Measuring Research Impact

by Geraldine Richmond | Feb 11, 2020

Geraldine RichmondThere are a multitude of reasons one aspires to become a scientist or engineer. The opportunity to use our technical expertise to improve the human condition is often what keeps us going. Often this impact is not realized until years or even decades later.   

In today’s competitive workplace, we increasingly seek to measure this impact with quantifiable metrics. In some circles such as academia, the number of research papers published and citations of these papers, translated to a term called H-index, is a measure often used to assess research productivity and significance. The “impact factor” of the journal in which these papers appear is an additional metric to gauge the influence or importance of one’s work. Such metrics, however, do not capture the broader impact beyond the publishing arena.

Moreover, the research community is increasingly concerned about the detrimental effects of overusing citation metrics. Eugene Garfield, the legendary information scientist responsible for the science citation analysis, has called these metrics “rather dubious.” May Berenbaum, editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recently noted that the use of such simplistic measures for determining the true impact of a piece of work is problematic. She writes that it is particularly troublesome when used as a predictor of potential career success in hiring, promotion, and funding of early career researchers. Furthermore, she believes that a heavy reliance on such numbers bypasses the important evaluative effort that involves a more time-consuming balanced analysis of the individual’s articles and importance to the field.

We at Sigma Xi, as an honorary research society, view impact as much broader than H-indices and citation numbers. As our mission statement reflects, we see our members having an impact not only in their research ventures but also by enhancing the overall health of the research enterprise. We are comprised of members who view an impactful career as one that nurtures the next generation of scientists. Many members provide science outreach activities in their communities and developing countries around the world. Those involved in science policy are affecting legislation that is technically informed and guided by fact and not guesswork. And let us not forget the impact of Sigma Xi’s volunteers who ensure the success of the Society’s programs, such as awarding students with research grants or providing distinguished lecturers.

There is no better time than now for Sigma Xi members to discuss with students, colleagues, and friends the multitude of methods of using our scientific knowledge and expertise to make a difference—including defining and embracing impact in the broadest sense. That’s who we are.

Geraldine Richmond is the Fiscal Year 2020 president of Sigma Xi.

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