Thursday, 5 November 2015

Impact of Social Sciences – When are journal metrics useful? A balanced call for the contextualized and transparent use of all publication metrics


When are journal metrics useful? A balanced call for the contextualized and transparent use of all publication metrics

elizabeth gaddThe Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) has yet to achieve widespread institutional support in the UK. Elizabeth Gadd
digs further into the slow uptake. Although there is growing acceptance
that the Journal Impact Factor is subject to significant limitations,
DORA feels rather negative in tone: an anti-journal metric tirade. There
may be times when a journal metric, sensibly used, is the right tool
for the job. By signing up to DORA, institutions may feel unable to use
metrics at all.

The recent Metric Tide report recommended that institutions sign up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA).
DORA was initiated by the American Society of Cell Biology and a group
of other scholarly publishers and journal editors back in 2012 in order
to “improve the ways in which the outputs of scientific research are
evaluated”. Principally, it is a backlash against over-use of the
Journal Impact Factor to measure the research performance of individual
authors or individual papers, although its recommendations reach further
than that. Subsequent to the publication of DORA, the bibliometric
experts at CWTS in Leiden published the Leiden Manifesto
(April 2015). This too is set against the “Impact Factor obsession” and
offers “best practice in metrics-based research assessment so that
researchers can hold evaluators to account, and evaluators can hold
their indicators to account”. There is no option to sign up to this.

Having attended a couple of events recently at which it was
highlighted (with something of a scowl) that only three UK HE
institutions had signed up to DORA (Sussex, Manchester and UCL if you’re
interested), I set about trying to ascertain where the UK HE community
had got to in their thinking about this. I created a quick survey and
advertised it on Lis-Bibliometrics,
a forum for people who are interested in the use of bibliometrics in UK
Universities with 533 members, and more recently to the Metrics Special Interest Group
of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) with
again over 500 members.  Simply put, I was interested in whether
institutions had signed, why or why not, what they saw as the pros and
cons, and whether they were thinking about developing an internal set of
principles for research evaluation – something else recommended by the
Metric Tide Report. The survey was open between 9 September and 6
October 2015.

rulerImage credit: Johnny Magnusson (Website) Public Domain
Perhaps rather tellingly, only 22 people responded. Twenty-two out of
a potential 1000 – a response rate of about 2%.  Now, there could have
been a number of reasons for this: survey fatigue; not reaching the
right audience; wrong time of year, etc., etc.  However, as eight of the
22 openly declared that they’d not yet considered DORA (“don’t know
what it is!”, stated one), I think it is more likely that the message
hasn’t got out yet.

Of the remaining 16, three had already signed up to DORA and nine
were actively considering it.  Two other categories were offered
(“actively considering and decided to sign” and “actively considering
and decided not to sign”), but neither of these were selected.  In
subsequent free-text comments, two respondents mentioned that
individuals within their organization had signed, and another pointed
out that they were signatories by virtue of being members of LERU.

Figure 1 Which of the following best describes your institution?

dora sign fig 1

The next question asked those that had decided to sign (or not) what
their reasoning was.  Although eight responses were received, only one
really outlined their reasons: “It was about the principle(s), rather
than over-evaluation of the precise wording. Also, it was about
commitment to the direction of travel, rather than having to have
everything in place before being able to sign up. Equally, signing up
doesn’t mean we’re against using metrics; the opposite rather, that
we’re wanting to use metrics, but in the right way(s).”

The follow-up question yielded more detail about the pros and cons of
signing as the respondents saw them.  There were nine responses. 
Amongst the pros were, “making a stand for responsible use of metrics”
and stopping “the use of some metrics that are unhelpful”.  Indeed one
respondent felt that having raised the issue with senior managers had
had a positive impact on “research assessment for academic promotion”,
even though their institution hadn’t yet signed. Another hoped that by
signing it would “keep administrators at bay that seek simplistic
measures for evaluating complex issues”.

