The Shelf Life of a Scientist
How quickly after a scientist stops publishing does he or she fade to obscurity? Well, that’s a broader question than I plan to answer here. But I can do a little lifelogging data analysis to figure out if my expiration date has yet passed.
I switched careers from science to management in 2005, publishing my last journal paper in that year. From 1993-2005 I published 11 journal papers as a first author, and participated as a co-author in 17 more. In theory, that should leave a tidy trail of followup citations to determine if I’m fading from view. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.
The problem now is that the shelf life appears to be at least longer than the five years since I stopped publishing. If I had continued writing (and collaborating), I would have expected the curves at right to rise much more than linearly (not exponentially, but more than linearly), due to a “composite citation” effect. Instead, the curves are roughly linear, and haven’t yet begun to flatten out.
As an aside, interlinking of scientific journal citations across the internet is still in a fairly sorry and byzantine state. There are a number of reasons, including that nonprofit professional societies that publish journals typically lack the resources to integrate across platforms with each other, or backfill legacy data, while commercial journal publishers lack the financial incentive. All of which goes to say – it wasn’t easy to cobble the data above together across multiple earth science journal publishers (AMS, AGU, Elsevier, others), and before 2002, the data are pretty spotty.
Anyway – the impacts of disengaging from the scientific community are a little easier to see by looking at citation-per-year rates. (At a first author citation rate of about 30 per year I certainly wasn’t on track to shake the foundations of the scientific establishment!) The differences between first and co-authorship trends is instructive.
After 2005, a time when I made a pretty clean break with both publishing and the research community, the citation rate of my first author papers flatlined. Eventually, the inevitable will happen and that trend will start declining … from which I’ll then be able to extrapolate my EYO (Estimated Year of Obscurity, of interest to absolutely nobody but me.) It would certainly be nice if this were greater than my remaining life expectancy, but I’m not optimistic. Then again, I didn’t get into earth science to jump on the fast track to immortality.
In contrast, the citation rates for papers I participated as a co-author on continues to rise. That suggests one (or both) of two things:
- The colleagues who were leads on these papers were systematically better at conducting and publishing more relevant and enduring research (certainly possible, although if I look at the citation rates paper by paper, it doesn’t seem to match the data).
- The colleagues who were leads continued to engage, continually increasing their own visibility within the community as well as that of their publications, through self-citation, leading to even greater awareness of publications and increasing citation rates.
Note that I’m only tracking citations for the controlled set of papers I was author or co-author on, not citations for all authors I participated with. The short form is: my colleagues’ stock continues to rise, while mine has – as expected – stalled out.
To readers who have slogged this far, my thanks for enduring what, in retrospect, is an entry high in narcissism and low in protein content.