Why “Prestige” is Better Than Your h-Index

Psychological science is one of the fields that is undergoing drastic changes in how we think about research, conduct studies and evaluate previous findings. Most notably, many studies from well-known researchers are under increased scrutiny. Recently, journalists and researchers have reviewed the Stanford Prison Experiment that is closely associated with the name of Philip Zimbardo. Many consider Zimbardo a “prestigious” psychologist. In the discussion about how we should think about doing science in times of the “replicability crisis”, the issue of “prestige” comes up in different forms. Among the recurring questions: Should we trust what prestigious researchers say? Should we put more faith in articles published in prestigious journals?

It seems as if some consider prestige to be something bad: Prestige is not earned through hard work but through capitalizing on past successes and putting oneself in the spotlight. They, in my experience, often criticize journals or conferences for inviting only prestigious authors or speakers. Others (knowingly or unknowingly) put a lot of trust into prestige, for example by accepting theories from prestigious sources more easily. 

While I personally agree with some aspects of the former group, I was recently inspired to think about prestige. It led me to think of prestige as something natural, that will occur in one form or another and cannot easily be marked as “bad”.

In order to invite people to conference keynotes or journal issues, you – as organizer or editor – need to know them or at least have heard of them. This, of course, quickly leads to a feedback loop: Invited authors/speakers will get more exposure and in turn will be invited more often. If we consider speakers and authors, who get this kind of exposure easily as prestigious, prestige is closely related to visibility.

Visibility and exposure are mostly a question of working, networking and (most of all) luck. This blog post would have far fewer readers if I did not know Daniel and had not visited TU/e for two months. This is mostly because I was lucky enough to have both a supervisor and a company who were supportive of a two-months trip to Eindhoven. I’m not suggesting that I have prestige, but considering the last year of my PhD study, it seems obvious that (academic) success depends on a lot of factors – and so does prestige, in my view.

However, prestige does not emerge in isolation: Another relevant aspect are views and positions. Visibility emerges first among peers who share your general or specific views on an issue. Fifteen years ago, advocating open science practices would not have given you as much visibility as it does today. On the other hand, Philip Zimbardo gets a lot less visibility in circles of open science advocates today. Over the past years, many people from the open-science community have acquired powerful positions by becoming journal editors, conference chairs, or getting positions at societies. This will and already does shift the group of people who gain prestige. In contrast, if you happen to have strongly opposing views to the scientific mainstream you might get less exposure and, thus, less prestige by voicing your ideas (apart from some notable exceptions, who have prestige by always opposing the mainstream).

My point is that prestige is not something artificial that we can forbid or ignore. It is something that arises naturally, even if we might call it by a different name. Visibility, exposure, work and luck will lead individual researchers to have attention and a bigger platform for presenting their ideas. I do not think this is necessarily bad.

Can this become an unfair advantage to some? Absolutely. This is a process of social dynamics, so social biases will be at play. The current system still provides a bigger audience to white, western, male professors than to junior researchers. While we cannot restrict prestige (as long as we do not enforce things and restrict academic freedom), we can counteract the social biases. Some ways to do this are already practice: As a prestigious senior researcher, you can actively promote junior researchers from diverse backgrounds by suggesting them for panels or special issues. Especially, if you feel a panel has a strong bias for some group. Some societies and journals already require board members to be from different universities. Actively involving researchers from diverse backgrounds and different schools of thought can help to mitigate the negative effects of prestige. This requires self-reflection and honesty from any involved researcher.

The example of Zimbardo and other prestigious researchers from the past decades is valuable in another regard: I might even argue that prestige, in the way I see it, is a better metric than the h-Index or citation counts. Prestige should not be something one possesses for the rest of one’s life. When the requirements of the field or the predominant views change, you might lose prestige – in contrast to your h-index. It is still a very bad metric: We cannot objectively measure it, it is heavily influenced by non-relevant aspects (gender, heritage, personality), … but at least it is much more dynamic and adaptable to changes in the system. Or, in other words: any metric for scientific metric needs to be dynamic to include changing norms.

I am sure; historians of psychology and philosophers have thought much more about this, and written pieces that are more elaborate than this blog post. Nevertheless, I think when we discuss how science and scientific culture is changing, we need to accept that science is a social endeavor – interpersonal relationships, personal networks etc. will always play a role. We should not remove this aspect from our scientific culture, but see where we can improve it and mitigate inherent biases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *