Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Finnish Science in International Comparison

Academy of Finland organized today an event in which the report on Finnish Science in International Comparison was presented. The report, published in the Academy of Finland publication series, is written by Senior Science Adviser Annamaija Lehvo and Science Adviser Anu Nuutinen. It is available on the Academy's website. The number of publications by Finnish researchers in international scientific journals has increased 2.5-fold during the past 20 years. In 2005, Finnish researchers produced 8,300 publications, the highest figure on record. Finland ranked eight in a comparison of the citation impacts in all OECD countries.

In general, the occasion highlighted the strong position and impact of Finnish research. However, Finns are rarely completely satisfied with their own achievements but assume that something better can be achieved (even in areas in which Finland has been proven to be globally number one in international comparisons). Along these lines, Raimo Väyrynen, the President of the Academy of Finland, presented three challenges (translation from Finnish to English mine):
  • Is technological research able to produce enough scientific results when the investments are considered?
  • Are the biosciences able to produce enough societal and industrial impact, considering the investments?
  • How do the human and social sciences motivate their societal importance when their rather modest international achievements are considered?

These challenges were first discussed by Prof. Outi Krause (TKK) and Prof. Olli Kallioniemi (VTT). Prof. Krause emphasized that the results of bibliometric analyses are always subject to some potential critisism. For instance, she asked whether the publication and citation databases cover well enough and in a balanced way all different areas of science.

In the general discussion some attention was paid to the fact that within computer science it is still commonplace to publish in conferences rather than in journals. This practice was quite heavily critized, for example, based on the idea that conference proceedings are forgotten after their publication. This is not fully true, though. Already in our laboratory there is a substantial number of conference publications that have reached the level of one hundred citations or more. It is important to remember, first of all, that for good quality computer science conferences full papers are submitted, and, secondly, they are peer reviewed.

Many conference papers are self-contained already as such: the journal paper may not add anything substantially new compared with the earlier conference proceedings version. It may be advisable to aim at publishing also a journal paper, though. However, the delays and other complications can be substantial.

The web has also changed the "scientific marketplace" at least in the area of computer science substantially. With Google, one can easily look for publications, and those papers that are not available (for free) in the web tend to have lesser number of citations. The forum of the paper does not necessarily matter as much as the content even though the credibility of the paper becomes usually checked in one way or another before it is even read. There are many ways to make papers known. Even in this blog, I tend to bring up some of the best papers that we have, and also mention good papers from elsewhere.

Another critical remark, already a long time ago raised by Academician Teuvo Kohonen, is the fact that the impact of important text books is not taken into account if only journal articles are considered.

In summary, it might even be that the computer science research community is experimenting with new ways of publishing scientific content and these practices will be applied in other areas later. This is a radically different point of view in comparison with the idea that computer scientists may sometimes be slow in adopting "normal" practices of others. Maybe we are also then able to develop better means to measure the importance of research in better ways that take into account the differences between various areas of science.

Social and technological sciences tend to have a closer connection with the societal context than, for example, natural sciences. Therefore, a Finnish historian may be highly relevant for the local audience when publishing in Finnish. It is self-evident that a researcher within, say, molecular biology has to publish in English. The research results of technologists also have to be "translated" into the language of enterprises that take the results into practical use. Much of the research funded within computer science is expected to have a practical impact within even a very short timeframe. This takes place in projects, the main focus of which may not be in scientific publishing. The basic research within computer science has, of course, to be competitive globally. The funding for true basic research is, however, smaller than for applied research. This does not mean to say that applied research is somehow scientifically less valuable. It may be that the practical contexts, rich with complex problems, give rise to even more important research results, or at least, guide the associated basic research into societally relevant directions. Without proper grounding in reality, the basic research might even be lead into some local minima based on overly restrictive background assumptions.

In general, it may not be wise to apply same success criteria for all scientific activities but give researchers a chance to excel in various ways. The motivational basis of the research community is great, I think. Guidance to approach relevance does not need to be overly explicit but it can be naturally achieced through self-organization when enough communication within the scientific community and with the surrounding society takes place.

The report published by the Academy of Finland today provides important quantitative evidence for the substantial progress achieved by Finnish scholars during the past 20 years. Suitable combinations of quantitative and qualitative research may provide in the future means for discussing the merits of different areas of science. Today's main message should be that the scientific community has a very important role in the society.

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