#1 Impact Factor in Anthropology

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Marc Edelman


The Journal of Peasant Studies

It might come as a surprise to Anthropology News readers that in 2011 and 2012 the Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS) had the highest impact factor of any of the 83 anthropology journals ranked by Thomson Reuters. The impact factor of a journal is the frequency with which an average article in a given journal is cited during a particular period, usually the two years following its publication. For better or for worse, impact factors (IFs) and linked “metrics” such as the “h-index” are increasingly viewed as significant gauges of a scholar’s accomplishments and a journal’s influence (the h-index is largest number h such that h articles have at least h citations). Search committees, promotion and tenure committees and granting agencies have all been known to consider them as part of their decision-making processes. Librarians use IFs in deciding what subscriptions to acquire and acquisitions editors at university presses sometimes follow them in order to identify promising authors. Scholars who aspire to having a broader audience may try to place their work in high-IF venues.

Many academics (including me) feel understandably ambivalent about IFs (and IF-based measures of individual productivity), since much valuable research—and publications in small or highly specialized fields—does not necessarily receive large numbers of citations (a recent analysis in Nature found that Karl Marx had the highest h-index of any scholar ever). A focus on “metrics” may lead to the neglect of the substance of a scholar’s work. It may encourage researchers to publish many micro-focused studies instead of in-depth works that might contribute more to the construction of knowledge. Moreover, extensive criticism of a problematical article will raise the h-index of its author(s) and the IF of the journal in which it was published. In the worst of cases, IFs may encourage authors and editors to try to “game” the system, as recently occurred in Brazil. Nonetheless, IFs do let us know when readers are paying attention—for whatever reason—to particular works.

The Journal of Peasant Studies had a 2012 impact factor of 5.805 (in addition to placing 1/83 in the Anthropology category, Thomson Reuters ranked it 1/55 in the Planning and Development category). American Anthropologist, by comparison, had an IF of 1.539. JPS is an eminently interdisciplinary publication; that Thomson Reuters includes it in the Anthropology category is probably an artifact of the old social scientific disciplinary division of labor, which assigned peasants to anthropology and urbanites to sociology. Nonetheless, with an impact factor of 5.805, JPS would also have been ranked number one in other Thomson Reuters categories, such as Geography, Economics, Environment, Politics, and Sociology. Thematic journals tend to have higher levels of self-citation than disciplinary ones since they provide outlets for close-knit epistemic communities whose members read each other’s work. This is true too of JPS, which in recent years has published several widely read, state-of-the-art special issues on land grabbing, “green grabbing,” the biofuels boom, and related topics. Even without self-citations, however, JPS’s IF was 3.299, which still would have put it in first place in the Anthropology and the Planning and Development categories.

What accounts for the rise of this journal concerned with a group that Sidney Mintz once described as occupying the lowest rung on “the invisible ladder of ethnographic prestige”? JPS was founded forty years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, when peasants were widely viewed as major political protagonists. In subsequent decades, urbanization and peasant involvement in predatory wars led to diminished social scientific interest in peasantries. This began to change in the late 1990s, particularly with the rise of Vía Campesina, which the Guardian recently called “arguably the world’s largest social movement.” In 2009, after years of JPS languishing in relative obscurity, the journal’s publisher, Routledge, brought in a new editorial team headed by Saturnino Borras Jr., a development scholar and activist now on the faculty of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (Full disclosure: I am a member of JPS’s nine-member Editorial Collective). The new team was committed to publishing high-quality research that would be relevant to scholars and policy practitioners, as well as to agrarian, environmental, human rights and food activists. The Collective gave the journal a new subtitle, “Critical Perspectives on Rural Politics and Development,” signaling an openness to a wide range of topics on issues affecting the countryside. From the beginning the new editorial group invited and reviewed papers from prominent scholars and development practitioners, such as Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and World Bank economist Klaus Deininger. Leading anthropologists involved in agrarian studies, such as Tania Li and K. Sivaramakrishnan, have also contributed widely read articles in recent years, as have numerous early-career anthropologists. JPS sponsored or co-sponsored several major events, such as the two conferences on land grabbing held at Sussex in 2011 and Cornell in 2012 and the conference on critical perspectives on food sovereignty held at Yale in 2013. These attracted large numbers of vibrant junior researchers, fresh from the field, as well as prominent longstanding agrarian studies scholars. Members of the Editorial Collective and the larger International Advisory Board committed themselves to a fast turn-around time for peer reviews and frequently engaged in intensive mentoring of junior colleagues who hoped to submit papers. Probably the main explanation for JPS’s rising profile, however, is the growing realization among specialists in diverse fields that the rural and the urban worlds mutually constitute each other and cannot be studied in isolation. Land use, land tenure, agricultural technologies and the financialization of agriculture have implications for critical policy areas, including climate change, environmental sustainability, trade, inequality, gender equity, intellectual property, food sovereignty, indigenous movements, human rights, and migration, among many others. Furthermore, as Jan Douwe Van der Ploeg has pointed out, even though the proportion of peasants in the global population has declined with urbanization and industrialization, there are nonetheless more peasants today than at any other time in history. Small farming households still constitute some two-fifths of humanity.

