The catalogue that made metrics, and changed science

In 1830, Charles Babbage had an unusual idea. Upset over how little science was getting recognized in England, the computer pioneer and scientific provocateur suggested that determining authorship might be a way of identifying scientific reputation.

Like many of Babbage’s radical ideas, it persuaded almost no one, but it ultimately proved prophetic. Before the turn of the century, cataloging papers and comparing publications had become a popular pursuit among scientific authors and other observers. Within a few decades, academic scientists feared the cult of ‘publish or perish’ (see ‘Catalogs and Counts’).

This change may inform current debate about the value of algorithms for measuring scientific reliability and importance. History shows how search technologies and metrics are not neutral tools that accelerate efforts to locate and evaluate scientific work. Metrics replace the very things they measure. By changing the reward structure, they change the behavior of researchers – both in how results are communicated and which topics get the most attention.

But there is a second, more subtle, change that we must be aware of. The processes by which scientific merit is assessed have long been at the heart of public perception of scientific authority. As these processes change, we must also consider the ways in which broader cultural beliefs about scientific expertise are transformed.

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broken pieces of fact

Babbage’s suggestion for counting authors’ letters faced various criticisms. One author did the calculation for each fellow in the Royal Society in London, and showed that it was a formidable guide to scientific prestige. Another pointed out that “a more satisfactory criterion” would have been “the value of those papers”.

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At the time, scientific prestige was built not on journals but on books and other evidence of genius that demonstrated mastery of a subject. Babbage himself had little respect for most scientific journals, and limited his offer to count papers in the venerable Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

By the end of 1867, the British physiologist Michael Foster, in a retrospective on the life of Carl von Baer, ​​praised the embryologist’s multivolume masterwork, On the Development of Animals, and dismissed his periodical publications. These, Foster claimed 2, were “samples of those broken pieces of fact that every scientific worker throws out to the world in the hope that some truth may, at some point in time, be revealed to them”.

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But things were starting to change. A young engineer working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (now the National Geodetic Survey) suggested that it would be useful if some catalog could be produced for tracking publications of European scientific societies.

Once the idea crossed the Atlantic and reached the Royal Society, its scope became a list of all periodicals containing original scientific research published since 1800. Some questioned the need to preserve such insignificant writings. Physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) warned that the project would lead society to financial ruin.

The main argument for what would become the Catalog of Scientific Papers was that the periodical publication was a mess. Although many authors were published in the journals of scientific societies, popular science journals, encyclopedias and general interest weekly published a large amount of valuable information. The authors distributed a large number of prints that were sometimes not even clear from which magazine they came.

When the Index of Society got down to work in 1867, he realized that the situation was worse than he imagined. For thousands of papers, they could not even find out who the author was. Many who published in magazines opted to remain anonymous, or simply sign their initials. In other cases, it was hard to tell to what extent the author of a letter was responsible for its content, or whether it should be credited to another person.

Furthermore, a large number of papers were published in different forms in different journals, and it was no easy matter to decide what should count as a single publication. Today, such publishing habits can lead to allegations of misconduct; Not long ago it was business as usual.

Catalogers from the Royal Society did what they could, contacting editors and authors to match the names to the papers. He turned a significant part of the society’s library into a bibliographic work room, and made his job easier by excluding all general-interest journals from search, as well as anything that could be read for non-specialists . He compiled lists of which journals should be included in the count, and circulated them to other experts and academies for feedback.

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