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Martin Spiess on research assessment

Our scientific system is undergoing change. Long-established standards for evaluating scientific achievements are being challenged. But how important is it for a scientist’s career today to have published their work in high impact journals such as Cell, Science and Nature? How can research achievements be assessed more fairly? And how can different career paths be fittingly taken into account?

With this in mind, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) adopted the DORA declaration this year. DORA stands for the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment and has been endorsed by 2,000 scientific organizations and more than 16,000 researchers. The aim is to weight scientific achievements differently and to evaluate them more comprehensively. Accordingly, the journal impact factor no longer plays such a significant role in the review of grant proposals, quality comes before quantity and collaborations and commitment beyond one’s own projects are also important criteria.

But what does this mean for the appointment of new professors? What is needed for success? The criteria for a professorship are often very general, for instance, research and teaching activities, social competence and acquisition of external funding, and are not very helpful in a particular case. “It is important to distinguish between two types of professorships,” says Martin Spiess, Dean of the Faculty of Science. “In tenure track professorships for young scientists, the candidate’s potential is important. Established researchers, who apply for tenured professorship positions, are evaluated on whether they have already realized their potential.

The evaluation of scientific achievements is a highly complex matter. “There is no doubt that a good publication in a highly ranked journal is a decisive criterion, ultimately even a must,” says Martin. “But the question is whether a Nature paper with an impact factor of 40 is four times better than a publication in a journal with factor 10. We are all aware that this is not the case.” DORA challenges the use of bibliometric analysis, in which the impact factors are summed, as a basis for the assessment of scientific output.

Besides publications, it also counts how the candidates present their achievements and their research plan and how they position themselves in their area. “Application documents can convey much about an applicant. From my point of view, standardized applications therefore make the prescreening somewhat more difficult for the reviewers.” There is also growing awareness that women are disadvantaged in the appointment process. By considering the years of research instead of the biological age, an attempt is being made to counteract this situation.

“And then personality also plays a role. This doesn’t make it any easier. Individual members of the search committee can often react differently to the same candidate. Nevertheless, a consensus must be reached in the end.”