The Journal of Peasant Studies’ high impact factor is ultimately a reflection of its content. JPS has become a “go-to” place for cutting-edge research on transnational social movements, agroecology and biodiversity, land grabbing, rural development policy, and food politics, among many other pressing contemporary issues. Not so long ago, in an article about agrarian Central America, I wrote that “The first thing to acknowledge is that the campesino of today is usually not the campesino of even 15 years ago.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, similarly, is evolving with the times. So take a look at JPS and, if you work in these or related areas, consider submitting your work.

Marc Edelman is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He has worked on rural development issues, agrarian history, and peasant movements, mainly in Latin America. His current research analyzes how transnational agrarian movements have organized for a United Nations declaration on the rights of peasants.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Note from AN Managing Editor: The following is a response from Tom Brass, the former editor of JPS.

    THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES: A REPLY

    Missing from the contentious and extremely misleading account in Anthropology News by Marc Edelman of the history of The Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS) are two crucial aspects. The scholarly record of the pre-2009 JPS is not as he describes, and was thus not the reason for the change in editorial regime which took place that year.

    Not only is the pre-2009 JPS described by him as having “languished in relative obscurity”, but the inference is that – unlike the present editorial regime – it did not manage to publish “high-quality research” by “prominent scholars”, nor did it operate “an openness” when it came to theoretical orientation. Edelman’s credentials for pronouncing authoritatively on this subject can be gauged from the fact that, prior to 2009, he had no connection whatever with the JPS, which in its previous three and a half decade history carried not a single contribution by him. He merely repeats an earlier claim on the Institute of Development Studies website (one of the new editorial group was at IDS), to the effect that in 2009 “the Journal has been re-energised and re-launched”. When the derogatory character of the implication that the pre-2009 JPS lacked energy was brought to the attention of the IDS, the website was changed immediately and an apology issued.

    I was the editor of the JPS in the period referred to (2000-2008), and the description by Edelman of the journal during that era is in every respect false. Unlike him, I have contributed many articles, review articles, and book reviews to the JPS, of which I am the second longest serving editor. In the period when it is said to have “languished in relative obscurity”, the JPS had many achievements to its name. These included widely acclaimed special issues on Latin American Peasants, on Chiapas, on China and on the State, to which many distinguished scholars contributed the results of their high-quality research. A reviewer of the book version of a special issue observed that “[t]his is one of the most important [collections] to be published on the Latin American peasantry since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s…It is my belief that [it] will come to stand alongside [the classic texts on the subject]”, concluding that it “should be read by all those who are concerned with the fate of the Latin American peasantry in the new millennium”.

    This assessment contradicts the view expressed by Edelman that the pre-2009 JPS “languished in relative obscurity”. Similarly, if the journal was without influence during this period, as he claims, why have numerous arguments – about subaltern studies, new social movements, the capitalism/unfreedom link, and the ‘new’ populist postmodernism, among others – made in the pre-2009 JPS been recycled elsewhere by many others since? This, too, does not accord with the view that “publishing high-quality research” commenced only with a new editorial regime after 2009.

    As fallacious is the inference concerning the pre-2009 absence of “prominent scholars”. Among the many distinguished scholars on the JPS Editorial Advisory Board in the period 2000-2008 were Latin Americanists (James Petras, Alan Knight, Stephen Nugent, Paulo Drinot, David Barkin, Daniel Gaido, José de Souza Martins) and those with research experience in and expert knowledge about Asia (Raju Das, Hira Singh, Sheila Bhalla, Lucia da Corta, Dipankar Gupta, Meera Nanda, Kathy Le Mons Walker, D.N. Dhanagare, Sanjib Baruah). All of them, and others, made significant contributions to the JPS in the 2000-2008 period.
    Equally false is the inference that the JPS at that time did not operate theoretical “openness”, an assertion confounded by the publication of numerous contributions exhibiting many different theoretical views. Edited by a Marxist committed to debate, the pre-2009 JPS carried many articles critical of this theoretical approach, as also exchanges with those opposed to Marxist interpretations. Under the aegis of Frank Cass & Co., the JPS not only adhered to high standards of scholarship but always published articles covering a wide range of political opinion. Hence the subsequent change of editorial regime by a later publisher was unconnected with “relative obscurity”, the absence of “high-quality research” by “prominent scholars”, or the lack of theoretical “openness”.

    Unmentioned by Edelman, therefore, is that in 2008 the publisher sacked the JPS editor, the reviews editors and the whole editorial advisory board, because of complaints from the “development community” about the tone and politics of articles. Many of the latter were contributions to debates about agrarian transition, critical to be sure, but part of what the journal had done (influentially and successfully) ever since its foundation in 1973. Without having consulted either the existing JPS editor, the reviews editors, or members of the editorial advisory board, the publisher then went ahead and appointed a new editor and editorial board.

    Since 2008, the political character of the JPS has changed radically. Although the impact factor has certainly increased, and its readership expanded, this has been achieved at the expense of its original critical focus. Its post-2008 orientation favours a more conservative agrarian populist approach, combining pro-farmer and food-first concerns. The earlier focus was on class differences within the peasantry, and how these affected the process of systemic transition, both historical and actual. The survival of peasant economy was questioned, and socialism as an objective was always in there somewhere. Now the focus seems to be mainly on better deals within capitalism for rural producers, regardless of whether these consist of smallholders or large farmers, and peasant economy is regarded uncritically as a positive good. The resulting abandonment by the JPS of its critical approach has turned it into yet another bland development studies journal, indistinguishable as such from all the others covering the same kind of ground. This kind of transformation is, of course, very much in keeping with the present conservative political climate.

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