The sadest comment on scientific legacy I have ever read

Apr 04 2012 Published by under Careerism, Conduct of Science

...was put up in a vignette by Female Science Professor:

the other day, a (very) senior professor told me that he was upset about another colleague who doesn't cite his (the senior professor's work) when he should. He said that he wants his citation numbers to be as high as possible by the time he dies because "that's all we have" (as a legacy). I thought that was sad and disturbing, particularly coming from someone who has a large number of papers that have been cited more times than any paper of mine will ever be.

sad and disturbing indeed. We have so much more in terms of legacy. Counting citations seems pretty...miserly.

23 responses so far

  • Well, it depends on what you mean by "legacy". If you just mean did your work influence science, then yes, it doesn't matter if you get cited or that others get the credit if the work itself was influential. But if you mean (as I suspect the professor does) whether the history of science will remember you, then citations are kind of the only way it works. It's a bit like what historians say -- a historical event is not just something that happened, but something that was *documented* as having happened.

  • Namnezia says:

    Did you ever read "Stoner"?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Who gives a crap whether "history" remembers you? I care if what I did on this Earth leaves a lasting influence.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Can we talk for a second about what the fuck "as high as possible" even MEANS?

    This is indeed a sad, sad sentiment for this person to be having. I can understand taking a certain level of personal satisfaction in knowing one's own h-index or whatever, but the idea that other people know or care is pretty misguided.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    When I consider the things that will be my "legacy", my scientific accomplishments do not make the top three.

  • Neurostyle says:

    Oh God...that's so sad and meaningless! It's just a way to glorify itself. I used to classify scientists in two categories: egocentric and frustrated. But often there are people who belong to both of them! Even though utopian, it could be nice to accept that we are working for the society and not only for ourself.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Um, as far as a scientific 'legacy' goes, isn't it perhaps more important to be teaching the next generation of scientists to go off and do really kewl things? As in being a quality mentor??? (Which should go right along with producing quality, meaningful science.)

    If my only shot of leaving a 'legacy' is by getting my papers cited a gazillion times, someone take me out back and shoot me.

  • Stu Kastic says:

    It's such a misguided sentiment, too. What actually matters is the sum of the citation count times the impact factors of all of the respective journals, normalized against the inverse of the days since publication. There's also an additive factor for the number of times your paper's press release was covered in the New York Times.

  • ...with a subtractive factor for puff pieces in "New Scientist" and the like that make semi-crackpot assertions that your work overturns Darwinism or the Central Dogma.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I'm a taxonomist; I describe new species, revise genera, etc. My name will come up in the literature until the end of the universe, when the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is not longer in force. I did enjoy, at an international meeting in 2006, to hear of research built on work I did years ago, and have data I published in 1966, 40 years previous, up on the screen, with a young student explaining what was going on. My high point was, in a similar meeting, hearing five students, PhDs or soon to be, who got their start in my ichthyology course, present their research findings. I'm OK with my legacy.

  • Mordecai says:

    What a morbid and gloomy outlook. He's completely ruling out his friends, his family, his students, the thousands of hours he's spent as a professor nurturing the next generation of minds, as things "we have?" Is that because those things are somehow less public and scientific, as opposed to citations, which sees as the purest, most transcendent consequence of a life spent on pure transcendent things? Or because he never spent the time and energy to really "have" those former things? I'm not sure which is more depressing.

  • Sideshow Bill says:

    Al Cotton was famously egotistical in addition to being a great inorganic chemist. On the publication of his 1500'th paper, he sent a letter announcing it to a rival complete with gold foil embossed seal. (Yep, he was that egotistical)

    The best reply to that letter, "Congratulations, now how many did you read?"

  • In regard to Namnezia's comment, "Stoner" is presumably not referring to a cannabis-partaking individual but to John Williams' 1965 novel about an embittered retired English professor who worries about whether he wasted his life in his studies. It's interesting how many of these novels are about English professors and not science professors, but I'm not sure what that means other than the obvious fact that the people who write them tend to come from the humanities rather the sciences.

  • gingerest says:

    Yeah, echoing others: students are a professor's enduring professional legacy.

  • Yeah, that really is sad and pathetic. I hope that my legacy is that there are lots of people out there who, after I die, remember me as someone who enabled them to have fun doing science.

  • whimple says:

    Most people have no enduring professional legacy other than the broadly anonymous continuity of scientific forward progress. Get over it. For the (very, very) few who do, it is certainly not their students. Pick any famous scientist... how many of their students can you name?

  • Namnezia says:

    @J.Badger - That's the one! I always think of that book when people talk about their legacy. But the thing is, is that though this guy's life might seem sad to us from the outside, I never felt he was truly embittered or regretful.

    In terms of legacy, I definitely second CPP's sentiment.

  • Bashir says:

    It's a bit narrow a view. Even if we assume to be talking about your science legacy, there is more to it than citations. Scientific interactions are much more rich than just the number of cites you get.

  • DJMH says:

    Having people remember your legacy of helping trainees is never going to endure for more than one generation. But really great scientific contributions can endure much longer. So, I'll agree that cite counts aren't the single best metric but yeah, I want my shit cited as evidence that if I die tomorrow, someone might still know my contribution 30 or more years from now. Ars longa, vita brevis.

    Just in case that doesn't work, I had a kid.

  • Alex says:

    As it stands, my most significant scientific legacy will be that I'm playing a big role in defining what is and isn't possible in a field with important applications.

    I would prefer it if my most significant legacy is that a student of mine goes on to show that something that I thought was impossible is in fact possible.

    Or if one of my students uses my work to do something that benefits a lot of people.

  • Jen says:

    A senior PI at my postdoc university was thrown a party to honor his 40 years of research at the university, in the form of a two-day symposium. Many of his former trainees (postdocs, grad students, and even some undergrads) were invited to give talks - so many wanted to participate that the symposium was extended by half a day. Each speaker had gone on to make important contributions to their own fields, and every single talk included examples of the influence the honoree had on the field and on their careers. If I left this kind of legacy at the end of my career, I would consider it a very satisfying career indeed.

  • anon says:

    I think that after a period of time, advances in science that were made many years ago get taken for granted, and with few exceptions, nobody can remember who did what without looking up the name (if they had to). Your contributions stand as contributions; your name is less important.

  • Zuska says:

    The hilarious thing is that citation-obsessed dude thinks that all "his" citations belong solely to him and that all the credit for them and the work they represent is his and his alone, ergo each citation is more fame for (just) him. Reality is that science is a team sport even if no one acts like it is. Citation Dude can't even get those papers published without the help of a host of journal reviewers, editors, and publishers willing to spend time out of their lives on his shit. Spare me the stories of lonely science heroes. Even Galileo had students doing calculations for him.

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