Bibliometry, citation index and publication praecox

struggling scientistHaving lately published on Blognostrum a number of posts inspired by Stefan Collini’s What are universities for? (a book to which I had also referred in my earlier Not for profit on this blog), I take the opportunity of addressing once more the content of the British author’s publication with regard to the controversial topic of bibliometry.

Being the Citation index part of my and many other colleagues’ library instructions, Collini’s citation here below – and the questions it raises (much pertinently) – is mostly meant as a necessary (self-)reminder of what the meaning of academic work is.

How often has just ‘publication praecox’ (i.e. the pressure to publish many articles in ‘high-impact’ journals) been mentioned as an ingredient of plagiarism incidents such as Diederik Stapel’s one (a 2013 New York Times article, among several others, reported on it)?

And: even though the recent signing of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment by the VSNU Association of universities in the Netherlands might signal a change of attitudes on the (Dutch) universities side – with the declaration urging «to evaluate academic research on quality and social relevance over aspects such as the reputation of the journal in which the research is published or its Journal Impact Factor», it remains to be seen if the shift from a citation index to a social relevance ‘doctrine’ will make academic work less or just more liable to «the imposition of commercial priorities and the requirement that universities serve the needs of business» (Collini, p. 196, see the whole quotation here).

Stefan Collini, What are universities for?, pp. 126-128
«Further down the line, of course, stands the spectre of the ‘Citation Index’, which is what most people understand by ‘bibliometric methods’ (if they understand anything by it at all) […] so for those of you who have led sheltered lives up till now it may be worth explaining that it [the ‘Citation Index’] involves, roughly (oh, so roughly) speaking, establishing the significance of a piece of work by totting up how often it appears in the footnotes in other people’s journal articles […] The idiocy involved in using this as an indicator of anything of importance in most fields is too obvious to need rehearsing. However, since in these dark days we need things to cheer us up, let me just report that the whole business can be sabotaged with ridiculous ease. All you do, of course, is simply fill your publications with more references to the work of your friends or of other members of your department or of other members of your citation cooperative or of people you know are in danger of losing their jobs because a crack-brained scheme has determined they should unless their citation-rate goes up […] Yet even if we are not led down the cul-de-sac of citation-counting, the introduction of ‘bibliometric methods’ will, in indirect and perhaps less obvious ways, have more generally damaging consequences on the quality of the intellectual activity carried on in British universities […] Making everyone so jittery that they suffer from publication praecox will no more improve the quality of our intellectual life than a faster ‘rate of production’ of ejaculations would necessarily improve our sexual lives. It will, for example, make it more difficult, especially for younger scholars, to think of undertaking a major project which might not yield any entries for the annual return for several years to come, but which might when completed be worth far more than a whole CV full of slight articles and premature ‘syntheses’. Moreover, the ethos encouraged by the overvaluing of quantity in publication will have a pernicious effect upon the other judgments which we are continually called upon to make in academic life. This ethos would, for instance, put considerable pressure on a head of department to appoint to a new post that candidate who is most likely to increase the volume of the department’s publications in the shortest time, and so on» (pp. 126-128).

Cartoonstock is the source of Hagen Cartoons’ Struggling scientists.

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