Doctoral students and young faculty: What kind of impact do you have?

„The more impact factor we count, the less impact we have on our society“

Angel of Freedom at the German historical Museum © Photo credit myself.

In our recent conversation, my amazing colleague Adriana Kemp, the Chair of the sociology department at the Tel Aviv University, was critical about the impact factor. She wanted to see how we actually have impact in our societies. This is the topic of my essay today, what kind of impact do we want to have?

All the colleagues I know, including myself, are putting extraordinary effort in maintaining our google citation pages. The citation record became the measure of the impact that we make as scholars. In hiring committees, promotion processes, many of us look at the citation count in different platforms, which journals did the scholar publish, are the journals listed in the top twenty best sociological journals; if yes, did the scholar publish always in the same journal or in different journals.

All these questions are asked in order to make sure that we hire or promote a scholar who meets certain scholarly criteria. The most objective way of making sure that we hire that quality scholar is to quantify their credentials. In the super competitive world of academic hiring and promotions, citation record became the main reference to measure a scholar’s publication quality and their impact on the scholarly world.

On the down side, however, we fetishize the citation record. Some of us come up with creative ideas to increase the citation record. In certain academic circles, there are strategies to increase the citation count. I call them „mutual admiration society.“ These are scholars who cite each other systematically in order to have better citation records. Here, I am not talking about citing my good colleague in three articles that I have published. Some academic circles have tens of people who do it systematically and multiply their citations. In this way, they make sure that as a group they are counted as the authority with the highest citation count.

The impact phenomenon is counter intuitive. Let’s take a hypothetical situation: I am writing an article on social inequality and discrimination. I sent it to a top journal to make sure that my article is visible to a broader communiy, and gets cited frequently. It is sent to super busy top level scholars who have less than half an hour in their crammed schedule to write a review to an article that I worked for four years and spent thousands of euros in tax-payers money. My reviews arrive, in ideal circumstances within three months. I write the perfect response to the reviews, (In some cases, the reviews are about how the reviewer would write my article instead of giving me useful references and comments to improve it, but it is an issue for another essay). In addition, without any exception, from assistant professor to a retired professor, they always but always want me to cite *their work* in my article. This reveals the identity of the reviewer, but the editors either miss this comment, or they do not interfere. Or this is the real price for reviewing my article… they review in order to increase their citation record.

I go out of my way to write the requested version of my article. I send again my article and my meticulously prepared responses. My article is accepted, it comes out online first within a month, then in a few years as a published copy. Then I sit in front of my computer, and eagerly wait for the bar in my google citation website to increase. I put an alert so I can be immediately informed when another scholar cites me. The bar increases over a year, steadily but slowly. I check the statisctics in certain cases, how many times did the readers download my article. The whole process of citation and impact is similar to a computer game; it is the gamification of our scholarly works.

While I am playing the game of citation records and impact factors like snakes and ladders, the actual theme of my articles, social inequality, is still present in the world. My article has almost no impact on the people’s lives whom I want to present, my language is too convoluted with academic jargon to appeal to a regular readership and people whom I did research with. The citation bar rises, and my work’s impact on social inequality drops.

An inspiring colleague, Yofi Tirosh, is the Dean of the law school in Sapir College, a small college in Israel. The college has a diverse student body, and is known to give opportunities to students from not-privileged backgrounds to get good education and have a good career. My friend Yofi took a long leave from her prestigious job as the professor of law at the Tel Aviv University in order to shape the lives of the students in Sapir College. She says to me that she asks very experienced lawyers from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem come and teach at the Sapir college. And they do, come and teach. Without Yofi’s interference, these high brow lawyers probably will not know the drive way to Sapir College. This is an admirable act to make an impact in the society. There are no citation bars, no google sites, no top twenty best lists, no mutual admiration societies, no facebook entries that start with „sorry for shameless self-promotion…“

As a doctoral student, as a scholar, we must ask ourselves what is the impact that we want to make in the academia. I am hearing more and more departments who put „engagement with community“ as a factor for recruiting young scholars. Perhaps it is also our turn in Germany to measure quality, not only with the citation record but also with the real impact we have on making our society a better place to live.

Professor of Sociology, author of “From Guest Workers into Muslims” (2009) and co-author of “The Headscarf Debates” (2014)

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