Reviewers are blinkered by bibliometrics

Authors: Paula Stephan, Reinhilde Veugelers& Jian Wang

Abstract: There is a disconnect between the research that reviewers purport to admire and the research that they actually support. As participants on multiple review panels and scientific councils, we have heard many lament researchers’ reluctance to take risks. Yet we’ve seen the same panels eschew risk and rely on bibliometric indicators for assessments, despite widespread agreement that they are imperfect measures1–6.

The review panels we observed last year were using bibliometrics in much the same way as they did before the 2015 Leiden Manifesto4, the 2012 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which Nature is signing, and similar exhortations against their use. After all, bibliometric measures offer a convenient way to help evaluate a large number of proposals and papers.

Although journal impact factors (JIFs) were developed to assess journals and say little about any individual paper, reviewers routinely justify their evaluations on the basis of where candidates have published. Panel members judge applicants by Google Scholar results and use citation counts to score proposals for new research. This practice prevails even at agencies such as the European Research Council (ERC), which instructs reviewers not to look up bibliometric measures.

As economists who study science and innovation, we see engrained processes working against cherished goals. Scientists we interview routinely say that they dare not propose bold projects for funding in part because of expectations that they will produce a steady stream of papers in journals with high impact scores. The situation may be worse than assumed. Our analysis of 15 years’ worth of citation data suggests that common bibliometric measures relying on short-term windows undervalue risky research7.

How can we move beyond declarations and wean reviewers off bibliometric indicators that bias decisions against bold work?

Citation: Paula Stephan, Reinhilde Veugelers& Jian Wang. Reviewers are blinkered by bibliometrics : Nature News & Comment. Nature 544, 411–412 (doi:10.1038/544411a

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