Saturday, 2 April 2016

Perverse bibliometrics: the case of patents

Bibliometrics, the counting of publications and citations, is being used for evaluating researchers, research institutions, and academic journals. But simple bibliometric indicators can be gamed, and complex indicators lack transparency. No known indicator avoids these two problems, while some indicators (such as the journal impact factor) manage to have both. As a result, the misuse of bibliometrics has been widely denounced.

In spite of these problems with bibliometrics, someone had the idea to do bibliometrics with patents, in order to rank research institutions. The result is Reuters' list of the world's most innovative research institutions, which is topped by the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). The methodology for establishing the list is not known in detail, but we do know that it is involves 10 different criterions, and is mainly based on the numbers of patents and citations thereof. 


Who would give credence to such a list? First of all, of course, the institutes that belong to it. Their place on the list is not due to chance, but rather to policies in favour of patenting, such as helping and inciting their employees to write patents (as is done for example by CEA). Reuters' tools for counting patents help these institutes sell themselves to the public and to their funders. In return, these institutes subscribe to Reuters' tools, and trumpet Reuters' list.

But the interest of bibliometrics is even more debatable in the case of patents than in the case of research articles. The point of patents is to make money from inventions, so why not evaluate their profitability instead? Well, maybe because patents are actually not profitable, as writing patents, filing patents, and defending patents in court cost much time and money. This would explain why some research institutes prefer counting patents and citations thereof. 

Actually, even if their patents were profitable, it is not clear whether publicly funded research institutions should be patenting their inventions, as opposed to making them freely available. There is a growing consensus that publicly funded research articles should be freely accessible, why should this not apply to publicly funded inventions?

In any case, it makes little sense to patent anything patentable, as some research institutions seem intent on doing, and as Reuters' list certainly encourages them to do. Patents should be governed by a reasonable strategy: for example, SpaceX does not patent, Tesla motors has patents but does not enforce them, and Apple used to patent little, but has since changed strategy and engaged in patent wars. Of course the strategy of a research institution must differ from the strategy of a company that actually builds and sells products. But maximizing one's patent count is not even a strategy, much less a good strategy.