Who’s on Top?
Is there a pecking order for scientists? If so, how is it determined and what does it mean?
Interpersonal comparisons are seldom far from view, whether pursued on Facebook by teenagers, employees climbing the corporate ladder, or magazines profiling some “Top 100” or other, as this publication did last month. Indeed, scientists may represent a prime example. A former boss of mine was a physicist and insisted that physics was the preeminent science. After all, once you really mastered physics, you should be able to understand all the other sciences… or so he said. So, physicists were on top, presumably followed by members of other “hard” sciences, such as chemistry and geology, then the biological sciences, and finally social sciences at the bottom: a well-defined pecking order.
Pecking orders in science can be defined in other ways too; for example, scientists in industry versus academia, or those working in research versus in those in development. Industrial scientists tend to be associated with development, and academic scientists with research. Here, I will set aside these and other distinctions between groups of scientists.
Followers, Awards and Facilitation
How do scientists compare each other? There are some widely used measures of recognition, including who has the most followers, who receives the most awards and who best “facilitates” the research of others. Let’s look at these in turn.
By “followers” I mean fellow scientists around the world who follow one’s work. Results can be disseminated in presentations at meetings, or in publications via papers, review articles and books. Transient recognition can be achieved by a single presentation at the “right” meeting, but a proper ranking of individuals usually takes more time.
Advanced placement in a science hierarchy usually requires an extended period of productivity; publications and citations can together provide an initial assessment. As a single “productivity parameter”, the h-index is often used; it represents the number n of papers that have been cited at least n times. If your 20 highest cited papers have each been cited at least 20 times, your h-index is 20. A higher number naturally commands more respect. The quality of the journals in which an author publishes is also a factor, but the h-index recognizes this indirectly; publications in lesser journals are less likely to be highly cited. Authoring a review or book provides a complementary form of recognition, but mainly to the extent that such publications highlight the author’s own research. A review or book that does not do this may still be a valuable contribution, but this will be recognized somewhat differently than one that showcases the R&D achievements of the author. That is, achievements in teaching and R&D are usually recognized separately.
Are awards the ultimate measure of performance and pecking order? Yes and no. First, such recognitions vary greatly in significance. There are the Nobel prizes at the top, and employee-of-the-month awards at the bottom; collecting many “minor” awards does not add up to a major one. Second, to receive an award, someone must nominate you. Many deserving awardees are never nominated, or are only nominated years after less deserving candidates receive a particular award. Third, important contributions may be made by workers who lack self-assertion, or the “image” associated with advanced degrees, high-ranking mentors, or chaired professorships from prestigious universities. Their work may linger in obscurity, or even be attributed to someone else. Lastly, favoritism and self-promotion can play significant roles in the award and honors selection process, just as in climbing the corporate ladder.
What about those who facilitate the research of others? This includes members of granting institutions, organizers of meetings, and editors of journals. Each of these activities can contribute directly to the advance of science. In addition, people who have money to support work by others enjoy the power of the purse, not an insignificant factor in commanding respect. Similarly, those who head scientific meetings receive additional status because of their ability to invite and support speakers. Editors of journals are also noted for their role in accepting some papers for publication, and rejecting others. Many other people also facilitate the work of those around them, often in more significant ways. Some of these are mentioned later in this article.
But what counts as “real” achievement? Publications, awards and research facilitation are at best indirect measures of scientific “success”, and are often more relevant to workers in academia than to workers in industry. We would all like to believe that “real” respect comes as a result of our contributions to society through the development of new ideas, information, or products. The relative value of such achievements is determined by how much they advance a particular area of science, and in turn how much this contributes to human welfare. An accurate assessment of people in this way may require more effort than just adding up publications, awards, and so on.
In order to better visualize the nature of such “real” contributions, let’s consider high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which over the past 50 years has been widely recognized as a major contributor to advances in chemistry and biochemistry. More specifically, let’s focus on columns for HPLC; advances in HPLC since the mid 1960s have been closely tied to corresponding improvements in the column. At the onset of HPLC, the theory of column performance was well understood in general terms, as a result of the prior contributions of several workers. But actual columns at this time fell far short of what later proved possible.
Over the next five decades, the further development of column theory became a cottage industry, yet these added insights have played a relatively minor role in the actual preparation of better columns. Columns mainly improved as a result of successive advances in the laboratory, including:
- Procedures for the direct synthesis of small, uniformly sized particles, as opposed to size classification methods
- Successive improvements in the way small particles are packed into the column
- The use of highly-pure silica particles
- The development of more stable and reproducible bonded phases, especially for use in reversed-phase chromatography
- The preparation of so-called “superficially porous” or “fused-core” particles
While several names are now associated with present-day column theory, one name stands out for corresponding practical improvements of the column. This person pioneered each of the above five laboratory advances, and for the past 50 years he has been a major factor in making HPLC the valuable tool it is today. It is clear that Jack Kirkland deserves “real” respect. The widespread use of his columns, with all of their related benefits, more accurately describes Jack’s contributions to science than his impressive list of publications, patents, awards and other honors.
Some Final Caveats
Recognition can be both fleeting and somewhat superficial. Present fads in R&D will be replaced by others as time passes, leading to changes in the current ranking of scientists. Remember “polywater” in the 1960s? Or “cold fusion” in the late 1980s? Or more recently ________ (fill in your own choice)? Even less-ephemeral research areas, such as HPLC undergo major changes in emphasis over time, with new “hot” topics emerging and old ones fading into obscurity (however, this has not been the case for HPLC columns!).
Credit among scientists is often determined by who got there first. However, today’s discoveries seldom occur in a vacuum, while not infrequently different R&D groups arrive at the same place at a similar time. Small differences in timing may be critical for the patent system or the Nobel committee, but more important than “Who was first?” may be “Who did it best?”
Similarly, a single name is often associated with a specific scientific advance. More commonly, however, that person has had important help from co-workers or collaborators, as well as earlier guidance by teachers and mentors. These contributors are seldom remembered or appreciated, except by those directly familiar with their efforts and essential skills.
Finally, we should keep in mind that human progress depends on the totality of achievements by many different workers, none of whom were truly essential, not even Newton or Einstein. Truly, the sum is greater than its parts, and everyone who contributes is important in some degree. On the other hand, while “key” individuals may be non-essential over the course of a century, they can make a huge difference over shorter periods of time.
So, recognition and ranking can be both ephemeral and overrated. Does the pecking order then represent a useful way of assessing the people around you, a misleading distraction, or something in between?
Lloyd Snyder has received national and international recognition for his wide-ranging contributions to chromatography, especially HPLC. He has twice been recognized by the American Chemical Society and received The Lifetime Achievement in Chromatography Award from LCGC magazine in 2012. “I first encountered gas chromatography in 1955, then switched to liquid chromatography in 1957, and HPLC, the premier technique for chemical analysis, in 1966,” he recalls. Snyder, who recently retired after a research career that spanned 60 years, spent his entire career in industry; the first half at four different companies, and the second at LC Resources, which he co-founded in 1984. During that time he authored or co-authored over 300 publications and nine books.