In terms of the cons, these were more varied.  Three respondents were
concerned that as a result of signing, their institution may feel
unable to use metrics at all and, indeed, that the Journal Impact Factor
may actually be a useful metric in the right circumstances. One
respondent was concerned that signing DORA in and of itself would not
bring about institutional culture change and wondered what the process
would be for dealing with those that did not comply. The latter point
may have been implicit in the response of two raising the issue of who
in the institution would actually be responsible for signing (and
therefore, presumably, responsible for monitoring compliance).

Figure 2: Who has been involved in the deliberations?

dora sign fig 2

A question about who had been involved in DORA deliberations at their
institution showed that a wide variety of staff had done so.  However,
in the majority were senior University managers (10) followed by Library
and Research Office staff (8).  Interestingly there are no librarians
among the original list of DORA signatories, although now at least 88 of
the 12,522 total signatories have Library in their job title. (This
figure may be slightly inflated as I spotted at least one signatory who
was listed three times – perhaps they were a strong advocate?).

It was pleasing to see that academic staff had also played a part in
at least some institutions’ DORA discussions, for when we talk about
research evaluation it is them and their work that we are talking about.
It was perhaps disappointing that academic staff weren’t involved more
often. It was also interesting that in one case a Union representative
had been involved. I think when you consider the implications of DORA
from all these perspectives, it is not surprising that making a decision
to sign is sometimes a long and drawn-out process. Whilst a research
manager might view DORA as a set of general principles – a “direction of
travel” – could you be certain that a Union Rep wouldn’t expect more
from it?

As an example of the aforementioned research manager, I get the point
of DORA – don’t use journal measures to measure things that aren’t
journals, and especially try to avoid the Journal Impact Factor which is
subject to significant limitations.
I’ve no problem with that. However, I’m concerned that DORA could be
mis-interpreted as a directive to avoid the use of all journal metrics
in research evaluation as there are times when a journal metric,
sensibly used, is the right tool for the job. Indeed in a ARMA Metrics
SIG discussion around the DORA survey, Katie Evans, Research Analytics
Librarian at the University of Bath provided a great list of scenarios
in which journal metrics may be a useful tool in your toolkit. I have
her permission to reproduce them here:

  • Journal metrics gave the best correlation to REF scores (Metrics
    Tide, Supplementary Report II). This suggests that we might want to use
    them at a University/Departmental level. That might then filter down to
    use to inform assessment of individuals’ publishing records so that
    there’s consistency.
  • Not all academic journals are equal in quality standards. Looking at
    the journal an item has been published can indicate that the work has
    met a certain standard.  Journal metrics are an (imperfect) indicator of
  • Article-level citation metrics are no use for recently published
    items that haven’t had time to accrue citations. Journal metrics are
    available straight away.
  • For publishing strategy – a researcher has some control over where
    they publish; it’s a choice they can actively make to aim for a high
    quality journal. A researcher doesn’t have this sort of direct control
    over article-level citations.  So you could argue that it’s fairer to
    ask someone to publish in journals of a certain standard than to meet
    article-level citation criteria.
For me, DORA feels rather negative in tone: an anti-journal metric
tirade. One almost feels a bit sorry for Thomson Reuters (owners of the
JIF) who, in my experience, always seem keen to set out both the value and limitations of bibliometrics in research evaluation.
Personally I feel a lot more comfortable with the Leiden Manifesto
which takes a more positive approach: a balanced call for the sensible,
contextualized and transparent use of all publication metrics. If the Leiden Manifesto was available for signing, I wouldn’t hesitate.  So, how about it Leiden?

The views expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my institution.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, 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
Elizabeth Gadd is the Research Policy Manager
(Publications) at Loughborough University.  She co-founded the
Lis-Bibliometrics forum for those involved in supporting bibliometrics
in UK Universities, and is the Metrics Special Interest Group Champion
for the Association for Research Managers and Administrators.   Having
worked on a number of research projects, including the JISC-funded RoMEO
Project, she is currently studying towards a PhD in the impact of
rights ownership on the scholarly activities of universities.

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Impact of Social Sciences – When are journal metrics useful? A balanced call for the contextualized and transparent use of all publication metrics

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