Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Vanderbilt study of "scholarly impact" based on the Web of Science database

One thing this study is not is a study of "interdisciplinary impact," for three reasons:  (1) the Web of Science has better coverage of some disciplines than others; (2) citation practices vary dramatically across disciplines; and (3) the study only looked at articles published in Web of Science journals that were published and cited during 2012-2018 (books, the major form of scholarly impact in most humanities disciplines, counted for nought here).   The weird skew should be obvious from the fact that the two most-cited scholars (Lawrence Gostin at Georgetown and Susan M. Wolf at Minnesota) both work in health law and bioethics:  that's either because medical and medicine-related journals are wildly overrepresented in the database (which looks to be true), or because much more of the scholarly literature is based on articles that were cited by other articles during that period.  (Four of the top ten faculty on their list work in or around health law--indeed, health law and bioethics faculty are wildly over-represented in the top fifty.)

Professor Gostin, helpfully, has a Google Scholar page, and he does indeed have a lot of citations (more than 36,000!).  My colleague, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who publishes many books as well as articles, largely in philosophy and classics journals (which are not well-represented in Web of Science), does not have a Google Scholar page, but you can get a sense of her Google Scholar citations here.  Her first ten most cited works have over 60,000 citations:  that's just the first ten.   I haven't tallied all her citations, but I looked at several pages of her Google Scholar results, and I can say with some confidence that she has at least four times as many citations as Professor Gostin.  Yet Nussbaum is not even in the top 50 in the Vanderbilt study!

All citation studies have limitations due to their database.  But Web of Science is wholly inadequate for measuring interdisciplinary impact, as the stunning Nussbuam example reveals.   I would describe this as more a measure of impact for those who work in fields adjacent to the medical sciences, including health law, bioethics, psychology, etc.

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