Developing Metrics for the Evaluation of Individual Researchers – Should Bibliometricians Be Left to Their Own Devices?

So, I am sorry to have missed most of the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t trade my involvement with the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility for any other academic opportunity. I love the CSFR meetings, and I think we may even be able to make a difference occasionally. I always leave the meetings energized and thinking about what I can do next.

That said, I am really happy to be on my way back to the ATL to participate in the last day of the Atlanta Conference. Ismael Rafols asked me to participate in a roundtable discussion with Cassidy Sugimoto and him (to be chaired by Diana Hicks). Like I’d say ‘no’ to that invitation!

The topic will be the recent discussions among bibliometricians of the development of metrics for individual researchers. That sounds like a great conversation to me! Of course, when I indicated to Ismael that I was bascially against the idea of bibliometricians coming up with standards for individual-level metrics, Ismael laughed and said the conversation should be interesting.

I’m not going to present a paper; just some thoughts. But I did start writing on the plane. Here’s what I have so far:

Bibliometrics are now increasingly being used in ways that go beyond their design. Bibliometricians are now increasingly asking how they should react to such unintended uses of the tools they developed. The issue of unintended consequences – especially of technologies designed with one purpose in mind, but which can be repurposed – is not new, of course. And bibliometricians have been asking questions – ethical questions, but also policy questions – essentially since the beginning of the development of bibliometrics. If anyone is sensitive to the fact that numbers are not neutral, it is surely the bibliometricians.

This sensitivity to numbers, however, especially when combined with great technical skill and large data sets, can also be a weakness. Bibliometricians are also aware of this phenomenon, though perhaps to a lesser degree than one might like. There are exceptions. The discussion by Paul Wouters, Wolfgang Glänzel, Jochen Gläser, and Ismael Rafols regarding this “urgent debate in bibliometrics,” is one indication of such awareness. Recent sessions at ISSI in Vienna and STI2013 in Berlin on which Wouters et al. report are other indicators that the bibliometrics community feels a sense of urgency, especially with regard to the question of measuring the performance of individual researchers.

That such questions are being raised and discussed by bibliometricians is certainly a positive development. One cannot fault bibliometricians for wanting to take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their own inventions. But one – I would prefer to say ‘we’ – cannot allow this responsibility to be assumed only by members of the bibliometrics community.

It’s not so much that I don’t want to blame them for not having thought through possible other uses of their metrics — holding them to what Carl Mitcham calls a duty plus respicare: to take more into account than the purpose for which something was initially designed. It’s that I don’t want to leave it to them to try to fix things. Bibliometricians, after all, are a disciplinary community. They have standards; but I worry they also think their standards ought to be the standards. That’s the same sort of naivety that got us in this mess in the first place.

Look, if you’re going to invent a device someone else can command (deans and provosts with research evaluation metrics are like teenagers driving cars), you ought at least to have thought about how those others might use it in ways you didn’t intend. But since you didn’t, don’t try to come in now with your standards as if you know best.

Bibliometrics are not the province of bibliometricians anymore. They’re part of academe. And we academics need to take ownership of them. We shouldn’t let administrators drive in our neighborhoods without some sort of oversight. We should learn to drive ourselves so we can determine the rules of the road. If the bibliometricians want to help, that’s cool. But I am not going to let the Fordists figure out academe for me.

With the development of individual level bibliometrics, we now have the ability — and the interest — to own our own metrics. What we want to avoid at all costs is having metrics take over our world so that they end up steering us rather than us driving them. We don’t want what’s happened with the car to happen with bibliometrics. What we want is to stop at the level at which bibliometrics of individual researchers maximize the power and creativity of individual researchers. Once we standardize metrics, it makes it that much easier to institutionalize them.

It’s not metrics themselves that we academics should resist. ‘Impact’ is a great opportunity, if we own it. But by all means, we should resist the institutionalization of standardized metrics. A first step is to resist their standardization.