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. 2019 Jun 1;8(6):giz053.
doi: 10.1093/gigascience/giz053.

Over-optimization of Academic Publishing Metrics: Observing Goodhart's Law in Action

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Over-optimization of Academic Publishing Metrics: Observing Goodhart's Law in Action

Michael Fire et al. Gigascience. .
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Abstract

Background: The academic publishing world is changing significantly, with ever-growing numbers of publications each year and shifting publishing patterns. However, the metrics used to measure academic success, such as the number of publications, citation number, and impact factor, have not changed for decades. Moreover, recent studies indicate that these metrics have become targets and follow Goodhart's Law, according to which, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

Results: In this study, we analyzed >120 million papers to examine how the academic publishing world has evolved over the last century, with a deeper look into the specific field of biology. Our study shows that the validity of citation-based measures is being compromised and their usefulness is lessening. In particular, the number of publications has ceased to be a good metric as a result of longer author lists, shorter papers, and surging publication numbers. Citation-based metrics, such citation number and h-index, are likewise affected by the flood of papers, self-citations, and lengthy reference lists. Measures such as a journal's impact factor have also ceased to be good metrics due to the soaring numbers of papers that are published in top journals, particularly from the same pool of authors. Moreover, by analyzing properties of >2,600 research fields, we observed that citation-based metrics are not beneficial for comparing researchers in different fields, or even in the same department.

Conclusions: Academic publishing has changed considerably; now we need to reconsider how we measure success.

Keywords: Goodhart’s Law; academic publishing metrics; big data; data science; science of science; scientometrics.

Figures

Figure 1:
Figure 1:
The number of papers over time. The total number of papers has surged exponentially over the years.
Figure 2:
Figure 2:
Papers with titles in the top 9 non-English languages. An increasing number of papers have non-English titles.
Figure 3:
Figure 3:
Mean title length over time. A paper’s mean title length increased from 8.71 words to 11.83 words. Moreover, the mean word length increased from 5.95 characters to 6.6 characters per title word.
Figure 4:
Figure 4:
Percentage of papers with author lists in alphabetical order, grouped by the number of authors. The more authors, the less likely the authors will be listed alphabetically in the byline.
Figure 5:
Figure 5:
Distribution over time of the number of words in abstracts. Over time, papers’ abstracts have tended to become longer.
Figure 6:
Figure 6:
The number and percentage of multidisciplinary papers over time. Between 1900 and 2010, both the number and percentage of multidisciplinary papers increased.
Figure 7:
Figure 7:
The mean and maximal number of self-citations. Both the mean and maximal number of self-citations increased over time.
Figure 8:
Figure 8:
Paper's lengths. Both the papers’ mean and median lengths decreased over time. In the right panel, the horizontal line indicates the median, and the box encloses the interquartile range.
Figure 9:
Figure 9:
Papers with no citations other than self-citations after 5 years. The percentage of papers with no citations after 5 years decreased; nevertheless, 72.1% of all papers published in 2009 had no citations after 5 years.
Figure 10:
Figure 10:
Citation distributions over time. The citation distributions of different decades show notable changes.
Figure 11:
Figure 11:
Mean number of papers by authors’ academic birth decades. With each decade, the rate of paper publication has increased.
Figure 12:
Figure 12:
Mean number of co-authors by academic birth decade. The mean number of co-authors has considerably increased over the decades.
Figure 13:
Figure 13:
Percentage of times researcher was first author. We can observe that over time on average the percentage of senior researchers as first authors declined. Moreover, in the same time intervals, the percentage of times recent generations of researchers were first authors declined compared to older generations.
Figure 14:
Figure 14:
Number of active journals over time. Over a period of 18 years, from 1999 to 2016, both the number of active journals and the papers per journal increased greatly.
Figure 15:
Figure 15:
Journals’ quartile number of papers over time. The number of papers published in Q1 journals has vastly increased.
Figure 16:
Figure 16:
The mean number of citations [Citation Number/Documents Number (2 years)] over time. The mean number of citations values have almost doubled in the past 18 years; additionally, their distributions have changed considerably.
Figure 17:
Figure 17:
Top-selected journals’ mean first and last authors ages. Both the first and last authors’ mean ages have increased sharply.
Figure 18:
Figure 18:
Percentage of papers with returning first or last authors. The percentage of returning first or last top-journal authors increased considerably.
Figure 19:
Figure 19:
Mean percentage of return authors in top-selected journals over time. In most journals the number of papers with ≥1 author who previously published in the journal increased sharply. In many of the selected journals the percentage of papers with returning authors was >60%, and in some cases >80%.
Figure 20:
Figure 20:
L0 Fields-of-study number of papers over time. The numbers of papers in each field of study have increased drastically.
Figure 21:
Figure 21:
L0 Field-of-study median citation number after 5 years. There is notable variance among the L0 fields-of-study median citation numbers.
Figure 22:
Figure 22:
Measuring success in academic publishing.

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