Ten thoughts on research, ranking, quality and clownery


- on occasion of the reception of the "citation laureate" price at May 24, 2005. *

 

By Claus Emmeche.


 

Intro: You should be thankful when your work is acknowledged. This said, a question emerges: Should you also be thankful for being cited - and even receive a price for that? Who cites whom for what, when and why? Certain doubts appear, and a feeling of contingency and murkiness. Thus, here are some questions you could pose on the occasion of the celebration ... and some very tentative answers:

 

1. "Decorations are pinned on idiots" (as Heiberg said) - but who are citation prices pinned on - researchers?

Answer: no, clowns.

 

2. Can all research be judged by the same scale of measurement?

Answer: Yes, but the result is accordingly one-dimensional.

 

3. Do citations say anything about quality of research?

Answer: It's like measuring ingenuity by popularity, or talent by fame. Being famous or infamous are distinct ways to be known. You can be cited for your errors, misconceptions, the howler that became a classic.

 

4. But how did you deserve that honor?

Answer: A good answer is blowing in the wind of database citation indexes (and the method of the statisticians who selected the material and formed the result), but bare numbers doesn't say anything about content.

 

5. Isn't it important to see where Denmark is strongest and who are the best ones?

Answer: You cannot do so neglecting the diversity, which is itself a strength. Don't forget to ask: What is the purpose behind comparisons and rankings?

 

6. But the selected 26 price winning scientists from different fields should give a fairly good picture of the many different kinds of research we have in Denmark?

Answer: The partitioning seems quite random and coarse grained to the extreme, especially in areas of arts and humanities, and the social sciences. Look at linguistics, hermeneutics, history, psychology, media science, etc. - is that just all the same? Only a clown can pretend to represent it all.

 

7. But Denmark should guard and support its elite in sport as well as in science?

Answer: Well yes, but research is not sport, and elite is a word heavily loaded with ideology. "Elite" in research must be judged by different standards from field to field. Sport is a bad metaphor for science. Insight-giving science takes time.

 

8. Isn't it vital to applaud the high quality of Danish research?

Answer: If so we should value its content, not making a fetish of its quantitative aspects.

 

9. What role does Arts and Humanities play in Danish research policy?

Answer: It's somehow as if the role attributed to the humanities within the overall picture of research becomes that of the clown, a jester. Something you can't take serious. But think about this again, the clown's function is really serious: To turn habitual preconceptions and dogmas upside down.

 

10. Now what if the ranking list is erroneous - how would you feel about having received such a price?

Answer: Like a clown. So why not anticipate that role?

 


* Note: By the end of April 2005 I received a letter from the company Thomson Scientific with a surprising message that I would receive an award as "one of Denmark's most-cited authors for your publications in arts & humanities". There was no mentioning the number of other citation laureates in that huge area, so I imagined a kind of representativeness and presumed this number to be quite high, given that such a peripheral type as me was included. So, at the day before the event, my surprise was even greater, bordering to disbelief, when I a journalist told me that there was only one receiver of the price in that 'field', and another single one within "social science" (excluding sociology, archeology and anthropology, from where nobody was selected).
      I should add, that my area of research includes philosophy of science (in a limited sense a discipline within Arts and Humanities) with a focus on natural science. I have also worked - together with many good colleagues - on applying semiotics (the study of signs, often perceived as a 'pure' humanities discipline) to the study of living systems, the so-called biosemiotics.
      Citation indexes and databases can be a useful tool within research (for instance if you want to track comments or criticism relating to a specific paper), but it is a very problematic tool when used to legitimate research political agendas or as a tool of control in research administration.


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