Fame and Citations

5Remember that “Rock Stars of Science” ad campaign? I thought it was dreadful. Science is supposed to be the pursuit of knowledge through experimentation and rigorous methodology. When you focus on the personalities behind the science, you push all that to the side and turn it into a purely creative task, mysterious and luck-dependent. You start to get situations like Lord Kelvin’s opinion of the age of the Earth.

The result of Kelvin’s assumptions about the deep interior of the Earth, without any sound evidence, was unfortunately quite significant. Because the timeframe he provided was far too brief to allow for known geological processes to produce the current topographical features of the Earth. Even worse, Kelvin then made significant attacks on the science of geology and it’s practitioners, but most of the geologists in that era were intimidated by Kelvin’s stature within the overall scientific community (Lewis, 2000). Kelvin was regarded as possibly the most well regarded and imposing scientific figure of the day (Lewis, 2000). […]

Physics was regarded as a more mature and noble field than geology (Hallam, 1989), which was still perceived as immature and without the (apparent) certainty provided by the more mathematically-oriented physics and chemistry. Kelvin derived his estimate from quantitative and repeatable measurements, physical principles of the known natural laws of the time, and elegant math (Dalrymple, 2004). That method, combined with his arguments about the uncertainty of geologic data analysis, provided Kelvin with a tremendous amount of swagger over his theory’s potential opponents. He was enthusiastic and persuasive, and was perhaps the leading scientific celebrity of his time, and this made him an exceptionally difficult opponent for Lyell and Darwin (Hallam, 1989); Darwin referred to Kelvin as his “sorest trouble” (Dalrymple, 2004; Lewis, 2000). The end result was that most scientists sought agreement rather than conflict with Kelvin (Lewis, 2000). Archibald Geikie (Hallam, 2009), James Croll, Lyell, and Samuel Haughton all adjusted their theories to make allowances for Kelvin. Additionally, P.G. Tait, T. Mellard Reade, Clarence King, and John Joly (Hallam, 1989) all reached conclusions concordant with Kelvin through their own methods. This is unfortunate and could be concluded as an effect of peer pressure biasing the scientific method, and perhaps a little bit of an inferiority complex on the part of the geologists in comparison with their 19th century physics peers.

“Rock Star science” harms productivity, too; one study found that when a “superstar” in a field dies, the output of their collaborators drops 5-8%. Instead, I prefer a “Wonder of Science” approach where cool facts are mixed with play and experimentation. When everyone has the tools to do science, anyone can pick up where someone else left off and we’re not stuck waiting for a “big name” to come along and save us.

When I entered the field of psychological science, what excited me was that, historically, the field was full of big thinkers—scholars like Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers in psychotherapy, Edward Tolman and B. F. Skinner in learning, Herbert Simon and more recently Daniel Kahneman in cognition, and Abraham Maslow and David McClelland in personality. They represented psychological science in the large—a kind of “big psychology.” A concern I have developed over the years is that our field is moving toward a kind of psychological science in the small—a kind of “small psychology.” […]

For example, Sigmund Freud has an h index of 265, B. F. Skinner of 98, Herbert Simon of 163, and Daniel Kahneman of 123. Their total citations are prodigious, for example, 450,339 for Freud, 277,573 for Simon, and 254,326 for Kahneman. In today’s scientific climate, it may be challenging to be a “big psychological scientist,” but I believe big thinking pays off in the kind of impact (with accompanying citation statistics) that lasts over generations, not merely over the duration of one’s career or a part of one’s career. In the long run, the big thinkers are the ones who most create a lasting legacy.

That’s Robert J. Sternberg offering his counterpoint. Still,

in comments to us, some psychological scientists, including some from our book, challenged the criteria or the weighting of the criteria, which led us to wonder just how eminence, or performance at any level, should be judged. What is the future of such evaluations of scientific merit?

Don Foss and I then decided—regrettably, Susan Fiske was unavailable to participate at the time—to pursue this universally important issue by creating the present symposium for Perspectives on Psychological Science. We invited several distinguished psychological scientists who have worked on the problem of merit and eminence in psychological science and asked them each if they would write an essay for Perspectives.

The answer was “yes,” and so seven prominent male scientists weighed in on how we should judge the prominence of a scientist. The one woman allowed in, Alice H. Eagly, was graciously allowed to share a by-line with a male author so she could ask “where the women at?

Yeeeeaaah. I’ll let Katie Corker tell the tale of Perspectives‘ second attempt.

The new call was issued in response to a chorus of nasty women and other dissidents who insisted that their viewpoints hadn’t been represented by the scholars in the original special issue. The new call explicitly invited these “diverse perspectives” to speak up (in 1,500 words or less****).
Each of the six of us independently rose to the challenge and submitted comments. None of us were particularly surprised to receive rejections – after all, getting rejected is just about the most ordinary thing that can happen to a practicing researcher. Word started to spread among the rejected, however, and we quickly discovered that many of the themes we had written about were shared across our pieces. That judgments of eminence were biased along predictable socio-demographic lines. That overemphasis on eminence creates perverse incentives. That a focus on communal goals and working in teams was woefully absent from judgments of eminence.
And so all six posted their opinions online, free for anyone to read. Simine Vazire, for instance, argues that
The drive for eminence is inherently at odds with scientific values, and insufficient attention to this problem is partly responsible for the recent crisis of confidence in psychology and other sciences. The replicability crisis has shown that a system without transparency doesn’t work. The lack of transparency in science is a direct consequence of the corrupting influence of eminence-seeking. If journals and societies are primarily motivated by boosting their impact, their most effective strategy will be to publish the sexiest findings by the most famous authors. Humans will always care about eminence. Scientific institutions and gatekeepers should be a bulwark against the corrupting influence of the drive for eminence, and help researchers maintain integrity and uphold scientific values in the face of internal and external pressures to compromise.
Alas, Perspectives on Psychological Science‘s mulligan has yet to be published. But it should be obvious that this argument strikes right to the heart of how science is done.