitative and mixed institutions.

  8. 8.

    Often labeled as the “big 3”, these journals are commonly regarded as the most important and most prestigious outlets available for sociologists (see e.g., Hargens and Bott 1991; Allen 2003; Oromaner 2008).

  9. 9.

    Ranges were produced by using repeated resampling. From the entire pool of faculty members asked about the importance of various program features, a large number of random samples were drawn one after the other, each providing one possible ranking of institutions. This process gave rise, for each department, to a whole range of rankings. Of these different rankings, the best and worst 5 % were then cut, leaving the lower and upper end points that were eventually published.

  10. 10.

    Examination of scatter plots and analysis of residuals identified four outlying observations. To see how much these deviant data points might have affected our findings, we reran the regression with the outliers deleted, but both the coefficient for the independent variable and its significance level remained practically unchanged, so we decided to report results for the full data set.

  11. 11.

    Adjusted mean ranks were obtained from analysis of covariance, with research style used as a fixed factor and the principal component score capturing publication habits entered as a covariate.

  12. 12.

    To save space, these results are not shown in the paper but are available from the authors on request.

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Acknowledgments

The research reported in this paper was supported by the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund, Grant no. T049106. Katalin Bander, Hanna Kónya, Árpád Rab, Boglárka Simon, and Ágnes Sántha provided invaluable help in the data collection, which is gratefully acknowledged. We also thank Akos Rona-Tas, University of California, San Diego, for useful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Ferenc Moksony.

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Moksony, F., Hegedűs, R. & Császár, M. Rankings, research styles, and publication cultures: a study of American sociology departments. Scientometrics 101, 1715–1729 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-013-1218-y

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Keywords

  • Academic publishing
  • Research methods
  • Scientific paradigm
  • Sociology of science
  • University rankings

Mathematics Subject Classfication

  • 62-07
  • 62J05

JEL Classification

  • B500
  • Y800
  • Z00