What’s a citation worth anyway?

Last week, when a colleague sent an email looking for research tips to give our new masters students, I sent one: Google Scholar. I’m sure many readers will agree, Google Scholar just makes it easier to find articles. And while Google itself is subjected to endless speculation about its interests, particularly in the ad-serving realm, Google Scholar appears to be an almost forgotten cousin of its brawny Web-searching relative. Simply put: Scholar does two things (reasonably) well: First, it simplifies the cumbersome boolean labyrinths of many other academic databases while also linking right to an institution’s electronic holdings. Second, it displays who cites an article right there with no extra searching needed.

It is this second quality that is most intriguing. It’s impossible not to follow the progress of one’s own articles, checking to see how they’ve fared since leaving the safe ports of our word processers to sail the seas of academia. We’ve done all we can for them and wish them well out there on their own, hoping someone else will discover them, find something useful, and, of course, cite them. Gulp.

Now Google Scholar has upped the narcism ante with My Citations, a sort of home page-slash-clickable CV-slash-scorecard-slash-ego challenger. I’ve included a screen shot of mine, or you can see it here. This has some neat qualities to it, clearly: you can track a scholar’s corpus much more easily than through a normal Google Scholar search, and as the proprietor I can add in links to my information and add colleagues (although, only manually, as my friend C.W. Anderson pointed out).

But what is most frightening is how it casually it quantifies citations. It turns an academic career into, well, something not too disimilar from a baseball card. Of course, there is allure in this to watch citations grow, visually, through the handy histogram, as well as assorted other measures.  However, what does this all mean? That is the thorny question that inevitably arises when academic work is splayed out in this fashion. One must click through to find out, first of all, who is doing the citing, and, even more deeply hidden, in what ways these citations occur. I don’t know what is a mere mention of something I’ve written perhaps to bulk up references and what has engaged another author in a substantive–hence contributing–way. Instead, we have numbers, and increasingly public numbers at that. It’s like in the television commercials for an investment service in which workers flash their total savings above their heads. Mine would read 130 right now, a nice number, but is it also a meaningful one?

My worry is that such quantification of academic work will creep into assessment without a concerted effort to discuss what it means and how healthy it is to producing quality work. Such is the nature of metrics in our measurable world complicated by difficulty of comparing scholars. However, until such a discussion emerges, I’ll be here waiting for citation number 131.

About Matt Carlson

Associate Professor of Communication Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication University of Minnesota
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