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  • Do Books Have a Place in a Shanghai World?
  • Lionel Ruffel (bio)
    Translated by Simon Porzak

For those who haven’t yet noticed, there’s a tune everyone’s whistling nowadays, and it’s the tune of rankings and evaluations. We’re evaluating a lot of things, from hospitals to the work of ministries themselves, but from now on it’s the evaluation of universities and of higher education in general that will attract the most attention. And, evaluated in this manner, universities begin to regain their prestige, at long last—not once again—since these rankings and evaluations do not correspond (quite the opposite, in fact) to the glorious image that the French, it seems, would like to have of themselves. No problem! To these rankings (a new genre of human-interest story, quite useful for filling dead space in newspapers), our managers respond with a new battery of assessments, and everybody seems satisfied. Everybody but us, the assessed, such tragic figures—and much more tragic are those among the assessed who happen to belong to the difficult-to-assess discipline of literary studies.1 No matter how much each of us, according to his or her personal tastes, may jeer at, revolt against, or methodically deconstruct academic rankings (chief among them being the Shanghai ranking), our work becomes more and more influenced [End Page 79] by the large-scale procedures of international evaluation. One of these decisive evolutions concerns our relationship with the book.

The Book, So Badly Abused by Rankings

After universities, research teams, and professional development, journals will be evaluated in turn. Here we cut right to the heart of the matter, because from now on journals will form the keystone of the system. But how is a series of evaluations leading toward a ranking built? Let’s examine, just to take a random case, the most famous of them all, the so-called Shanghai ranking. This ranking relies on a tally of the Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals awarded to the professors, researchers, and students of a given institution, on a tally of the articles published in the journals Nature and Science originating with these same persons, on the number of their articles indexed in reference databases (such as the Science Citation Index or the Arts & Humanities Citation Index), and on the number of researchers who are considered indispensable in their disciplines. Other principles, such as an institution’s size, are taken into account but will not be of importance to this essay. One preliminary remark: this ranking gives a lot of weight to the so-called hard sciences (since, as it’s worth remembering, Nobel Prizes for literature and the Nobel Peace Prize are not added into these calculations) and to the Anglo-Saxon domain. We’ll have to return to this point.

More importantly, a category has been so strongly emphasized that it has entered into contemporary discourse—the category of the chercheur publiant, or researcher-publisher.2 Publishing what, exactly? Essentially, publishing articles in those journals that have been subject to a ranking. To state it baldly, in the world imagined by this kind of ranking and evaluation, publishing a book is not of the same capital importance as it once was. A few centuries of tradition granting the book its supremacy over the article may very well be reversed.3 Each individual country had its subtleties, but this hierarchy had been a global one. In France, in the field of literary studies, there existed an implicit upwards slope from an article in a specialized publication to an article in a general publication, from a book with a specialized publisher to a book with a general [End Page 80] publisher (e.g., passing from the presses universitaires to Gallimard or Minuit4 usually constituted an increase in prestige). Let’s not forget a third category, that of vulgarizing articles or works, with the lowest market value on this implicit scale. The tacit, underlying philosophy of this system granted ascendancy based on the magnitude of a work’s argumentation and its capacity to be shared as widely as possible, without lapsing into the excessive simplification associated with vulgarization. A different set of values...


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pp. 79-92
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