Vice Rector University of Vienna calls for a new scientometrics

At the opening of the bi-annual conference of the International Society for Informetrics and Scientometrics (ISSI) in Vienna on July 16, Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, the Vice Rector of the University of Vienna called upon the participants to reorient the field of scientometrics in order to better meet the need for research performance data. She explained that the Austrian universities nowadays are obliged by law to base all their decision regarding promotion, personnel, research funding and allocation of research funds to departments on formal external evaluation reports. “You are hosted by one of the oldest universities in Europe, it was founded in 1365. In the last couple of years, this prestigious institute has been reorganized using your scientometric data. This puts a tremendous responsibility on your field. You are no longer in the Kindergarten stage. Without your data, we cannot take decisions. We use your data to allocate research funds. We have to think twice before using your data. But you have the responsibility to realize your role in a more fundamental way. You also have to address the criticism of scientometric data. And what they represent.”

Weigelin’s passionate call for a more reflexive and critical type of scientometrics is motivated by the strong shift in Austrian university policy with respect to human resource management and research funding. In the past, the system was basically a closed shop with many university staff members staying within their original university. The system was not very open to exchanges among universities, let alone international exchange. Nowadays, the university managers need to explicitly base their decisions on external evaluations, in order to make clear that their decisions meet international quality standards. As a consequence, the systems of control at Austrian universities have exploded. To support this decision making machinery, the University of Vienna has created a specific quality management department and a bibliometric department. The university has an annual budget 380 million Euro and needs to meet annual targets that are included in target agreements with the government.

On the second day of the ISSI conference, Weigelin repeated her plea in a plenary session on the merits of altmetrics. After a couple of presentations by Elsevier and Mendeley researchers, she said she was “not impressed”. “I do not see how altmetrics, such as download and usage data, can help solve our problem. We need to take decisions on the basis of data on impact. We look at published articles and at Impact Factors. As a researcher, I know that this is incorrect since these indicators do not directly reflect quality. But as a manager, I do not know what to do else. We are supposed to simplify the world of science. That is why we rely on your data and on the misconception that impact is equal to quality. I do not see a solution in altmetrics.” She told the audience, which was listening intently, that she has a constant flow of evaluation reports and the average quality of these reports is declining. “And I must say that a fair amount of the reports that are pretty useless are based on scientometric data.” Nowadays, Weigelin is no longer accepting recommendations for promotion of scientific staff that are only mentioning bibliometric performance measures without a substantive interpretation of what the staff member is actually contributing to her scientific field.

In other words, at the opening of this important scientometric conference, the leadership of the University of Vienna has formulated a clear mission for the field of scientometrics. The task is to be more critical with respect to the interpretation of indicators and to develop new forms of strategically relevant statistical information. This mission resonates strongly with the new research program we have developed at CWTS. Happily, the resonance among the participants of the conference was strong as well. The program of the conference shows many presentations and discussions that promise to at least contribute, albeit sometimes in a modest way, to solving Weigelin’s problems. It seems therefore clear that many scientometricians are eager to meet the challenge and indeed develop a new type of scientometrics for the 21st century.

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