Sunday, October 6, 2013

Impact factor and reading papers

I just read this paper on impact factor, and it makes the point that impact factor of a journal is a highly imperfect measure of scientific merit, but that the reason that the issue persists is that hiring committees fetishize publications in high impact journals. The authors say that this results in us scientists ceding our responsibilities for gauging scientific merit largely to a handful of professional editors, most of whom have very little experience as practicing scientists. All true. The real question is: why does this happen? Surely we as scientists would not have let things get so bad, especially when hiring decisions are so very important, right?

I think the issue comes down to the same basic issue that is straining the entire scientific system: the expansion of science and the accompanying huge proliferation in the amount of scientific information. Its a largely positive development, but it has left us straining to keep up with all the information that's out there. I think it's likely that the majority of faculty on hiring committees are just too busy to read many (if any) of the papers of the candidates they are evaluating, often because there's just not enough time in the day (and probably because most papers are so poorly written). So they rely on impact factor as some sort of gauge of whether the work has "impact". So far, pretty standard complaint. And the solutions are always the same boring standard platitudes like "We must take action and evaluate our colleagues work on its merits and not judge the book by its cover, blah blah blah." People have been saying this for years, and I think the reason this argument hasn't gone anywhere is that while it sounds like the right thing to say, it doesn't address the underlying problem in a realistic way.

For another way of looking at the issue, put yourself in the same position as this member of the hiring committee. What would you do if you had to read hundreds of papers, many highly technical but also not in your field of expertise, while running an entire lab and teaching and whatever else you're supposed to do? You would probably also look for some other, more efficient way to gauge the relative importance of these papers without actually reading them. That's why the research seminar is so useful, because it allows you to get a quick sense of what a scientist is all about. Which raises the question that I often have, which is why do we bother writing all these papers that nobody reads? My personal feeling is that we have to reevaluate how we communicate science, and that the paper format is just not suitable for the volume of information we are faced with these days. In our lab, we have slidecasts, which are 10 minute or less online presentations that I think are at least a step in the right direction. But I have some other ideas to extend that concept further. Anyway, whatever the solution, it needs to get here soon, because I think our ability to be responsible scientists will depend on it.

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