Summarising your research impact

When applying for funding, we are given space to convince the grant reader that our research track records are important. We are given the chance to convince the reader that someone, somewhere has cared about our research enough to publish it, read it, cite it, or otherwise take an interest.  There are a number of ways that this can be done, though many are somewhat obvious:

  • Raw numbers of publications provides information about the volume of research that has been undertaken.
  • Citation counts provide information about how many other scientists have cited that body of research.
  • The h-index combines information about both the number of publications that have been produced and the rate at which they are cited.
  • The impact factors of the journals in which you publish provides some information about the perceived novelty of your research.

These indices can be useful, though they all have limitations. The big problem is that these metrics are being used by everyone. The key to distinguishing yourself is to find a way to quantitatively place yourself at the top of a pack; I generally do this in two ways – both approaches work because they allow me to define the pack against which I am judged.

The first strategy is to establish yourself as productive in the best journals in your field:

  1. Define a set of 5 or so relevant, high-quality journals in which you regularly publish.
  2. Pick a series of (preferably recent) years during which you have been productive.
  3. Use the Web of Science (or another appropriate database) to conduct a search for papers published in those journals during those years.
  4. Create a list of the authors that have published in those journals during those years, ranked by number of publications.
  5. See where you sit on the list. You can then promote yourself using a statement such as: “I am the most published author across five prominent journals in the fields of ecology and evolution”. Be sure that you also provide the names of the journals.

It’s likely that the most well-known authors in your field will be somewhere near the top of this list, but the number of papers necessary to get to the top of this list will probably be smaller than you expect. Using your ranking on this list to demonstrate your productivity against the rest of the field will almost certainly impress grant readers – so much so that I once learned who had reviewed one of my fellowship applications when they asked if the ranking I presented was true!  It certainly was true, but of course I had decided on the set of journals that presented my track record in the best possible light.

The second strategy is to establish your expertise on a specific topic. In my case, almost all of my research deals with rates of energy expenditure (metabolic rate) or physiological traits related to metabolic rate (patterns of gas exchange or water loss, for example). I therefore use a database search for the term “metabolic rate” to construct a list of authors who work on that topic, and find where I rank (first, second, top XX%, or whatever metric seems best). The key with this approach is choosing the search term early in your career, and then making sure that it appears in either the title, abstract, or key words of every paper you produce in which it is appropriate to do so. The best search terms are those that appear broad, but are actually reasonably narrow – “metabolic rate” works well because it seems broad, but is considerably narrower (and therefore yields many fewer authors) than “metabolism”.

Implementing these strategies still requires as much productivity as possible, but implementing them as early as possible will enable you to build and exploit metrics that work in your favour.

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