Millions of academic studies are published each year. Some fundamentally alter the course of history, while others never even get cited. Those curious about the effect of specific researchers, papers, or journals often turn to a metric called “impact factor.” This metric counts the number of citations accrued by a researcher or research paper, or the average number of citations for studies in a specific journal. It’s a sensible and simple method for measuring influence.

According to a new “study,” it’s also an exercise in racism and sexism.

The paper, “A new tool for evaluating health equity in academic journals; the Diversity Factor,” published in PLOS Global Public Health, correctly points out that impact factor is an imperfect measure of cultural and scientific reach. Among the problems: researchers game the stats through self-citation, and journal-impact factors are skewed by studies that pick up extremely high numbers of citations. Still, impact factor represents a reasonably good proxy of the thing it purports to measure. While sensible researchers know not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, activists instead see imperfection as opportunity. Enter: the “diversity factor.” 

The authors propose that henceforth studies should be scored according to both impact factor and their new diversity metric. Though they admit that the diversity factor is still in development, they suggest it should award points on the basis of diversity within the dataset (for example, representation of ethnic minorities), representation of authors from multiple countries, greater female representation within the authorship group, and affiliation with non-prestigious universities. These recommendations, the authors contend, will offer “a more complete perspective on factors aligned with scientific excellence based on contribution to advancing diversity and inclusion, improving health outcomes, and achieving equity.”

These exhortations represent a solution in search of a problem. It’s true that the predominance of men in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge was for a time propagated by racial and ethnic bigotry and sexism. But the goal of impact factor is to offer a snapshot measure of scientific influence, not to referee the ethics of the social and political environment in which a discovery was made. Jonas Salk’s scientific legacy ought to be defined by the development of the polio vaccine, not the absence of Aboriginal trans men on the research team that developed it.

The retroactive application of the diversity factor would be pedantic, but the potential future application of the diversity factor (or similar schemes) is alarming. Research impact has been an important consideration when it comes to the allocation of grants and the recruitment and promotion of college professors. Awarding points to research on the basis of commitment to socially desirable ideas about inclusion induces researchers to fret over concerns other than producing meaningful advancements to our knowledge.

The diversity-factor proposition also amounts to triple counting of commitment to socially fashionable ideas within academia. Studies that track with preferred leftist narratives already tend to get cited more than those that don’t. Moreover, journals often place just as much focus on ideological commitment to leftist ideas as methodological rigor in determining what gets published and how it’s scrutinized. To understand this point, look no further than the publisher PLOS Global Public Health. A PLOS journal forced one researcher to make petty corrections to a study after its politically inconvenient results drew fire from trans activists. A few years later, PLOS made it up to those activists by publishing a paper that completely abandoned sound research practices en route to findings that track with trans activists’ preferred narratives.

The end of affirmative action should have heralded a return to meritocracy over identity politics. Instead, activists are working overtime to redefine merit.

Photo: PonyWang/iStock


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