For too long, the measurement of scientific contribution has centered on the publication. Whether through the number of articles, the citations those articles have by other articles, or even other far more complicated metrics, most scientists are still measured by a derivative of the research article, the basic technology of scientific publishing that is well over 300 years old.
But science is much more than that. It’s ultimately about being involved in making discoveries and creating new knowledge. It’s creating data, helping others, commenting on previous work, and even using Twitter and blogging. If you help someone out or mentor a student, isn’t that worthwhile as well? How can we begin to measure a person such as Szilard?
Let’s take the example of being helpful. Alexander Oettl of Georgia Tech has studied the importance of this trait, despite its lack of appreciation. He combed through acknowledgments within the immunology literature, in order to find the most helpful scientists — those who read article drafts, provide helpful research advice, or even just act as sounding boards for ideas. And then he looked at what happened when these extremely helpful people died.
Oettl found that even if these people had only been moderately productive when it came to actually authoring papers, the productivity of their collaborators dropped by over 10 percent when these cooperative scientists died. Unfortunately, while simply being helpful is an important contribution to science, it often gets overlooked in academia.
A nice one. Take a look.
The piece reminded me of something that I read more than an year ago — Joseph Fox’s short note in DelawareOnline on Richard Heck’s Chemistry Nobel Prize in 2010. In the context of Arbesman’s article, I believe it is worth quoting from Fox’s note:
But what makes the Nobel to Heck even more inspiring is the absolute purity of the award. Heck has always been exceedingly modest about his accomplishments. Never self-promoting, Heck always gave generous credit to others in his field, and he never engaged in the politics of science. Rather, Heck devoted himself solely to chemistry, and made his contributions at the most fundamental level. As someone who was truly ahead of the curve, it took decades for the scientific community to fully appreciate the significance of his fundamental contributions: Heck’s seminal studies were conducted in the late 1960’s, but he did not receive a major award for his work until 2004. Yet, his day has come, and to see Heck recognized on this grandest of stages is absolutely remarkable. Something is right in the world when the Nobel prize goes to such a modest individual, based so purely on merit. It reminds me of why I went into science in the first place.
PS: I got the link to Arbesman’s piece via Doug at Nanoscale views. And, hat tip to Prof. Fox for sending me a soft copy of his editorial note!