Saturday, September 19, 2015

High-Impact Research

It may be useful to indicate what the scholarly community has discovered about what might be called high-impact research. Quality, cumulative contributions, poignant understanding of what you have contributed and letting others know of that in your writing, being tall/white/male etc have been shown to matter. But here are some of the measures of impact and what you can do. Keep in mind that high-impact may not be the deepest or most profound contributions, but if one is seeking high-impact...

1. There are various measures of such: h-index, citations, reference letters, policy changes, grants and fellowships, awards, ...
a. Use the Web of Science citation index rather than Google Scholar. Do not count citations when someone is a post-doc and the most senior person is also on the author list. (Often, when two scholars are compared, especially if the total citations are very different, it is the case that these post-doc citations make the difference.) In some fields, especially in book-writing fields, such citations are much rarer, and so comparisons usually need to be within a field or sub-field.
b. Reference letters should not only be from those within a small cabal. They should be substantive, unless the person needs no introduction (at which point you are high-impact).
c. As for policy changes, these are rare--the favorite example is broken windows. Same for professional practice changes. One problem is whether the change is for the good, but that is another issue entirely.
d. Grant dollars may be significant. But is the person the PI or co-PI? Co-PI's may not deserve the credit especially when they are just starting out and the PI is very well established. What have others in the subfield received? Are the sources of support considered reliable indicators of quality, or merely interested parties?
e. Fellowships may be very significant if they are hard to get. Guggenheim's are such. Some of the residential research centers--Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, for example--are significant. But sometimes the awards are for someone very early in their career with great promise--but high impact is to come later. (I don't know about Fulbright's.)
f. Awards. Political Science provides 100+ awards each year at the APSA meeting. Planning awards maybe 10 such awards at most in all its groups. I don't know about public administration, health policy, ...  Economics or mathematics are much much more sparing of awards than political science. When you compare field sizes, keep in mind that in some fields the number of actively publishing scholars is a small fraction of the total number of academics in the field.

2. Having said all this, how is impact increased:
a. High impact publication venues, where the impact of a venue is measured by citations to work in that venue. Again, there are long delays in some sub-fields, and the numbers are very different in different fields.
b. Research programs that are ongoing and cumulative. You discover a phenomenon, or develop a theory. You then keep publishing about these over a periods of years, usually 7-10. Two things happen: more people see your work; your discovery and ideas become more complex and richer, and people start to take them more seriously. And others refer to them, or follow them up, or challenge your work. If you change subfields or topics too often you are unlikely to be so recognized. (The exception is perhaps John Nash, who made several widely different contributions in his 20s, each a golden egg. Most of us are not John Nash.) In the case of books, usually one book does not do the work, but there are wonderful exceptions. Two books are likely to begin to cement your reputation.
c. Presence. You not only do the work, but you publicize it. You go to meetings, you organize sessions around the work, you have your friends organize sessions around your work. You arrange to give talks about your work to many institutions. Perhaps you can arrange for your work to be awarded (usually through your friends' intervention and nomination). Of course, early on you distributed preprints to the top 10 of the people in your field. Later you do the same. If appropriate, op-ed articles, and other such suitable to your field, will help.
d. Students. If you train a doctoral students and they do good work, you benefit more than they do. Especially if their work explores themes you have developed.
e. Textbooks. You might well write a textbook that incorporates your way of thinking about a subfield. Rarely does this do much for your impact and reputation, but sometimes it does.

Now, of course, there are scholars who have high impact, and win big prizes and awards, with a single very distinctive piece of work--or at least their contribution comes to be so seen. Janet Yellen's husband, George Akerlof, wrote the article on The Market for Lemons. (I have deliberately conflated gender, family ties, and even the phenomenon--since early on they had lots of trouble finding a good appointment.) You are unlikely to have high-impact that way. But an article in Science, The Tragedy of the Commons for example, can be very impactful (even if the ideas were well understood by others already).

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