What's in a name? By digits you will know us

Academics should get unique ID numbers to better map their work, say researchers. Zoe Corbyn writes

January 29, 2009

Every academic in the world should be given a unique identification number, two US-based researchers have argued.

The number could be used to keep track of a scholar's complete publication record, from research papers and grant applications to internet blog posts.

The approach would ensure accuracy as metrics - numerical indicators such as how many times an academic's work is cited by others - become the dominant force in determining researchers' standing.

In an opinion piece entitled "I am not a scientist, I am a number", published last month in the PLoS Computational Biology journal, Philip E. Bourne and J. Lynn Fink from the University of California, San Diego argue that it is time to embrace such a system and scientists will soon "want" to be assigned a number.

"If you as an author can be uniquely identified, you can in principle be more accurately mapped to your scholarly output," they say.

In the UK, citations and other metrics will be used to judge research quality and determine the allocation of about £1.5 billion a year under the forthcoming research excellence framework (REF).

The extent of inconsistencies discovered during the REF pilot has already forced the Higher Education Funding Council for England to delay the timetable for introducing the scheme.

Referring to the way published articles and books are identified by their unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) and ISBN, and how online ID schemes also help researchers ensure their work is counted, the authors say it would not be "out of reach" to extend such systems so that all authors were linked to the entirety of their scholarly work.

And in a suggestion they admit is likely to "aggravate" some readers, they also propose a new ranking called a "Scholar Factor", which would rate academics by combining all their output including online musings.

"(It would) create a reward that is a reflection of what is important to impart, which is more than just the contents of a scientific paper," they say.

The academics recognise the controversial nature of their argument: the title of their article nods to The Prisoner, a cult 1960s TV series in which the protagonist, who has his identity taken away, protests: "I am not a number, I am a free man."

Richard Hull, a senior lecturer in management at Newcastle University, said such a system would make scholars "prisoners of the research machine".

"A 'unique identity number' would be a unique nothingness, a total lack of identity, because it is by my name and my associations that I am known to my peers and my readers. They are the people who matter to me," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

See: http://tinyurl.com/8r^p9sf.

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