High Impact with Low Numbers

Don’t be misled by citation figures! (27)
by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 01/2011

Journal Tuning

Professor Dolcino was a microbiologist with a passion for sugars. Throughout his hitherto career as a researcher, he had never ceased to be fascinated by the incredible flexibility, with which bacteria are able to creatively use manifold sugars as food sources. And indeed, he and his team had contributed quite significantly to the current knowledge on what bacteria can actually do with sugars.

Surprisingly, his work hadn’t been cited very frequently but Dolcino had been a researcher long enough to view such things with a sufficiently healthy amount of self-esteem. Besides, he had now reached the autumn of his research career and no longer had to prove anything to anybody.

One day, however, he received a letter from the university’s administration office, announcing that a comprehensive evaluation of all faculties was planned and that a team of professional “evaluation experts” was to be especially commissioned with this task.

Not even a week had passed and one of those keen, young and dynamic “evaluation experts” was on Dolcino’s office doorstep. “Professor Dolcino, my good fellow,” he came straight to the point, “before coming here I ran your name against some of the usual literature databases – just to see how often your work has been cited in the last five years. To be honest, your performance has been quite meagre when compared to the mean number of citations a microbiological paper usually attracts on a worldwide average.”

“What a waste of time,” Dolcino replied, amused. “I could have told you that, if you’d asked.”

“And how do you explain this lacking presence?” asked the evaluator.

“Well, I’m sure you are very much aware that the number of citations is by no means a direct measure of scientific quality and originality, right?” Dolcino responded defensively. “The reason I am not cited very often is that these days, not so many researchers still work in my field.”

“That means, in plain English, that your work has only been of marginal impact,” the young man condescendingly replied.

Suddenly, Dolcino was no longer amused. “Eat yoghurt do you, young man?” he switched into attack mode.

“Yes, er, why?” came the astonished reply.

“Do you know what’s actually in yoghurt?”

“Well, mainly milk, right?” the evaluator answered, now visibly confused.

“That’s a good start. And what is it that transforms the milk into the gel-like yoghurt structure?” Dolcino continued the “test”.

“Hhhrrrmm ...”

“Well, I’ll make it easy on you. Special polysaccharides – that means: sugars, ‘in plain English’,” Dolcino mimicked his red-faced guest, “Sugars built by bacterial starter cultures during the fermentation process in the milk.”

“But Mr. Dolcino, that’s...”

“… Irrelevant? Not so hasty, now. In 1989, I described a Streptococcus thermophilus strain, which was able to synthesise very special sugar chains. In the academic world, this work attracted only a little attention, so it wasn’t excessively cited. That fits in with your scheme, right? Not long after, however, it was these same sugar chains that proved to be particularly useful in lending your yoghurt the exact desired consistency and texture. Once the industry had fully comprehended this, they began pumping a lot of money into optimising this particular Streptococcus strain for yoghurt fermentation and mass production. Today, you will find these exact sugar chains in more than half of the world’s yoghurts. The irony of the whole story, however, is that the industry doesn’t publish their results and, that, my dear fellow means, of course, no citations – none!”

The young evaluator could only stare at Dolcino, speechless.

“Now, do you still believe my work had only little impact?” smiled Dolcino, triumphant!

Last Changed: 03.05.2012

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