Utility: Measuring the Quality of Science

Modern scholarly production runs on the idea that the output of scientists and other researchers should contribute directly to the rewards those people receive. Put simply, academic rewards should be distributed according to the merits of academic work. All in all, fair enough.

Yet current methods of assessing the output of academics – based overwhelmingly on the citation rates of standard journal publications – have been widely criticised as manifestly inequitable and inadequate. As Kent Anderson has asked,

Does scientific attention — as expressed through citations, media coverage, or practitioner knowledge — accrue to quality or reward the real contributors of breakthroughs? Or does attention in scientific publishing create a closed loop? …

One reality of the attention economy in science is the Matthew Effect, named after a Biblical passage and popularized in 1968 by Robert K. Merton. Basically, it’s the “rich get richer” premise that once you start winning, you keep accruing benefits.

This is a well-studied phenomenon for citations. Once an article gets cited, it keeps getting cited. Once an article gets overlooked, it can disappear forever.

Though many have argued that the flaw with this system lies in the method of measurement, I think that current measurements of academic output rest on a flawed metaphor. This metaphor can be presented something like this: Continue reading