Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Scientists Curse the Name Eugene Garfield: Impact Factor

Eugene Garfield seems like a likable enough name, if one that brings to mind images of a fat cat eating lasagna. However at a recent departmental retreat during a science trivia game, his name came up as one to curse. This is of course because he is credited for subjecting us to the terror of the Impact Factor.

A much better method for calculating impact factor, in my humble opinion.
The further you advance into the wonderful world of academia and science, the more aware you become of the hefty weight of the impact factor. For those of you unfamiliar with it, impact factor is a numerical rank applied to journals based on the number of citations they receive in a year (not unlike google's page rank, calculated based on links back to your page). Top journals, Science, Nature, NEJM etc have high impact factors, and it is therefor more desirable to publish in them, as they increase the likelihood your own work will be cited and deemed influential.

However impact factor wasn't intended as a tool for scientists per say, but rather for libraries to determine which journals to purchase. It bears in mind to remember that while impact factor means something about the rank of a journal, it does directly reflect the quality of all the science published within.

And scientists, in of themselves, do not have impact factors.

Except wait, I was at a meeting in Toronto this past week and the way people were talking, it seemed like we did.

In the increasingly competitive realm of academia (only 15% of PhDs will attain the coveted tenure track position one day) a numerical ranking of job applicants may seem like a great idea. Much like a GPA for those of us who are no longer taking classes, our CVs are being read like transcripts. You may be asked to include the impact factor (quoted to up to 3 decimal pts!) of the journal of each of your publications, add or average them up and your potential employers have a simple way to rank all their applicants.

While the value of publishing peer reviewed papers in high impact journals should not be understated (and anyone of us may be willing to sell our souls for a Nature paper) should a scientist's value really be quantified this way? Increasingly the science community has called for better understanding of the true meaning of impact factor and rallied against its prominence as an evaluative tool of science and scientists. Recently, a multidisciplinary group of scientists, editors and publishers met in San Francisco to outline suggestions for moving away from the impact factor.

The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)

And this past month, the editor-in-chief of Science wrote an excellent editorial on the topic.

Impact Factor Distortions

At the end of the day, science is rapidly becoming more multi-disciplinary and expansive than ever, and the research scientist, an individual who's value far exceeds only his/her publication record. So while the impact factor may not be all bad, it is important to remember it is certainly not all good either.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing that Research Proposal 005

This past week I finally wrapped on my research proposal, a labour of love, hate, and 8months of carrying stacks of papers around. While completing it and having my supervisory committee sign off on it marks the countdown towards my candidacy exam next month, having it finally finished couldn't feel any better.

The research proposal is a critical endeavour of the graduate career, whether it be a master's or PhD program. Typically undertaken after a year of preliminary experiments and background reading, it may be simply a necessity of your program or, in my case, provide the materials around which you will be tested for candidacy. In either case it may represent the first time you, as a student, are asked to think creatively and critically, independent of your supervisor, proposing a hypothesis and the experiments suitable to test it.

I began my own efforts on my proposal at the end of last summer, throwing a blank poster board up on the wall of my living room, and brain storming a concept map around the data I had collected so far. From that map I tried to arrive at a clear hypothesis, and a set of three major research aims.

From September to December, I wrote, scrapped it, and rewrote my draft a number of times. Without deadlines enforced by anyone other than myself, I struggled to prioritize this project over numerous others that sprung up with harder deadlines (applying for funding, submitting abstracts for meetings etc). And that is nothing to say for balancing effective reading and writing with the experiments necessary to move the project along.

Then came the rounds of edits from my supervisor, the flip-flopping back and forth between styles of presenting my aims, and going through things with a fine tooth comb (I am a notoriously bad speller, and incredibly fond of typos). The finished product, 20 full single spaced pages of text, 9 additional figures and some 60 or so references....oh and literal blood sweat and tears put into the effort. (Who ever said there's no crying in science?)

Along the way, here are some things I've learned that would make it go smoother next time around (only there had better not be a next time).

  1. When you read papers, take notes! Detailed notes that you can write from. And organize, organize, organize. You'll want to be able to find the reference easily when your train of writing needs it.
  2. When you get fed up with writing, take a break. Burning yourself out on one go will only make it harder to get back to it later.
  3. Practice writing and reading often. The major pitfall of many proposals is that unclear writing leads to mis-communications leading your committee wondering what you are trying to say (or if you know what you're talking about). Reading other peoples proposals, papers etc. will help  you develop your own writing skills. In particular, if you can read bad examples, you'll learn in a hurry what to avoid. If you're are ESL, take advantage of a friend to read through and give comments on the writing.
  4. Say exactly what you mean. Avoid unnecessarily flowery text, or ambiguous statements. This is your proposal, so be confident enough to make clear statements, and be ready and willing to defend them.
  5. Remember it's just a proposal, you may never do half of what is in it. Science is often a study of opportunity, a novel or unexpected result may take your project in a directly you could have never predicted. So avoid the sense of anxiety that if you can't complete everything you propose you've somehow failed. Take this as an opportunity to write you ideal project proposal based on what you know now.
  6. At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to leave good enough alone. Remember this is a document that only a handful of people will ever read, and is intended more as an exercise in developing the knowledge and skills you will need to apply for grants and run your own group one day. So maybe after that 5th or 6th round of revisions, just call it done.
  7. That being said, take it seriously, the skills you have the potential to develop, through preparing an excellent document, will help you enormously through the rest of your career.
I hope some of this advice will help you when you undertake your the writing of your own research proposal. Although I may have hated it at many points along the way (and am dearly looking forward to burning a copy in a bonfire when I finish my candidacy) I managed to produce a document which I am immensely proud of.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...