The catalogue that made metrics, and changed science

« In 1830, Charles Babbage had an unusual idea. Exasperated by how little recognition science was getting in England, the computer pioneer and scientific provocateur suggested that quantifying authorship might be a way to identify scientific eminence.

Like many of Babbage’s radical ideas, this one persuaded almost nobody, but it eventually proved prophetic. Before the end of the century, listing papers and comparing publication counts had become a popular pursuit among scientific authors and other observers. Within a few decades, academic scientists were coming to fear the creed of ‘publish or perish’ (see ‘Catalogues and counts’).

This transformation can inform current debates about the value of algorithms for quantifying scientific credibility and importance. History shows how search technologies and metrics are not neutral tools that simply speed up efforts to locate and evaluate scientific work. Metrics transform the very things that they measure. By changing the reward structure, they alter researchers’ behaviour — both how results are communicated and which topics receive the most attention. (…) »