By Tibor Hartel
In the last days I scrolled Google Scholar profiles of various researchers. Looking to the citation metrics visualized by Google Scholar I was thinking about the possibility for interpreting citation metrics of researchers within the framework of the adaptive cycle of the resilience theory. If this trial makes you think and reflect – even for some short seconds – I consider this adventure successful.
Ecological systems are dynamic systems which go through four main phases: growth and exploitation (r), conservation (K), collapse or release (omega) and reorganization (alpha). E.g. ‘During the slow sequence from exploitation to conservation, connectedness and stability increase and a capital of nutrients and biomass (in ecosystems) is slowly accumulated and sequestered ’ (quoted from here, Figure 1).
There are many parallels between the above described phases of an ecological system and a researcher`s publication/citation metric and possibly career. For a researcher the wealth may be represented by the number of papers and citations, and the connectedness (i.e. how well known the researcher is at wider spatial or even disciplinary scales).
At the initial stages (PhD and young researcher/postdoc years) everybody starts with an ‘r’ phase: young researchers invest a lot in data collection and developing analytical and writing skills. Connectivity is typically low at this stage (i.e. they are largely unknown) and limited to the supervisor (if the student is lucky, the supervisor is well connected!) and some colleagues. There is a strong desire to ‘know and do everything’ and this sometimes (if the supervisor don`t control it well) can turn into a kind of ‘maniac’ behaviour (i.e. lots of ideas come but the huge enthusiasm makes the poor student unable to select one good idea and finalize it). It is the time of many good publications and the happiness if a paper ends up in a well established journal. Nothing is routine at this stage but a good reason for celebration and professional satisfaction (after each good paper, new citation, review request etc.). Figure 1 shows how the citation profile of a young researcher looks. Regardless the research field and the amount of papers and the h index, the trajectories are near similar suggesting the ‘r’ phase of the cycle.
Being senior researcher and / or professor may coincide with the ‘K’ phase of the cycle. Wealth (including e.g. citations) and connectedness is maximized. Phones and invitations every day, administrative duties, meetings, teaching, review requests every week. Students come to the door and ask for working possibilities. Citations and papers are almost given. (Some professors may even read all the papers they publish!) With all these, the ‘K’ phase is the phase of stability and reputation. How wonderful words! Figure 3 shows the citation metrics for well established (i.e. all in the top five of their topics according to citations) researchers in different (less popular and more popular) fields.
From Figure 3 it is obvious that there is an upper level of citations which is stable. For some researchers like Albert-László Barabási it stabilizes at ca 10,000 citations per year while for others at 600 papers per year. It may depend on the research field, connectedness, resources available etc. These are details – what is really interesting is that it doesn’t matter at which level the citation wealth ‘stabilizes’: it will stabilise (Figure 3)! No metter how obsessed we are with publications and citations, we will reach our limit. These shows that regardless the classical amount based citation metrics, in fact all good researchers are similar regarding their citation curve. I think this is fascinating and I would not be surprised if sometimes somebody will found that these citation curves have diagnostical value. Maybe a new scientific quality metric will be proposed based on the shape of these curves?:)
The omega phase should mean a strong decrease in citations. I don’t found omega phases on my quick Google Scholar survey. Besides the weakness of sampling, the reason for lack of omega phases may be multiple: (i) The ‘K’ stage of well established researchers and professors is permanently fueled by the ‘r’ phases of many enthusiastic young researchers. (ii) A well established researcher may have enough resources/wealth (e.g. innovation, connectedness) which could be mobilised to explore new research fields and opportunities and avoid major collapses. (iii) Last but not least, Albert Einstein`s citations reached an asymptote many decades after his death, showing that brilliant results, ideas and thoughts can survive and be influential long after the brain which created them passed away.
If the above thoughts are true, and we, researchers, are indeed caught in an adaptive cycle, what is to be done? Is the academia`s obsession with quantity an inherent feature of our (research, human) system which makes our scientific behaviour and trajectory quite predictable?
Thanks to Moritz Meyer for listening these argumentations.