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Explainer: how and why is research assessed?

Citations, bibliometrics, “publish or perish”: why must we constantly assess research? Shutterstock

Governments and taxpayers deserve to know that their money is being spent on something worthwhile to society. Individuals and groups who are making the greatest contribution to science and to the community deserve to be recognised. For these reasons, all research has to be assessed.

Judging the importance of research is often done by looking at the number of citations a piece of research receives after it has been published.

Let’s say Researcher A figures out something important (such as how to cure a disease). He or she then publishes this information in a scientific journal, which Researcher B reads. Researcher B then does their own experiments and writes up the results in a scientific journal, which refers to the original work of Researcher A. Researcher B has now cited Researcher A.

Thousands of experiments are conducted around the world each year, but not all of the results are useful. In fact, a lot of scientific research that governments pay for is often ignored after it’s published. For example, of the 38 million scientific articles published between 1900 and 2005, half were not cited at all.

To ensure the research they are paying for is of use, governments need a way to decide which researchers and topics they should continue to support. Any system should be fair and, ideally, all researchers should be scored using the same measure.

This is why the field of bibliometrics has become so important in recent years. Bibliometric analysis helps governments to number and rank researchers, making them easier to compare.

Let’s say the disease that Researcher A studies is pretty common, such as cancer, which means that many people are looking at ways to cure it. In the mix now there would be Researchers C, D and E, all publishing their own work on cancer. Governments take notice if, for example, ten people cite the work of Researcher A and only two cite the work of Researcher C.

If everyone in the world who works in the same field as Researcher A gets their research cited on average (say) twice each time they publish, then the international citation benchmark for that topic (in bibliometrics) would be two. The work of Researcher A, with his or her citation rate of ten (five times higher than the world average), is now going to get noticed.

Excellence for Research in Australia

Bibliometric analysis and citation benchmarks form a key part of how research is assessed in Australia. The Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) process evaluates the quality of research being undertaken at Australian universities against national and international benchmarks. It is administered by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and helps the government decide what research is important and what should continue to receive support.

Although these are not the only components assessed in the ERA process, bibliometric data and citation analysis are still a big part of the performance scores that universities and institutions receive.

Many other countries apply formal research assessment systems to universities and have done so for many years. The United Kingdom, for example, operated a process known as the Research Assessment Exercise between 1986 and 2001. This was superseded by the Research Excellence Framework in 2014.

A bibliometrics-based performance model has also been employed in Norway since 2002. This model was first used to influence budget allocations in 2006, based on scientific publications from the previous year.

Although many articles don’t end up getting cited, this doesn’t always mean the research itself didn’t matter. Take, for example, the polio vaccine developed by Albert Sabin last century, which saves over 300,000 lives around the world each year.

Sabin and others published the main findings in 1960 in what has now become one of the most important scientific articles of all time. By the late 1980s, however, Sabin’s article had not even been cited 100 times.

On the other hand, we have Oliver Lowry, who in 1951 published an article describing a new method for measuring the amount of protein in solutions,. This has become the most highly cited article of all time (over 300,000 citations and counting). Even Lowry was surprised by its “success”, pointing out that he wasn’t really a genius and that this study was by no means his best work.

The history of research assessment

While some may regard the assessment of research as a modern phenomenon inspired by a new generation of faceless bean-counters, the concept has been around for centuries.

Sir Francis Galton, a celebrated geneticist and statistician, was probably the first well-known person to examine the performance of individual scientists, publishing a landmark book, English Men of Science, in the 1870s.

Galton’s work evidently inspired others, with an American book, American Men of Science, appearing in the early 1900s.

Productivity rates for scientists and academics (precursors to today’s performance benchmarks and KPIs) have also existed in one form or another for many years. One of the first performance “benchmarks” appeared in a 1940s book, The Academic Man, which described the output of American academics.

This book is probably most famous for coining the phrase “publish or perish” - the belief that an academic’s fate is doomed if they don’t get their research published. It’s a fate that bibliometric analysis and other citation benchmarks now reinforce.

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