Publons: The paradox of measuring impact based on goodwill

Esmeralda Bon, one of our #DataImpactFellows, considers the benefits and pitfalls for academics of measuring goodwill.


Since starting my journey as an academic, I’ve learned that academia revolves around measurement. Number of publications, supervisees, projects, data sets, grants, patents and my personal favourite: number of square meters office space.

There is no way around it.

It is the language that we speak, the axis to the dynamics of knowledge creation.

Taking a rational choice approach and following a cost-benefit analysis, it makes sense to invest the most energy and time into those activities that yield the greatest results. In fact, as an early career researcher, I am already far too familiar with the adage that academia is about the number of your publications and citations. What remains is relegated to the background and labelled a distraction.

So, where does this leave goodwill?

How do we make sure that less loved yet necessary activities, such as the peer review, are still performed?

Publons is a web site that allows academics to showcase their peer reviews: the number of articles and the journals they have written reviews for. It provides a platform where you can, for example, search for peers, contact journal editors and learn to review. Most importantly: it provides us academics with a space to showcase our reviewing work, the extent to which we have been commenting on and evaluating the work of peers in the shadows.

Generally speaking, I’m all for the carrot and stick approach. I love recognition and rewards. Badges, certificates, ribbons, you name it, I have them on display. My poor office mates can testify.

Yet, the need to quantify the number of reviews we perform is unsettling. It gives us a sense of the status quo, the direction that academia is heading into. Time is money and, therefore, nothing is for free. What used to be a gesture of goodwill, is swiftly becoming another performance statistic, a measure of impact, but one within the academic community.

This leads us to a paradox: once we measure and tie value to these gestures, are we speaking of goodwill at all?

Furthermore, it raises concerns. What happens to academia if all benevolence disappears or has there, in fact, never been any at all?

But, let’s end on a positive note.

For the already overburdened academic, Publons does provide a way to justify writing peer reviews. These peer reviews are crucial to ascertain the quality of academic work and, as such, this may become a vital tool in keeping the tradition alive. These lists of our reviews, our voluntarily work, can even give a sense of comradery.

So, academic, know that we are all in this together, and don’t you dare jump ship!

signpost with two directions marked with fingers

Image: “Paradox, a contradiction”
Esmeralda Bon (CC BY 4.0)


About the author

Esmeralda Bon, @EsmeraldaVBon, is one of our UK Data Service Data Impact Fellows.

Esmeralda is an ESRC-funded PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), an advisory non-departmental public body sponsored by the Cabinet Office. Esmeralda is affiliated with the Centre for British Politics and the Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Economic and Political Research (NICEP).

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