Should Young Researchers Worry About Citations And Journal Impact Factors?

Not too much. Here’s why.

A few months ago, I wrote a post encouraging young researchers to enjoy their research and to share their ideas with friends and colleagues without worrying about being "scooped." Of course, there is a risk of ideas being stolen and plagiarism is quite common not only in research, but also art, music and other fields. As the artist Paul Gauguin famously said, art is either plagiarism or revolution. May be the same can be said about publications. Now, some young researchers want me to write a post on citations and impact factors.

In the last decade or two, the business of tracking citations of published articles was born and now there are multiple citation services. Google Scholar appears to be quite popular since it seems to track not just journal articles but also conference proceedings and other so-called "grey" literature, giving everybody a highly inflated citation count and h-index. For the uninitiated, the h-index "is based on the set of the scientist's most cited papers and the number of citations that they have received in other publications"; it implies that the author has at least N papers with N or more citations. It is supposed to measure both productivity and the impact of publications. And then there is the impact factor, which tracks the average citation of every paper in a given journal. So, the higher the impact factor, more popular the journal—for example, the journal Nature has a impact factor of over 40 and that for Science is nearly 35.

[E]njoying research is not about trying to hit a six on every ball or publishing in 'Nature' or 'Science' all the time. It is about seeing yourself make progress...

Now that even a three-year old kid can go find your citation and h-index online, it has become yet another burden for young researchers to worry about. It is not uncommon for someone to tell you at a meeting that they are impressed with your h-index! Of course, papers on citations and h-indices themselves now exist since researchers write papers on everything. The statistics are indeed eye-opening. Only a tiny percentage of papers get more than a 1000 citations and majority of them never get cited.

hould young researchers worry about citations and impact factors then? A tweet from a bunch of Nobel laureates made news recently. They advised everybody to stop worrying about citations and impact factors. Well, easy enough for Nobel laureates to say that, right? As Merlin Crossley of the University of New South Wales points out, peer-review, citations and impact factors are not perfect but they do serve a practical purpose as factors for deciding on funding, hiring, promotions, etc.

I would just add that enjoying your research still carries the day in terms of a life-long philosophy. No matter how good you are at what you do, someone better will always come along. No matter how fast you are at getting things done, a young Turk will run past you one day. You may negotiate a great salary based upon your accomplishments but there are clever people who will top you in negotiating skills even if they have a lower citation count or fewer papers. But if you truly enjoy what you do, then you will not really care if someone else has more fun. Research is a toil on most days and most of us will spend our whole career without a real Eureka! moment. But enjoying research is not about trying to hit a six on every ball or publishing in Nature or Science all the time. It is about seeing yourself make progress on a problem you have set out to work on.

You often meet researchers who keep up with literature to sound very intelligent and spend their lives criticising everything everybody does—all the while never generating a single idea of their own.

Young researchers should also seek the thrill of serving up their findings in service of society. Ian Boyd, a biology professor who serves as a scientific adviser to the UK government points out the need to adjust our structural and intellectual posture to render our research more relevant for policy and decision at government levels. For example, the government may be trying to manage fisheries but it needs help with regulating fishermen and not fish. Fisheries then need to be studied as natural-human systems with market forces playing an important role. I worked with a team of climate scientists, biologists, social scientists and lawyers to offer policy guidance from a systems perspective for fisheries management. Boyd also highlights the need for researchers to translate government demands for information into seductive research questions and think of systems that governments are trying to manage and regulate with numerous players and potentially unintended consequences. Instead of deriding politicians as unreliable prevaricators, we need to remember that they must make decisions and be held responsible for their decisions come election time.

Another excellent sentiment expressed by the double-Nobel winner Linus Pauling is worth remembering if you want to have good ideas, you should have a lot of ideas and learn to throw away the bad ones. John Kirwan put his own career to the test to see if he followed Pauling's diktat and concluded that less than 3% of all the projects he started in his career qualified as excellent. So there is absolutely no shame in having a lot of bad ideas. You often meet researchers who keep up with literature to sound very intelligent and spend their lives criticising everything everybody does—all the while never generating a single idea of their own. I would advise young researchers to always associate with people who try things out even if they turn out to be bad ideas or dead ends.

So, once again my advice to the young Turks is to just have fun and generate lots of ideas. Do not worry too much about whether it is a bad idea or not and most definitely do not worry about citations and impact factors. Even Stephen Hawking has several papers published decades ago that have never been cited! Have fun kids.

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