Building Metrics That Help, Not Hurt, Science

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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).

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This article by Brett Buttliere originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “We need informative metrics that will help, not hurt, the scientific endeavor – let’s work to make metrics better” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

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.

I would suggest these are actually fundamental problems with the humans who use them, rather than the metrics themselves

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 centralized 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 analyze 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.

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Brett Buttliere

Brett Buttliere works as a research assistant at the Knowledge Media Research Center under Friedrich Hesse and Jürgen Buder investigating knowledge exchange in the context of academia.

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