Saturday, 1 March 2014

Why Aren't Acknowledgements Acknowledged in Academic Citation Indeces and Metrics?

Note: a crucial amendment to the original post has been made in the last paragraph. The tip from Daniela Cutas making this possible is hereby acknowledged!

Today, as many times before I received a so-called "alarm" from Google Scholar in my email inbox. This notified me of a new research publication in the GS index related to myself, but this time it was none of my own work that had appeared online and neither one in which some of my work was cited, which are otherwise the typical contents of these "alarms". It was, instead, a new article by Neil Levy in Biology & Philosophy, called "Addiction as a disorder of belief", where I'm mentioned in the acknowledgements section, due to Neil having presented a draft of this paper at our research seminar last term and, apparently, some comment of mine had been of help.

This made me think of how important an institution acknowledgements are in the academic world, especially in those parts where extensive multi-authorship is not the norm, as in philosophy, ethics and, in fact, most of the humanities and social sciences. It is in the acknowledgements that you recognize contributions of others to your work other than having actually written it together and these can be everything from subtle to such broad or basic contributions that they cannot be captured by any specific article or book citation. Often this happens with people you interact with in the course of doing your research as they are also in a work in progress stage, which in the mentioned field is often equivalent to working on the manuscript. Or it is the contributions of people who have not published anything on the topic, but nevertheless provide useful suggestions. Thus, mentioning in acknowledgements is quite a non-trivial thing; it is, in fact, an integral part of exhibiting the collective nature of research also in these parts of academia. No wonder, then, that philosophers (and I'm sure others, but philosophers are whom I know best) pay a rather great deal of attention to who is being mentioned in acknowledgements and how, as this reveals a great deal about what interactions lie behind a piece of work and also the nature of the research environment of the author. In books, the foreword/preface (where acknowledgements usually surface) is thus a central section for geting a grip on what is many times a highly complex body of information, argument and advancement of intellectual thought (regardless if you end up agreeing or not). In the natural and technological sciences, as well as biomedicine, achnowledgement do not, as far as I have come to understand through my rather abundant interactions with people from such fields over the years, occupy this type of important position. Rather, they are an aside reserved for funding agencies, and people who do not (or have not been deemed to) deserve to be included as co-authors, part of the consortium, or whatever immense collective body is the author in the particular case. Basically, if one researcher has interacted with some other researcher in the production of a piece of research, this will show in the form of co-authorship, not acknowledgement. In the humanities and social sciences, the rule is rather the opposite, which makes acknowledgements immensely valuable, as (due to a much smaller degree of fragmentation of publication) it often may take quite a while for a working in progress to end up in the form of an actually published work – in the case of books (still the finest of merit in these fields), not seldom several years. True, some mentions in acknowledgements reflect very minor contributions, sometimes just material ones, like having invited someone to present at a seminar or provided a visiting fellowship for a brief while, but that goes for co-authorship in those other academic fields as well - where a place in the list of author has, as we all know, become a currency to trade for all sort of things material related to conducting research. You want a peak at my data?/collaborate with my post doc/profit from my comments/use my tool, I get authorship – that sort of thing.

That could have been the end of it, if it wasn't for the increasing importance for funding and career of how you score on various citation metrics. This tool for measuring how influential your work comes from the natural, technological and biomedical sciences and thus concentrate on authorship and citation of published articles. Due to its increased use also for ranking humanities and social science academics, it is now increasingly including also books on academic publishers and conference proceedings (which in some fields are just as long and peer reviewed as journal articles). However, it is still citation of a published work that counts, which means that mention in acknowledgement will not improve your citation ranking. This means, that a substantial part of how influence on each other's work and collective interaction in research is conveyed for humanities and social science researchers, is simply ignored by these systems – now used for allocating our money and assessing our merit. Simply put: the tool is currently significantly biased and rigged to the disbenefit of humanities and social science researchers for no good reason.

At the same time, it seems to me, that with today's technology in publication and research accomplishment indexing, it should actually be no problem at all to have mention in acknowledgement be reflected in citation indeces and metrics. [Added in retrospect] And indeed it isn't, as was demonstrated already in 2004, in this articel. This goes for all of the larger indexes, including Google Scholar Citations, Thompson Reuter's Web of Knowledge and Ellsevier's Scopus. Alternatively, universities, governments and funding bodies paying attention to existing metrics, should add in their assessment of humanities and social sciences a further citation dimension of this type. Otherwise, the resulting allocation and assessments will be substantially misguided and missing a crucial part of what drives research and innovation outside of the already highly privileged fields of natural, technological and biomedical science.