Thursday, 8 October 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – We need informative metrics that will help, not hurt, the scientific endeavor – let’s work to make metrics better.


We need informative metrics that will help, not hurt, the scientific endeavor – let’s work to make metrics better.

brett buttliere

Rather than expecting people to stop utilizing metrics
altogether, we would be better off focusing on making sure the metrics
are effective and accurate, argues
Brett Buttliere. By
looking across a variety of indicators, supporting a centralised,
interoperable metrics hub, and utilizing more theory in building
metrics, scientists can better understand the diverse facets of research
impact and research quality.

In recent years, it has become popular to bash bibliometrics, and especially journal level metrics. Jane Tinkler, who was on the panel for the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management, put it well when she said, ‘One
of the most common concerns that colleagues discussed with us is that
impact metrics focus on what is measurable at the expense of what is
important.’ Previously on the LSE Impact Blog, sociologist Les Back has
suggested that any attempt to measure academic thought is ill fated.

With such comments, I feel obliged to stress three small things, the first of which is that:

  1. Metrics are necessary and good (but can be bad).

While it is true, as Curt Rice says, that ‘systems based on counting can be gamed,’
science has always been about taking the vast complexity of the world
and making it measurable and predictable. Yes, metrics and statistics
sometimes miss nuance, but the goal of the metric is to maximally
explain cases, on average, rather than at the individual level (e.g., regression).

web metricsImage credit: Web analytics framework by James Royal-Lawson (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Understanding what is good science and who does it is an important
variable to predict across a large range of contexts. More than
‘metrics’ simply being the way science works, their value and necessity
is clearly evidenced by their explosion in usage and popularity. It is
this importance, paired with the knowledge that humans will utilize any
tool available to make their lives easier, which makes it so imperative
to understand impact and what leads to it.

Blind use of bibliometrics is as inadvisable as blind use of any
other data source. But the bottom line is that if we spent the time to
read even one article from each application for every open faculty
position to be filled, there would be little time for anything else.

Despite their importance, there is probably some merit to the notion
that the metrics we currently use are easily hacked and flawed. It is
important to also remember that the ones being measured are also human
and have an interest in appearing as good as possible on these metrics;
this is fundamentally the reason people clean their house before having
someone over and the reason students study for (and cheat on) exams.
There may be fundamental problems with metrics, but I would suggest these are actually fundamental problems with the humans who use them, rather than the metrics themselves.

It is possible, even probably necessary, to build metrics that are
better (unless we want the status to be the quo). Thus, I want to say
something about:

  1. Creating metrics that matter

Rather than expecting people to stop utilizing metrics altogether
(which is unreasonable given the value they offer), we would be better
off focusing on making sure the metrics are effective and accurate. They
will never be problem free, they will (probably) never be ‘unhackable’,
but with a little coordinate effort they can get much better than they
are now.

How to exactly achieve this goal was the topic of a recent Quantifying and Analyzing Scholarly Communication on the Web workshop at Websci15, where I gave a small presentation about creating metrics that matter. This focus on creating more metrics echoes several calls on
the LSE Impact blog, which suggest looking across metrics to better
understand the facets of research impact, rather than striving for any
single definition or measure of quality.

More than the need for metrics, the discussion was about how to make
better use of the available data to construct the best metrics possible.
Specifically, Whalen et al discussed the potential to better understand impact by looking at the ‘topical distance between citing and cited papers’. My response focused
more on the potential utility of social media discussions between
scientists, and bringing in more theory from other fields (discussed
briefly below).

Such a goal is easily achievable by integrating APIs into one hub by
which to collect and analyze data about scientists (ORCID,, and ContentMine are all moving toward somethings like
this). This centralised data source would be helpful not only to
bibliometrics, but could also be used for more ‘fundamental’ questions
(e.g., what team or personal characteristics leads to optimal knowledge
creation/ exchange?). As we learn more about the different facets of
impact, it will probably become more difficult to cheat the system
because it is difficult to change the multiple facets at once (and we
can even analyse who cheats when).

More than simply creating many metrics, we need informative metrics
that will help, rather than hurt, the scientific endeavour. This implies
not only an ongoing effort to monitor the effects of metrics on the
research enterprise, but also:

  1. Including more science (theory!) in metrics

It is easy enough to build many metrics, but the best ones will
probably utilize the accumulated scientific knowledge into their
development. Scientists are humans (even if we pretend not to be),
existing in cultures with histories and traditions. Many fields (e.g.,
Psychology, Philosophy of Science, Sociology, Marketing, Computer
Science, Communication) can be utilized fruitfully to better understand
scientific communication and impact.

Many of the metrics we utilize now are simple counts of things (e.g.,
citations, views, tweets, likes), but there is a wealth of other data
available (e.g., keywords, review rating, comment sentiment). All of
these data can be utilized to investigate hypotheses. For instance, in my own work,
we are examining how cognitive conflict in online discussion between
scientists relates to productivity, generally speaking (e.g., length of
discussions, view counts, citations).

More than just using science to make informative metrics, we should
utilize it to ensure the changes we are implementing are actually
helping. There are many initiatives right now to change the system,
with many of them lacking any data to indicate that they would help the situation. 
A little bit of empirical work demonstrating that proposed changes will
help and are helping the system, along with an awareness of human
tendencies to look to maximize their reward while minimizing their
input, can go a long way toward avoiding later problems.

Ultimately, it is an empirical question how science operates most efficiently, and my main message is to say that we should use science to improve science, not just to build better metrics, but to build a better functioning science and society, generally speaking.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the
position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School
of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Brett Buttliere is a research assistant under
Prof. Friedrich Hesse and Dr. Jürgen Buder in order to investigate
knowledge exchange in the context of academia. Brett earned his Master’s
degree from Tilburg University under Dr. Jelte Wicherts and Dr. Marcel
van Assen; the project focused on what psychologists feel are the most
important problems to solve about the peer review system and how to best
to solve them. Another project examined the motivations for and effects
of ‘extreme behavior’ on individuals. His Bachelor’s degree was
received from Bradley University, where he worked on reducing prejudices
toward Schizophrenia. Most generally, the goal of his research is to
develop and apply fundamental psychological technologies to help
individuals lead better lives (e.g., by trying to improve the efficiency
of science, understanding and reducing extremism, elucidating the
similarities and differences between humans and animals).

Impact of Social Sciences – We need informative metrics that will help, not hurt, the scientific endeavor – let’s work to make metrics better.

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