Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Name change of The Auk: how it looks to the rest of us in Ornithology



The journal formally known as ‘The Auk’ is one of ornithology’s oldest journals, established in 1884. It is one of two journals of the Ornithological Society of North America. As of the last several decades it has been consistently one of the world’s top ranked ornithological journals. This year, 2021, it was rebranded simply as ‘Ornithology’. The reason given:

“The new title is part of a long-term effort to increase the quality and international stature of the American Ornithological Society’s publications.”

But it was already one of the best! Also, how does a name change increase the quality? That is a matter of editorial process or even supporting the ornithological method that is published in the journal. In terms of international stature, how is removing a name used for over one hundred years and replacing it with a generic term going to help? The journal identity is completely lost by doing so: a move to be considered by a journal wishing to reinvent itself and shed itself of unwanted baggage. At worst its an offence to those that have manned the journal for over a hundred years! Its also damaging in that decades of Brand Identity have been flushed away.

Critically for those wishing to improve bibliometric quality, research shows the opposite effect when names change because of errors assigning the correct journal name to the appropriate journal: confusion reigns!  

I’ve pointed out how the use of bird names for journal names is an unusual quirk of ornithological journals: but it helps paint their identity. The Auk has a history of publishing North American ornithology. What does the name change say about that? That there isn’t growth potential anymore in this market and that instead they want all the world’s ornithology (or specifically are they eyeing the stratospheric growth of the Asian market)? But at the same stroke, the editorial announcing the name change requests articles fitting very specific dimensions: papers that use birds to test … hypotheses; innovative phylogenetic and taxonomic studies; and integrative reviews …. In other words, there are multiple dimensions of ornithology that would be less welcome. This suggests Ornithology is a totally inappropriate name for this journal. “Select Ornithology” might be better.

Of course, I have not been privy to the reports and recommendations leading to this decision. I suspect that the steering committee was becoming anxious about a lack of change in the impact factor, or prestige scores. I would argue that has nothing to do with the journal, but sadly, simply the place of ornithology in the world of science. Or did the committees look at the world of Twitter and simply decide to hijack the hashtag for almost all ornithology publications? An imperialistic move perhaps?

It could be argued that any journal name is meaningless: in our digital era where everything is numerically ranked, it is may well be that H factor and Impact Factor are everything, while the name is but a means to an end. If so, sad world, and I’ll maintain the identity associated with Ostrich for as long as possible, and encourage that future editors do so too. At least I know what Ostrich stands for beyond bibliometric rankings.


Tempest, D. (2005) “The effect of journal title changes on impact factors”, Learned Publishing, Vol 18, issue 1, pp. 57–62.

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