Appraising and rewarding biomedical research


In academic biomedicine, and  in most countries and research environments, grants, performance based funding, positions, etc.,  are appraised and rewarded based on very simple quantitative metrics: The impact factor (IF) of previous publications, and the amount of third party funding. For example, at the Charite in Berlin researchers receive  ‘Bonus’ funding (to be spent only in research, of course!) which is calculated by adding the IFs of the journals in which the researcher has published over the last 3 years, and the cumulative third party funding during that period (weighted depending on whether the source was the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, x3), the ministry of science (BMBF), the EU, foundations (x2), or others (x1). IF and funding contribute 50% each to the bonus. In 2014, this resulted in a bonus of 108 € per IF point, and 8 € per 1000 € funding (weighted).

Admittedly, IF and third party funding are quantitative, hence easily comparable, and using them is easy and ‘just’. But is it smart to select candidates or grants based on a metric that measures  the average number of citations to recent articles published in a journal? In other words, a metric of a specific journal, and not of authors and their research findings. Similar issues concern third party funding as an indicator: It reflects the past, and not the presence or future, and is affected by numerous factors that are only losely dependent or even independent of the quality and potential of a researcher or his/her project. But it is a number, and it can be objectively measured, down to the penny! Despite widespread criticism of these conventional metrics, they remain the backbone of almost all assessment exercises. Most researchers and research administrators admit that this approach is far from being perfect, but they posit that they are the best of all the worse solutions. In addition, they lament that there are no alternatives. To those I recommend  John Ioannidis’ and Muin Khoury’s recent opinion article in JAMA. 2014 Aug 6;312(5):483-4. [Sorry for continuing to feature articles by John Ioannidis, but he keeps on pulling brilliant ideas out of his hat]

They propose the ‘PQRST index’ for assessing value in biomedical research. What is it?




With their index Ioannidis and Khoury present an antidote against the perception that there are no other ways to gauge and award researchers. None of these suggestions is applicable to all situations in which researchers or their work needs to be appraised. But it would certainly  be a big step forward if researchers, funders, and universities start discussing them. For example, we could work on and with them in parallel to using conventional metrics (e.g IF). After a few years, and some smart metaresearch, we will have some insight on their applicability, and more importantly, utility.

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