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Prestige

The Nature Index stuff made GG wonder just how highly cited are the best geoscience papers from those prestigious journals? And how do they stand up to some other journals?  So here are some results from Web of Science.

For ease of calculation, we’ll just look at the journals that were all earth science, and let’s limit things to since 1960.  So of the prestigious journals in the Nature list, here are the number of citations of the top three papers:

  • Earth and Planetary Science Letters (1966 start): 6600, 5835, 2482
  • Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta: 8167, 3035, 2348
  • Geology (1972 start) 1562, 1158, 1113
  • Geophysical Research Letters (1974 start) 2342, 2241, 1239
  • Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (1991; 1985-1991 Solid Earth and Planets, before that just JGR B) 2583, 2529, 2516.
  • Nature Geoscience (2008 start) 1374, 1017, 931

The four bold faced citations are those above 3000. Now here are some other reasonably prominent geoscience journals with their top 3 citations.

  • Applied Geochemistry (since 1987) 3593, 776, 692
  • Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 3237, 2388, 1898
  • Chemical Geology (since 1968 WoS) 5846, 2639, 2087
  • Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology (since 1969 in WoS) 2210, 2090, 2042
  • GSA Bulletin 2143, 1560, 1246
  • Geophysical Journal RAS (to 1987)/GJI (1989-) 3454, 2763, 1910
  • Journal of Geology 2105, 1905, 1850
  • Lithos (1975 start in WoS) 1226, 1147, 976
  • Tectonics (1981 start) 1263, 1021, 785
  • Pure and Applied Geophysics (1964 start in WoS) 2342, 610, 599

Several of the most highly cited papers are in review journals not listed here (which are quite prestigious and often the good review papers carry more than just a review). But looking at this list it is hard to say that this second list is really all that different in producing extremely highly cited papers, and you could argue that this list might be just as important a set of journals as that used in Nature Index.  Even a journal as uneven as Tectonophysics occasionally has a gem in it (1756 citations) and specialty journals like Quaternary Research (2253) and Precambrian Research (1267) often produce influential papers. Even some of the new electronic journals (G^3, Geosphere) have some well cited papers despite starting this century.

The message? Prestige is earned by what you say, not where you say it.

Metrical Madness

And now, for your enjoyment of the ability to place your institution above others, we introduce yet another metric! (Applause, hosannas, people falling to the floor in ecstasy). And so, as is usually the case, the promotion people at the relevant universities (like GG’s) push any favorable numbers out the door, like here.

The new metric? Well, OK, technically it is now 4 years old but it seems to have gained some prominence with a recent modification: Nature Index. And just what does it measure?  It is simply counting the number of articles in a subset of “prestigious” journals over the past year affiliated with institutions.  Which journals are prestigious? You wouldn’t be wrong to say Nature journals, many of which make the cut. In earth and environmental science (where CU ranked in the top 10, much to the pleasure of the university’s promotors) the list is:

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Count….down, please

Sneha Kulkarni asks at the Scholarly Kitchen

Is the deluge of scientific publications taking us closer to unraveling unanswered questions? Or is it adding to the noise that makes identifying the really significant publications difficult?

One guess as to the answer.

We’ve been in this neighborhood before a few times but it bears repeating. Simply making the reward structure in science revolve around numbers of papers and their derivatives (like h-indices) is just plain bad.  As the post reminds us, it burdens reviewers, it tempts shingling, it encourages sloppiness if not outright dishonesty, it clutters the literature, maybe even deletes all your email.  Maybe we should rename the process “publish and perish.”

Rocks and Hard Places

Quite awhile back, GG compared CU (GG’s home institution) with the University of Wisconsin, which was facing budget cuts. At that time, GG’s calculation was that it cost CU about $19,000 to educate an undergraduate in a year, while Wisconsin took $26,000 to do the same thing. For an in-state student then paying just under $11,000, it meant somebody was picking up the other $8,000–and it was the out of state student, who was paying $14,000 more than the cost of the education for the privilege of having a city bus that went to a ski area.

How does CU manage to spend $7000 less than another public university to educate students? Well, CU faculty get to empty their own trash cans.  New buildings essentially are funded either out of student fees or private donations. They also get paid less than equivalent faculty at other peer public schools even as they teach more students per faculty member. Similarly (as we discussed recently), CU graduate students get paid less than their peers elsewhere. And CU is restrained by the Legislature from raising in-state tuition too much or admitting too many out of state students.  As CU’s out of state tuition more or less matches that of quality private schools, the university is backed against a wall.

So to maintain even this toehold on excellence, CU has to balance the books on out-of-state students. So it was hardly a shock to learn that CU recruits from well-to-do out of state high schools. And so, of course, this means that CU’s student body is unusually well-to-do and pretty darn white. CU responded by more or less pointing out this same problem; the university’s position is that they don’t hold any responsibility for promoting economic or social equity outside the state of Colorado, so they shouldn’t be chastised for recruiting from the wealthy that will balance the books. And so there are no plans to alter their out-of-state recruiting.

The sad thing is that the university may have reached the edge of the ledge it has inched along for years.  There are potential graduate students choosing not to come because the cost of living isn’t covered adequately by TA and RA stipends. There are faculty interested in coming who decide that the salary hit they would take isn’t worth it. Basically the system is on the verge of collapse.

