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Metrics of use: How to align researcher incentives with outcomes

9 June 2010 6 Comments
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It has become reflexive in the Open Communities to talk about a need for “cultural change”. The obvious next step becomes to find strong and widely respected advocates of change, to evangelise to young researchers, and to hope for change to follow. Inevitably this process is slow, perhaps so slow as to be ineffective. So beyond the grassroots evangelism we move towards policy change as a top down mechanism for driving improved behaviour. If funders demand that data be open, that papers be accessible to the wider community, as a condition of funding then this will happen. The NIH mandate and the work of the Wellcome Trust on Open Access show that this can work, and indeed that mandates in some form are necessary to raise levels of compliance to acceptable levels.

But policy is a blunt instrument, and researchers being who they are don’t like to be pushed around. Passive aggressive responses from researchers are relatively ineffectual in the peer reviewed articles space. A paper is a paper. If its under the right licence then things will probably be ok and a specific licence is easy to mandate. Data though is a different fish. It is very easy to comply with a data availability mandate but provide that data in a form which is totally useless. Indeed it is rather hard work to provide it in a form that is useful. Data, software, reagents and materials, are incredibly diverse and it is difficult to make good policy that can be both effective and specific enough, as well as general enough to be useful. So beyond the policy mandate stick, which will only ever provide a minimum level of compliance, how do we motivate researchers to putting the effort into making their outputs available in a useful form? How do we encourage them to want to do the right thing? After all what we want to enable is re-use.

We need more sophisticated motivators than blunt policy instruments, so we arrive at metrics. Measuring the ouputs of researchers. There has been a wonderful animation illustrating a Daniel Pink talk doing the rounds in the past week. Well worth a look and important stuff but I think a naive application of it to researchers’ motivations would miss two important aspects. Firstly, money is never “off the table” in research. We are always to some extent limited by resources. Secondly the intrinsic motivators, the internal metrics that matter to researchers, are tightly tied to the metrics that are valued by their communities. In turn those metrics are tightly tied to resource allocation. Most researchers value their papers, the places they are published and the citations received, as measures of their value, because that’s what their community values. The system is highly leveraged towards rapid change, if and only if a research community starts to value a different set of metrics.

What might the metrics we would like to see look like? I would suggest that they should focus on what we want to see happen. We want return on the public investment, we want value for money, but above all we want to maximise the opportunity for research outputs to be used and to be useful. We want to optimise the usability and re-usability of research outputs and we want to encourage researchers to do that optimisation. Thus if our metrics are metrics of use we can drive behaviour in the right direction.

If we optimise for re-use then we automatically value access, and we automatically value the right licensing arrangements (or lack thereof). If we value and measure use then we optimise for the release of data in useful forms and for the release of open source research software. If we optimise for re-use, for discoverability, and for value add, then we can automatically tension the loss of access inherent in publishing in Nature or Science vs the enhanced discoverability and editorial contribution and put a real value on these aspects. We would stop arguing about whether tenure committees should value blogging and start asking how much those blogs were used by others to provide outreach, education, and research outcomes.

For this to work there would need to be mechanisms that automatically credit the use of a much wider range of outputs. We would need to cite software and data, would need to acknowledge the providers of metadata that enabled our search terms to find the right thing, and we would need to aggregate this information in a credible and transparent way. This is technically challenging, and technically interesting, but do-able. Many of the pieces are in place, and many of the community norms around giving credit and appropriate citation are in place, we’re just not too sure how to do it in many cases.

Equally this is a step back towards what the mother of all metrics, the Impact Factor was originally about. The IF was intended as a way of measuring the use of journals through counting citations, as a means of helping librarians to choose which journals to subscribe to. Article Level Metrics are in many ways the obvious return to this where we want to measure the outputs of specific researchers. The H-factor for all its weaknesses is a measure of re-use of outputs through formal citations. Influence and impact are already an important motivator at the policy level. Measuring use is actually a quite natural way to proceed. If we can get it right it might also provide the motivation we want to align researcher interests with the wider community and optimise access to research for both researchers and the public.

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  • Mk630 said:

    Very nice post. Thought you might interested in this, in case you hadn't seen it yet: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1756-0500/2/113

  • Marius Kempe said:

    Thought you might be interested in this short article from evolutionary biology, along very similar lines to what you've written.


  • Danny Navarro said:

    Granting agencies have to reward more data generators. It seems all the glory goes to the people who use the data to publish (who in many cases don't credit the data generators properly).

    In my field, proteomics, sharing data is not only more work for the researcher but it also gives advantage to a competitor who might get it out before you and will get the next grant in the field instead of you.

    I don't think evangelization will work. Granting agencies should start looking into something esle that is not publications per se.

    For example, nobody cares about making programs maintainable or fast because you get the same kind of publication with a crappy program than with a good one, as long as both have the same function.

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    Danny, you won't get any argument from me on that. I think evangelization has a role because it helps to raise the profile of the issues but on its own it is not enough. Granting agencies have to start actually caring about optimising output in the general sense – and my feeling is that that will require as you say looking at a much wider range of outputs.