Citations ‘more important’ for earth scientists than real impact

Academics’ desire to help the planet being ‘lost amid the realities of being a researcher’, survey concludes

March 15, 2021

Earth and environmental scientists say citations are a more important form of research impact than contributions to tackling “real world” problems, in an apparent sign of how deeply citations have become the pre-eminent currency of academia, according to a survey.

Despite working on topics that are in many cases crucial to the future of the planet, researchers in these areas appear to view the practical applications of their work as only of secondary importance, when asked what impact they hoped their articles to have, data from more than 2,000 scholars found.

“Citations are quite ingrained in the culture,” said Andrew Kelly, a portfolio manager for the publisher Taylor & Francis, which carried out the survey.

While this was hardly a secret in academia, he said, the results of the survey were “stark”.

Asked “what type of impact is most important to you?” and asked to pick up to three priorities from a list, 69 per cent of academics chose citations.

In second place was “contribution to the advancement of research”, which was chosen by 53 per cent.

“What are you doing if you’re not contributing to the advancement of research?” asked Dr Kelly.

The next most important types of impact were “readership/downloads”, followed by garnering citations from other fields.

Only 21 per cent of scientists said that “contribution to tackling big real-world problems” was an important type of impact. “Input into policymaking decisions” was deemed important by 19 per cent of researchers. Social or traditional media pickup was mentioned only by a tiny fraction of respondents.

Despite this focus on citations, three-quarters of researchers still believed that their work contributed “directly or indirectly” to solving “real world” problems, such as those laid out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nearly seven in 10 said that they wanted to make this a focus of future work.

The survey concludes that there is a “misalignment” between scientists’ altruistic desires to help the planet with their work, and the “current realities” of the incentives they faced.

“At present, it seems that this laudable ambition of achieving real-world impact is seemingly being lost amidst the realities of being a researcher,” says the paper, currently open for peer review on the F1000Research platform.

It could be, of course, that researchers think that citations are one of the best ways for their findings to percolate into the real world. “Some researchers may feel citations are a means to an end,” said Dr Kelly.

And as one reviewer of the article points out, publishers, including Taylor & Francis, could do more to push back against the importance of citations in science. On 3 March, the publisher signed up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which among other recommendations stresses “the need to eliminate the use of journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, in funding, appointment, and promotion considerations”. 

The company, like its counterparts, still publishes – albeit with caveats – journal impact factors, a controversial metric of average paper citations that critics say tells a reader little about the actual quality of individual papers.

Dr Kelly said that the metric remained a “useful tool” but was being used “inappropriately”. Rather than scrap it, the publisher would instead encourage the use of a “wide” range of metrics, he stressed.

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Reader's comments (1)

Could it be that real-world impacts are more likely to come from Governments actually choosing to utilise scientific publications and public good to shape policy?? The failure is that scientific knowledge and public good have to battle government lobbyists representing large corporations. This is where our system fails us. You can lead a horse to water.....