Society wants a free lunch.  Colorado residents expect their flagship university to be financially accessible for all residents, but they aren’t willing to contribute through their taxes for that.  In the long run, you get what you pay for. At this point, the only thing that will save the University of Colorado is the failure of other state universities as their state governments follow the state of Colorado and decide higher education is not something worth investing in.

Probably the last avenue will be advertising, don’t you think?  How about getting your syllabus courtesy of Chevron, or having to view ads at the start of lecture? Think that might have any influence on the education you’d receive?

Pay Scales

“Wow, I get to be paid to go to school!”

That was the reaction of GG’s classmate years ago upon learning that, not only had he been accepted as a graduate students at a prestigious university, but that he would actually get paid for the privilege. After four years of shelling out big bucks for a bachelor’s degree, getting to this point seemed amazing.

Last week was “Graduate Student Appreciation Week“, but in contrast to the feeling mentioned above, some would argue the students are hardly appreciated. Consider the recent proposal from the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a CU-Boulder student-run group fighting insufficient wages and a hostile work environment. Their proposal was that graduate student wages be increased 25% instead of the 6% raise that the University of Colorado has budgeted. How should we look at compensation?

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Academic Faceplant

GG has pretty adamantly argued that you shouldn’t be measuring a scientist’s worth from where she publishes and thus rewards based on journal metrics are misguided and ethically wrong. So it was gratifying in one sense to see Sylvia McLain’s post on publishing in lower impact journals. But then GG read the comments, which included these:

I value what you say here and I thank you for expressing this important perspective. I, too, made similar choices early in my faculty career. I had several very high impact publications from my PhD and postdoc years, but during my time as an assistant professor I focused on just putting out good solid science…The tenure committee called this a “downward career trajectory” and sent me packing.

Sure, people in your specific subfield can appreciate high quality j Chem Phys, but everyone else only has brand name to go on. If you are expecting to look [for?] a job some day, high profile journal articles are pretty much the only ones that count.

Low IF journals are not going to get you tenure, so I sure hope assistant professors don’t take this advice to heart.

Indeed there might be gems in low impact journals and those profs might be excellent scientists, but why not settle for excellent work published at high impact journals?

Is it true there are places where “everyone else only has brand name to go on” and so decides on tenure based on the journal’s impact factor? Really? People are sent packing solely because of where they publish? GG is beyond appalled and only hopes this misrepresents what some schools are doing.

Look, ideally tenure should reflect the impact a faculty member has had on their community. That should be measured by what the leaders in the field say along with an evaluation by the faculty of what the main contributions are and what influence they have had. This requires departments to read the candidate’s work and to solicit useful reference letters (i.e., ignoring ones that simply count publications or citation indices). While citation numbers and publication history can provide some information, it should be tiny and used more to better understand where the candidate’s work resides. GG feels that this is what we look at in our department at CU Boulder, so this isn’t pie-in-the-sky.

That said, it appears that some places are blinded by the editorial whims of the tabloid journals (the greatest barrier to publication in Science or Nature is not peer review or the quality of the work, it is having enough of a hook so that the discipline editor can sell the paper to the main editorial group–and this might depend on what the journal has recently published or just how many news stories some other work got). Read More…

Science: Passion or Profession?

A number of the posts the Grumpy Geophysicist has written have hidden in their depths a fundamental tension between science as an ideal goal and science as a profession.  Consider part of Hubbert’s GSA Presidential Address screed from 1963:

Instead of remaining primarily educational institutions and centers of fundamental inquiry and scholarship, the universities have become large centers of applied research. In fact, it is the boast of many that their highest-paid professors have no teaching duties at all! Instead of providing an atmosphere of quiet, with a modicum of economic security afforded by the system of academic tenure, where competent scholars may have time to think, the universities have become overstaffed with both first- and second-class employees. Those of the first class, who bear the title of “professor” and enjoy academic tenure, have largely become Directors of Research; those of the second class, whose competence often equals or exceeds that of the first class, are the research-project employees whose tenures extend from one contract to the next.

Complementing activities of this sort [of large research lab] is the prevailing academic system of preferment based upon the fetish of “research.” Faculty members are promoted or discharged on the basis of the quantity of their supposed research, rarely on the basis of their competence as teachers. And the criterion of research is publication. The output per man expected in some institu- tions, I am informed, is three or four published papers per year. In almost any university one hears the cynical unwritten motto: “Publish or perish.” In addition, there is the almost universal practice of paying the traveling expenses to attend scientific meetings of those faculty members who are presenting papers at the meeting; the “nonproductive” members can pay their own way or stay home. The effect of this on the number and quality of papers with which the program of every scientific meeting is burdened requires no elaboration.

Although Hubbert spent most of his career outside of universities, he clearly deplored what he viewed as the corruption of the intellectual pursuits of the universities by the development of the post-WW II government-funded research establishment, a development most modern scientists view with great regard. And Hubbert did miss that this development did in fact increase the ability of the universities to train graduate students, so the negative he expressed was overstated.  Even so, it is a question worth contemplating: is a successful scientist a successful professor, and vice versa?

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