Lomnicki A. "Impact factors reward and promote excellence - The system is unkind but effective. Others would do less good for developing countries (Letter. English)" Nature 424 (6948):p.487 (31 July 2003)

Eugene Garfield garfield at CODEX.CIS.UPENN.EDU
Thu Aug 28 15:14:39 EDT 2003

Adam Lomnicki : lomnicki at eko.uj.edu.pl

Title     : Impact factors reward and promote excellence - The system is
            unkind but effective. Others would do less good for developing
            countries (Letter. English)

Author    : Lomnicki, A.

Journal   : Nature 424 (6948):p.487 (31 July 2003)

Full-text posted with permission of the author:

Nature 424, 487 (31 July 2003); doi:10.1038/424487a


Sir – I expected to read some robust criticism of Peter A. Lawrence's
Commentary "The politics of publication" (Nature 422, 259–261; 2003),
so I was surprised at the chorus of approval in Correspondence (Nature
423, 479–480 & 585; 2003, and Nature 424, 14; 2003). These views and
proposals require rebuttal. I believe that the present system of evaluation
is the only one possible, and that Lawrence's apparently utopian proposals
would do more harm than good.

It is a cliché that modern societies can hardly function without science,
and that science has become very expensive and highly specialized,
hence requiring an evaluation system. There are two socially justifiable
reasons for supporting science. First, scientists make discoveries that
increase our knowledge, understanding and predictive power. However,
many well-educated people in all fields of science are needed to translate
these into progress. Universities can produce these people and can test
their skill and knowledge, but they cannot test the skill and knowledge of
their own teachers, which has to be done through the engagement of the
teachers themselves in scientific activity.

The second important reason for supporting science, therefore, is to teach
students and to maintain a group of specialists in different fields who can
adapt the newest scientific achievements to their society. Politicians and
others who fund science need a tool to identify these people.

In the best laboratories, the first reason for maintaining science alone is
considered paramount. But the second reason is vital to all modern
societies, including those unable to produce Nobel prizewinners. Scientists
maintain the polite fiction that all of them are equal and do equally good
science. But this is not the case. The best laboratories make the most
important scientific discoveries. A little lower are those in which less
important discoveries are made, but which contain researchers who fully
understand what others are doing and who can apply this knowledge. At
the bottom are places where people only pretend to do science and are
unable to follow progress in their field.

The system of rewards in science must assure promotion of the best
laboratories, improvement of the decent and denial of public funds to the
worst. Neither international congresses nor big international programmes
can make this objective distinction between good and poor science, so
some other means of evaluation are required.

The appearance of the Science Citation Index (SCI) in the 1960s was a
breakthrough in the development of objective numerical methods for the
evaluation of science and scientists. This can be seen by comparing now
with then, and by looking at places where numerical methods of
evaluation are unknown. In countries far behind the scientific leaders,
scientists are no less numerous, and many universities and scientific
journals are supported by public funds. These journals publish many
papers but have very low circulations and an insignificant impact on other
scientists. This is a waste for the society supporting such research, as the
scientists cannot make important discoveries, convey or build on
discoveries made by others, or follow developments in their own field.

Sometimes this can be seen in rich countries too. In the 1960s and 1970s
it was a waste of time to browse German and French journals on ecology
and evolutionary biology. This state of affairs changed completely after
young researchers started to be rewarded for publishing in journals with a
high impact factor: now German and French researchers in these fields
write papers that are well worth reading.

Evaluation of scientists on the basis of the impact factor and other indices
is like the market economy: the system is wrong and unjust, but other
systems are much worse. Thousands of books have been written on the
evils of capitalism, and now we have articles on the evils of evaluations
derived from citation indices. The authors of these articles ignore the
global effect of applying this system and concentrate instead on particular
cases: a paper got many citations despite being published in a journal with
a low impact factor, or a poor paper was cited many times. Evaluation
based on citations is a statistical method that has to be used on large
samples and carefully applied to avoid pitfalls. Arguments against the
system should be statistical, not particular.

Critics of this evaluation system propose a utopia with high moral
standards. They want science managers and journal editors not to be
narrow specialists but to be able to evaluate scientists in all different
fields within, say, ecology or molecular biology. With the present extent
of specialization this seems hardly possible. In this utopia, managers and
editors would be absolutely honest and not guided by their own scientific
interests, predilections or aversions. The entire system relies on the best
side of human nature.

Abandonment of objective methods of science evaluation derived from
the SCI would be most dangerous in developing countries and others
where science is not first-rate. It would keep their societies from
knowing how far behind their scientific institutions are. Worse, it would
remove a tool for rewarding researchers who attempt to do good science
and for eliminating those who do not.

Adam omnicki
Institute of Environmental Sciences, Jagiellonian University, ul.
Ingardena 6, 30-060 Kraków, Poland

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