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Publishing in international and regional journals serves the author's purposes

Interview with Tibor Braun, leading chemist and scientometrist

 

Dr. Tibor Braun, leading chemist, professor at Loránd Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary, is one of the founders of scientometry, a discipline dedicated to the study of quantitative aspects of science as a social endeavor. Professor Braun studied at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj and started his career as a researcher in Romania. In 1963, he moved to Loránd Eötvös University where he has been active ever since. During his remarkable career he has founded four scientific journals, including "Scientometrics", and published over 200 scientific studies and 16 books (see his scientometric portrait).

Dr. Braun graciously accepted to answer a few questions for "Ad Astra" on the uses and misuses of scientometry.

Liviu Giosan and Tudor Ionel Oprea


Professor Braun, thank you for accepting to answer our questions. Your impressive career as a chemist is coupled with a similarly impressive activity in the field of scientometry that you pioneered and still "shepherd" via the journal Scientometrics that you founded. We are convinced that our readers will benefit from your insights.

It's a real pleasure for me to be interviewed by your interesting new journal. Let me however stress from the very beginning that I neither consider myself an oracle nor I want to play such a role in the eyes of your readers. Let me explain at least part of my temperance through an anecdote.

Once upon a time I went to a shopping mall and bought 2.20 meters of good quality textile fabric. I was traveling at the time to Hong Kong where it's well known that local tailors wait for passengers at the airport and offer to make them suits in a single day. I picked such a guy from the crowd and he took my measures and promised that I will receive the suit next evening at the hotel. Next afternoon at the hotel, the tailor told me sorrowfully that he couldn't deliver because the piece of fabric (2.20 m) was not enough for a suit of a man of my dimensions. I took back the fabric and after returning to Budapest I went to my old tailor and ordered a suit from him. After ten days, much to my surprise the suit was ready and the tailor told that the material has enabled him to make two more trousers and a waistcoat as well. When asking him how was that possible after the failure in Hong Kong the man said: - Look Sir, here in Budapest you aren't that big a man.

Scientometric analyses are adopted more and more in evaluating scientific output in many countries - e.g., in the last issue of Scientometrics I noticed a paper on China for example. And everybody knows that publications and citation analyses can make or break your career in US for example.

In my definition, scientometry is the field of science that tries to unravel the working mechanism of basic research as a social activity via quantitative (mainly statistical) methods. Evaluative scientometrics is just a subfield of scientometrics, but it's true that nowadays most countries use scientometric tools for evaluating the "health state" of their basic research. However, these evaluations must be performed by specialists. Unfortunately, in many countries the situation is similar to the one described by Max Delbrück (physicist, one of the founders of molecular biology) in molecular biology in its early stages: a phase of "organized sloppiness". Amateurism and dilettantism are common and that's very harmful.

Bibliometric analyses are badly needed to evaluate research productivity in some former communist countries - including Romania. You might know that after 1990 over 500 "science journals" were founded in Romania and if the decreasing trend in the number of researchers continues we might end up with "personal journals" for every scientist!

Many scientists think that there are too many science journals in the world. Of course we know that science journals have their own demography, like people. Journals are born, journals die, they marry and/or divorce and so on. We even witnessed a phenomenon with journals which, although wishful for humans too, is less likely: reincarnation.

National science journals that are published in small or developing countries do not seem to have too bright a future. Publication is the act of making something public and in science it is important for the peers to know what their colleagues have achieved in their research. A scientific paper published in a national language in a national journal remains probably hidden internationally, it doesn't bring publicity for the author and costs a lot for the publisher of the journal. Publishing in international and regional journals serves much better the author's purposes of reaching a wider audience. Moreover, there are many such journals where there are no publication costs involved.

Scientometrics, although founded, edited and printed in Hungary is not a Hungarian but an international journal. However, it has been well received and read in Hungary as in many other countries.

What obstacles should one expect if scientometric principles were to be taken seriously in Romania where at present productivity in research goes largely unevaluated? And how should these obstacles be overcome in your opinion?

Any new result in science is, by definition, received by the peers with a so called organized scepticism. In some cases, the obstacles and the scepticism are more difficult to overcome than in others. This is similar to the situation described by Niccolo Machiavelli in his Il Principe (1513):

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old condition, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

There is no clear recipe on how to overcome these obstacles. As in many other fields, patience and perseverance, could be some of the keywords.

Should you find yourself in the position to lead the effort for scientific reform in Romania today, what would you do? Are there any principles that should be communicated to governmental factors?

Unfortunately, I know very little about the real economic situation in Romania and implicitly about the government's plans for managing the situation in research. All my information in this respect is far from complete as it was acquired from media reports only. Just a very broad remark: the brain drain should be converted into brain gain in a way which must be successful, efficient and economically viable. No comment on how to do that.

Do you favor a culture of elites?

Scientific research is an elitist venture in the sense that any distribution related to a quality component in science is very skewed. This would, of course not mean, that science and scientific research have to be based on elites only. There are no distributions without a tail BUT the shorter the tails the better.

What are the chances for Hungary to participate in the European Research Area initiative? How about Romania?

Hungary has been involved in many international initiatives since 1956 and will follow, as far as I know that tendency. Excepting the period of obscurantism during the hard times of the recent past, Romania did behave similarly and will have to continue to do so in the future.

If you were to look back at the over five decades of scientific endeavor that are covered by your career, what lessons would you like to share with young scientists?

Here is a ranking of factors or events that were essential to my own scientific career:
1. Luck in meeting splendid people to respect, admire, and consider as a model
2. Curiosity
3. Perseverance
4. Backing and support by my family
5. Joy and pleasure in scientific activities

Would you choose a career in science in Romania, as opposed to abroad? Could you give any advice to young Romanians facing this dilemma?

Choosing a career is a very personal act and has to be made by each person relative to his/her interests and the environment he/she is living in. I had the chance to choose a scientific career in Romania and have never regretted that decision. This has been largely influenced by exceptional people I have the good chance to meet there as Candin Liteanu, Manfred Nachman, Mircea Oncescu, Ion Maxim, Ion Galateanu, Raluca Ripan, Serban Titeica, Florin Ciorascu, Alexandru Balaban, Petre T. Frangopol, Andrei Devenyi, Rodica Manaila, and many others. These fortunate encounters are the main determinants of my loyalty towards Romania.

You founded and have run several journals. We are "tasting" a similar experience with Ad Astra - could you give us any advice? Of course ours is not a science journal entirely, as it is geared toward communication among scientists, but what makes a science journal tick?

I think you do not need external advice, and you have all the attributes to manage the journal successfully. Let me illustrate this with another anecdote.

Mozart was asked once by a would-be composer:
- Maestro I would like to ask you how to compose a symphony?
- My friend, said Mozart, as I see you are only about 56 of age, you have all your life before you, this will come unexpectedly.
- But maestro, you have composed symphonies already at the age of five.
- Yes, my friend, but I didn't ask anybody how to do it.

In the end let me greet this way all my former colleagues, friends and associates in Romania, and wish many successes to your journal in achieving its important goals.

 

Ad Astra • Volume 1, Issue 2, 2002 • Focus
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