Quality in the age of the impact factor

ISIS, the most prestigious journal in the history of science, moved house last September and its central office is now located at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities at Utrecht University. The Dutch science historian H. Floris Cohen took up the position of the editor in chief of the journal. No doubt this underlines the international reputation of the community of historians of science in the Netherlands. Being the editor of the central journal in ones field surely is mark of esteem and quality.

The opening of the editorial office in Utrecht was celebrated with a symposium entitled “Quality in the age of the impact factor”. Since quality of research in history is intimately intertwined with the quality of writing, it seemed particularly apt to call attention to the role of impact factors in humanities fields. I used the occasion to pose the question how we actually define scientific and scholarly quality. How do we recognize quality in our daily practices? And how can this variety of practices be understood theoretically? Which approaches in the field of science and technology studies are most relevant?

In the same month, Pleun van Arensbergen graduated on a very interesting PhD dissertation which dealt with some of the issues, “Talent Proof. Selection Processes in Research Funding and Careers”. Van Arensbergen did her thesis work at the Rathenau Institute in The Hague. The quality of research is increasingly seen as mainly the result of the quality of the people involved. Hence, universities “have openly made it one of their main goals to attract scientific talent” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 121). A specific characteristics of this “war for talent” in the academic world is that there is an oversupply of talents and a relative lack of career opportunities, leading to a “war between talents”. The dissertation is a thorough analysis of success factors in academic careers. It is an empirical analysis of how the Dutch science foundation NWO selects early career talent in its Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. The study surveyed researchers about their definitions of quality and talent. It combines this with an analysis of both the outcome and the process of this talent selection. Van Arensbergen paid specific attention to the gender distribution and to the difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants.

Her results point to a discrepancy between the common notion among researchers that talent is immediately recognizable (“you know it when you see it”) and the fact that there are very small differences between candidates that get funded and those that do not. The top and the bottom of the distribution of quality among proposals and candidates are relatively easy to detect. But the group of “good” and “very good” proposals is still too large to be funded. Van Arensbergen and her colleagues did not find a “natural threshold” above which the successful talents can be placed. On the contrary, in one of her chapters they find that researchers who leave the academic system due to lack of career possibilities regularly score higher on a number of quality indicators than those who are able to continue a research career. “This study does not confirm that the university system always preserves the highly productive researchers, as leavers were even found to outperform the stayers in the final career phase (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125).

Based on the survey, her case studies and her interviews, Van Arensbergen also concludes that productivity and publication records have become rather important for academic careers. “Quality nowadays seems to a large extent to be defined as productivity. Universities seem to have internalized the performance culture and rhetoric to such an extent that academics even define and regulate themselves in terms of dominant performance indicators like numbers of publications, citations or the H-index. (…) Publishing seems to have become the goal of academic labour.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125). This does not mean, however, that these indicators determine the success of a career. The study questions “the overpowering significance assigned to these performance measures in the debate, as they were not found to be entirely decisive.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 126) An extensive publication record is a condition but not a guarantee for success.

This relates to another finding: the group process of panel discussions are also very important. With a variety of examples, Van Arensbergen shows how the organization of the selection process shapes the outcome. The face to face interview of the candidate with the panel is for example crucial for the final decision. In addition, the influence of the external peer reports was found to be modest.

A third finding in the talent dissertation is that success in obtaining grants feeds back into ones scientific and scholarly career. This creates a self reinforcing mechanism, which the science historian Robert Merton coined the Matthew effect after the quote from the bible: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Merton, 1968). Van Arensbergen concludes that this means that differences between scholars may initially be small but will increase in the course of time as a result of funding decisions. “Panel decisions convert minor differences in quality into enlarged differences in recognition.”

Combining these three findings leads to some interesting conclusions regarding how we actually define and shape quality in academia. Although panel decisions about who to fund are strongly shaped by the organization of the selection process as well as by a host of other contextual factors (including chance), and although all researchers are aware of the uncertainties in these decisions, this does not mean that these decisions are given less weight. On the contrary, obtaining external grants has become a cornerstone for successful academic careers. Universities even devote considerable resources to make their researchers abler to acquire prestigious grants as well as external funding in general. Although this is clearly instrumental for the organization, Van Arensbergen thinks that grants have become part of the symbolic capital of a researcher and research group and she refers to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital to better understand the implications.

This brings me to my short lecture at the opening of the editorial office of ISIS in Utrecht. Although the experts on bibliometric indicators don’t generally see the Journal Impact Factor as an indicator of quality, socially it seems to partly function like it. But indicators are not alone in shaping how we in practice identify, and thereby define, talent and quality. They flow together with the way quality assurance and measurement processes are organized, the social psychology of panel discussions, the extent to which researchers are visible in their networks, etc. In these complex contextual interactions, indicators do not determine but they are ascribed meaning dependent on the situation in which the researchers find themselves. A good way to think about this, in my view, is developed in the field of material semiotics. This approach which has its roots in the French actor network theory of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, does not accept a fundamental rupture in reality between the material and the symbolic. Reality as such is the result of complex and interacting translation processes. This is an excellent philosophical basis to understand how scientific and scholarly quality emerge. I see quality not as an attribute of an academic persona or of a particular piece of work, but as the result of the interaction between a researcher (or a manuscript) and the already existing scientific or scholarly infrastructure (eg. the body of published studies). If this interaction creates a productive friction (meaning that there is enough novelty in the contribution but not so much that it is incompatible with the already existing body of work), we see the work or scholar as of high quality. In other words, quality does simply not (yet) exist outside of the systems of quality measurement. The implication of this is that quality itself is a historical category. It is not an invariant but a culturally and historically specific concept that changes and morphes over time. In fact, the history of science is the history of quality. I hope historians of science will take up the challenge to map this history in more empirical and theoretical sophistication than has been done so far.


Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science. Science, 159, 56–62.

Van Arensbergen, P. (2014). Talent proof : selection processes in research funding and careers. The Hague, Netherlands: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved from http://www.worldcat.org/title/talent-proof-selection-processes-in-research-funding-and-careers/oclc/890766139&referer=brief_results



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