Sigma Xi Speaks: Defining Research Excellence

by Jamie Vernon | Mar 07, 2022

Jamie Vernon

Sigma Xi, the honor society for scientists and engineers, recognizes research excellence in all scientific disciplines and sectors of the research enterprise. The Society relies on its members worldwide to determine the qualifications for membership based on an individual’s scientific contributions. Generations of scientists and engineers have crossed this threshold of excellence to become members. However, the definition of scientific excellence has evolved in recent years. To bridge the divide between the scientific community and the expectations and needs of broader society, metrics associated with inclusivity, accessibility, and usability of science have emerged as critical factors in determining the value of scientific research. Later this year, researchers worldwide will have an opportunity to weigh in on these discussions at the inaugural International Forum on Research Excellence, powered by Sigma Xi.

The effort to redefine research excellence has been underway for several years. In 2012, a group of editors and publishers of scholarly journals met to develop a set of recommendations for evaluating the output of scientific research. The resulting San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) recommends numerous research assessment practices for funding agencies, institutions, publishers, and researchers, including a general recommendation to avoid using “journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions.” 

DORA, widely accepted by individuals and organizations worldwide, set off a series of efforts to rethink research recognition and reward programs. The United Kingdom established the Research Excellence Framework, which is a system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. This system assesses three distinct elements: the quality of outputs (e.g., publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research. The Global Young Academy, which gives a voice to young scientists around the world, suggests that research excellence not only includes achievement in scientific research, but also excellence in connecting science to society, in teaching and mentoring scientists, in science management, and in science advice to policy makers. As a global leader, Sigma Xi has always emphasized the ethical aspects of research and has recently explored broader factors, including whether science is inclusive and accessible to all.   

As evidence of the evolving definition of research excellence, one objective of the 2020-2025 Strategic Plan from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) seeks to ensure that the NAS membership represents all dimensions of excellence in science: geography, gender, race, and scientific field. The plan recognizes that some organizations fail to acknowledge the importance of different kinds of merit, such as “traditional metrics, service, and diversity.” In addition, the NAS has cataloged a complicated array of requirements and policies, all roughly intended to ensure the excellence and integrity of research, in two reports, Optimizing the Nation’s Investment in Academic Research (2016) and Fostering Integrity in Research (2017). Both reports suggest a new body with the capacity to influence a complex network of researchers, institutions, funders, governments, and businesses is needed to provide clarity and leadership on these issues. The NAS has stepped into that role for the US-based research enterprise by establishing the Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust and its goal “to optimize the excellence and trustworthiness of research for the benefit of society.”

Sigma Xi's launch of the International Forum on Research Excellence (IFoRE) will contribute to these goals and recognize the importance of this issue to science and society worldwide. IFoRE will be part of the global discussion about trends and traditions that affect the quality and impact of scientific research. Scientists, engineers, research organizations, and the public worldwide are invited to help define excellence in scientific research and determine the ways to deliver it. The outputs from these conversations will inform the design of research environments and the policies and practices that maximize the value of scientific research. 

Each annual forum theme will focus on an important issue or trend facing the research enterprise through keynote and plenary sessions, while tracks will address ongoing opportunities and challenges, such as broadening participation in science, improving STEM education, increasing accessibility and reliability of scientific information, building trust in science and technology, and increasing impact on society. The conference will also feature many of Sigma Xi’s traditional programmatic elements including student and professional research presentations, the Sigma Xi research excellence awards, and the STEM art and film festival.

We welcome your ideas and participation in planning for the first International Forum on Research Excellence, which will take place in Alexandria, Virginia and online November 3-6, 2022. This year’s theme will focus on "Science Convergence in an Inclusive and Diverse World." Please feel free to contact program chair and Sigma Xi's FY2023 president, Dr. Nicholas Peppas or me at



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Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO

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