Wednesday, 12 January 2011

High Impact Factor but where's the impact?

Everything is being reduced to an index. Or a set of numbers. Counting beans, we call it.

Last year, all the little napoleons (this should get me into trouble I hope) were asked to submit their KPIs. I declined. I cannot be measured. I don't want to be measured. More importantly, I don't know how I should be measured.

I didn't want to end up saying for instance "the number of students involved in voluntary activities with Kampus Sejahtera has increased by 100%"; or "we carried out a hundred activities related to sustainability"; or "we recycled a 100 tons of paper every month" but yet spend tons of money printing glossy reports.

I agree, we have to know where we are and where we are going. And to know where we are, we need some numbers. And to know where we ended up, we also need some numbers. The problem is, we always seem to be measuring the wrong things.

While the VC in his annual address, again, seemed to be telling the campus community, and the world, that those numbers that we currently use (collectively called the Key Performance Indicators or Index, KPI) don't really show impact, we have other high-ranking officers (such as the Deputy Vice-Chancellors) pushing the researchers to achieve high impact factors.

What's the difference between "impact" and "impact factor"? If I "read" the VC's speeches and writings correctly, what he alludes to is that our actions and products (research, teaching, etc) must bring benefit to the people at large. In particular, universities must be working to alleviate the sufferings of the downtrodden and the disadvantaged across the globe.

Impact factor is a creation of the geniuses in journal publication. Nobody reads journal publications. The people who actually read journal publications cannot be classified as "nobody". They are somebody who is doing research in that area. And how many is that? As many as 20. OK, I exaggerate. Some journals have very small reader-base because they are very specialised that's a fact.

How do you get high impact factors? Citation! When your article gets cited, you go "wohoo". Somebody is reading it and, perhaps, think it is important enough to mention in their article. All well and good. But there's a scam going on and this is backed up be research. Journal publishers select articles which have lots of citation from their own journals, which pushes up the impact factor. Authors make sure that they cite lots of other papers, especially from the journal they hope to publish in. And reviewers? You can guess how they vet papers too.

So, high impact factor means what again? Citation, citation, citation. Even if the article has not benefitted humanity one bit.

So what's going on? The head says let's go this way. But the neck down says that (other) way.

Well, I can rationalise that. USM is a research university. And the KPI (there you go again) says many things we have to achieve to stay an RU. And one of them is publication in high impact journals. It's either we achieve the required high impact in publication, or we lose the RU status.

We want to go the other way, but we have to change the rules. That's what we are trying to do with the APEX U programme.

But look, USM has withdrawn from the world university ranking - because we (who's "we", you asked?) disagree with how its done. USM has opted to join a bunch of universities working on an alternative way to measure universities - based on sustainable development and ESD. Didn't you hear that in the VC's speech?

So, yes, in the meantime, we are going to have to suffer the pressures of the KPI. Be angry if you have to. But let's think how we should and can do things differently. Do you go with the sure thing? i.e. work the KPI and get your promotion? Or think about your impact on the community?

Can we have the cake and eat it too? i.e. high impact plus high impact factor?

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