The obsession with being number one

Richard N. Zare of the Department of Chemistry, Stanford University writes:

As I travel around the world, increasingly I have found that assessment and evaluation systems are getting in the way of why one should pursue a career in the sciences. So many scientists and institutions are striving to be at the very top of their fields, but do not realize that being the best is often the enemy of doing better. For these scientists, good is never enough; there is always more to do. They must outscore and outperform all their peers. All this leads to nothing but a vicious academic rat race. It is too easy to forget that if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.

If it were possible to rank everyone, only one person can be number one. What is to become of the others who rank below? In sports, many competitions have a clear number one. For example, Usain Bolt is the fastest runner in the world in the 100-m dash, but there is no telling where he would place in a marathon. Much like the disconnect between the 100-m dash and a marathon, science works differently. We all are not running the same race; so rankings become questionable.

Let us think about why we do science? Of course, there are many personal reasons. From a societal perspective, however, it is because science liberates us to understand the world better and take care of important social needs. These social needs range from improving our standard of living and health and medical care to ensuring our safety and the sustainability of our environment. Science even helps us provide an engine to drive a nation’s economy.

With these objectives in mind, then why do scientists and science administrators impose metrics upon them-selves that are unrelated to these praiseworthy goals? We place emphasis on the number of publications and the impact factor of the journals in which the publications appear.

We should be judging the impact of a published article on science and society rather than incorrectly judging it by the name of the journal in which it appears.

Read the full article in Current Science