Obviously, choosing the best scientist period is a futile effort, given the vast variety of scientific disciplines. But even identifying the best scientist within a given field of study can be tricky — how exactly do you determine it? According to a recent report in Nature, researchers at Indiana University Bloomington think they’ve discovered the best way to answer this question:
Their provisional (and constantly updated) ranking of nearly 35,000 researchers relies on queries made through Google Scholar to normalize the popular metric known as the h-index (a scientist with an h-index of 20 has published at least 20 papers with at least 20 citations each, so the measure takes into account quantity and popularity of research).
Through this methodology, they uncovered the following:
It found that as of 5 November, the most influential scholar was Karl Marx in history, ahead of Sigmund Freud in psychology. Number three was Edward Witten, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
You can visit the team’s website at Scholarometer to see the rest of the results. Needless to say, the conclusions have been disputed; aside from questioning the very idea that there is a dominant scientific figure, there’s also the question of whether even this method is effective:
Scholarometer’s success depends on the accuracy of Google Scholar, which is far from comprehensive or consistent. “A user-based tool like Scholarometer can hardly deliver consistent results for fair comparison and field-normalization,” says Werner Marx, who studies scholarly metrics at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany. And the corrected h-index is only one measurement. Experts recommend using a basket of metrics, together with peer-reviewed opinions, to compare researchers.“I tend not to put a whole lot of weight on these numbers and I’ve never heard of the h-index,” says James Ihle, a biochemist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee — who at one stage placed fourth overall in the Scholarometer ranking. If you, as an evaluator, have to rely solely on corrected h-indices to compare academics, says Ihle, “then you’re dumb, and you don’t understand what you are doing”.