Inflate Gate: The Frequent Flyer Program for Educational Researchers
We are finally relieved about no longer hearing the daily conversations about Tom Brady’s involvement in the use of supposedly under inflated footballs used in the American Football Conference Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. For those of you who couldn’t care less about professional football in the United States, someone in the Patriot’s organization supposedly underinflated footballs (below the league’s guidelines). These footballs were used by the Patriots and purportedly provided them an advantage with respect to passing and catching the football. This controversy was referred as “deflate gate” by the popular press. This whole situation reminded us of a similar situation in the airline industry. While similar, the situation is actually opposite because it involves inflation rather than deflation.
As professional science teacher educators, most of us travel moderately or extensively to professional meetings and other professional activities. The longer one is in the profession it seems the travel becomes more extensive. In any case, the various airlines have well-established frequent flyer mileage programs that allow travelers to accumulate miles based on the miles they have flown. When we were young, these programs were fairly simple, and there was a one to one correspondence between miles flown and frequent flyer miles accumulated. After enough miles were accumulated (usually 20,000), the traveler was awarded a free ticket for a domestic flight. In recent years, competition among the airlines for paying passengers, and ingenious ways to improve profits for airlines, has manifested into complicated programs that take into account miles flown, cost of tickets, etc. Of interest here are the various ways one can accumulate miles without ever having flown. For example, you now can accumulate miles by eating at certain restaurants, staying at certain hotels, renting cars, and buying various and sundry retail products.
So, you must be wondering what this all has to do with science teacher education and ASTE. Most members of our organization are employed at universities, although ASTE has perennially tried to increase classroom teachers as members. As university employees we are evaluated for tenure, promotion, and yearly salary raises based on our professional activities, which typically include publications, professional presentations, grants, service to the professional community, and teaching. These activities are not listed in any intended order of significance, but teaching, unfortunately, is usually given the least weight. But, that is old news. What we want to focus on here are publications, presentations, and professional meetings as measures of our individual merit and prominence in the filed of science teacher education. Although external letters of support are usually solicited to assist in tenure and promotion decisions, there are numerous sources of information, other than one’s vita, to assist in evaluations of our individual contributions to the field. Basically, these are large data bases that keep track of publications, presentations, and citations to our work. The list of data bases continues to increase, but some of the most well known are Google Scholar (n.d.), Web of Science (n.d.), Research Gate (n.d.), and Social Sciences Citation Index (n.d.).
In one way or another, these various data bases give researchers and their scholarship a rating in the form of an impact factor, citations, downloads, views, H-index, RG score, etc. We have both seen references to such metrics in applications for faculty positions and in the dossiers provided by faculty members being considered for tenure and promotion. Norman has also seen some of these metrics cited in the applications individuals submit for the NARST Distinguished Contributions to Science Education through Research Award (DCA). Indeed, NARST now currently requires applicants to submit their Google Scholar metrics.
Some of these metrics provide a reasonable approximation of an individual’s scholarly work and its impact through how often the work is cited. Naturally, there is much discussion and debate about the value of such measures, but if you dig further you may be surprised by what some systems consider in the algorithm that eventually delivers a “score.” That is, individuals’ scores may be calculated based on factors other than the more use of only traditional publications, presentations, and citations. We must have had too much time on our hands because we chose to embark an informal investigation in our department. We and six of our PhD students participated. Although, Judith boasts that she was just an innocent observer, Norman can not make the same claim. In one of the data bases it is possible to post a question to the other academic colleagues who are also members. This is an excellent way to save time if you are searching for information (in the form of articles related to a topic of interest) by getting guidance from others in the field. Many of us have posted or seen such queries on the ASTE or NARST listserv, for example.
We had one of our PhD students post a reasonable question: “Does anyone know if there is an instrument that measures pedagogical content knowledge for the teaching of socio-scientific issues?” We (i.e., Norman and the other PhD students) then posted answers to the question and the PhD student who posed the initial question answered back thanking for the help or asking a follow-up question. Other researchers, beyond our “evil” sphere also participated in the conversation. Within one week, Norman and the six PhD students were able to raise their individual ratings as researchers by 10–20 %. This was accomplished by none of us having included any additional articles or professional presentations in the data base. It seems that increased activity in conversations among the network of colleagues in the data base is part of the algorithm that determines a researcher’s overall rating. Further, the higher the ratings of the colleagues that choose to respond to your question, the more positive is the impact on your rating. That is, if Norman responds to one of his PhD student’s posting, the student’s rating is more positively influenced than if the student responds to a posting by Norman.
The result of this contrived investigation is not as severe as possibly breaking the National Football League’s rules for the proper pressure of a football, but it is equivalent to raising your level as a traveler (i.e., frequent flyer miles) without ever having traveled on a plane. Nothing illegal was done here, but one’s apparent prominence as a researcher was artificially increased (i.e., inflated) without any additional scholarship in the form of a publication or professional presentation.
Okay, so we have identified a flaw in the system and exploited the flaw. BIG DEAL!! Recall that many of our colleagues pay attention to and are impressed by such ratings. There is little doubt that many may actively pursue higher ratings. Again, we often see such ratings cited in tenure and promotion dossiers and applications for faculty positions. The stakes can be high. Richard Feynman often spoke about the Nobel Prize he received as somewhat less than a badge of honor (BBC, 1981). He never liked prizes or honors. Indeed, it was for this reason that he resigned from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His focus was on the “pleasure of finding things out” and the observation that others benefited from the work he had done. To Feynman, this was the prize.
We are all part of an admirable profession. We do the best we can to improve the quality of pre-service and in-service science teachers, with the ultimate goal of improving K-16 students’ learning of science. What could be a better prize? So, at times when no one is looking, avoid the temptation to pursue the artificial goal and simply take pride in the knowledge you have created and the questions you have answered. This is what is most important, not your H-Index, Impact Score, or RG Score. That said, we do enjoy our complimentary upgrades to First Class on domestic flights. But, importantly, our complimentary upgrades are derived from actual flight miles.
- British Broadcast Corporation. (1981). The pleasure of finding things out. New York: Time-Life Video.Google Scholar
- Google Scholar Citations Help. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2015, from http://scholar.google.com/intl/en-us/scholar/citations.html
- Lee, W. (n.d.). LibGuides: Citation analysis: Web of science (formerly ISI Citation Indexes). Retrieved August 21, 2015, from http://libguides.utoledo.edu/citation/wos
- ResearchGate. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2015, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile.Experience.html
- Social Sciences Citation Index|Thomson Reuters. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2015, from http://thomsonreuters.com/en/products-services/scholarly-scientific-research/scholarly-search-and-discovery/social-sciences-citation-index.html