The Human Factor
Digitization and impact scores have eroded professional interactions even as they make it easier to manage the flood of new findings.
By Deborah Jackson
Today researchers are constantly challenged by the flood of new information from discoveries and the rapid rate of disclosure of innovations and new methodological practices. Not only has there been an explosion of new journals on an ever expanding number of subtopics, but digital publishing innovations have shortened the turn-around time between submission and publication, resulting in exponential increases in scholarly articles begging to be read and digested. Gone are the days when it was possible to stay abreast in a field simply by reading a few major journals from cover to cover.
This being the digital age, there’s a software solution: A host of tools helps researchers manage the publication deluge. Digitization has enabled topic- or article-specific searches across a wide variety of journals, making it easier to scan for developments within a field. By circumventing the traditional person-to-person mechanism of knowledge transfer, digital searches also permit faster cross-pollination across differing technology sectors. Other digitally generated tools help refine and curate the quality of publications by calculating the impact factors of specific journals and such author-level metrics as the H-index (or Hirsch index), the i10-index, and the G-index. (The i10-index indicates the number of an author’s publications with at least 10 citations; the G-index was introduced as an improvement on the H-index in measuring an author’s impact.) The journal-impact factor originally was devised in the 1960s to guide librarians in the purchase of publications that were more likely to be read by their academic constituents. Over time, however, the impact factor has taken on a life of its own and changed behavior patterns. For example, many researchers now consider journal-impact factors when deciding where to publish. Journal editors are designing explicit policies aimed at improving their publication’s impact factor, and a journal’s impact sometimes is used as a proxy for the anticipated number of citations a newly published paper might be expected to receive.
Analogously, the scholar-focused H-index also has evolved on its own interactive trajectory. Originally conceived as an author-level metric to help curate both the publication and the citation impact of an individual author’s scholarly contributions, the H-index has become a shorthand replacement for a lifetime of work—and changed the way we interact and socialize as engineers and scientists. Yes, it is a mark of impact. But fewer and fewer people know much about what their colleagues have done to achieve their position of influence because we all have less time to invest in learning such details. Instead, it’s become enough to know their H-index.
Increasingly, I know of people more by their H-index than for what they specifically have accomplished. Furthermore, the H-index conveys no information on the type of impact. Was it positive or negative? Was it transient or long-lived? When we start reducing the worth of people to a few numbers, we start missing out on the elements of satisfaction meant to accompany the human experience and the joy of existence itself.
Discarded are the old rituals of acknowledgment in which one took time to (1) understand the new knowledge; (2) reflect on the journey it took to acquire it; and (3) recognize our associates’ successful completion of that journey. Pausing to salute our colleagues was once a deeply ingrained practice before the information-age deluge. It reflected an epoch when we all had the luxury of time to savor and value new knowledge and to show our appreciation to those colleagues who brought it forth. I miss those days because there was a certain joy in interacting with my colleagues. It promoted an atmosphere of intellectualism that made the day-to-day drudgery of systematic research and discovery an interactive and fun activity. The goal was to achieve professional satisfaction through collegial interactions—not by accumulating numbers.
As we drown in a sea of information, the very shortcuts we invented to save us time also leave us with an intangible sense of loss. Google’s Project Aristotle, a study aimed at identifying the secret sauce that facilitates the formation of highly effective teams, gives some insight into what is lost. The Google analysts concluded that it’s not who is on the team that matters most, but how team members interact with one another. Yet the H-index provides no insight into the very factor that Project Aristotle deemed most important. If the quality of our interactions isn’t being measured, how do we know we still have the secret sauce?
Deborah Jackson is a program manager in the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent those of NSF or of the U.S. government.