Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

International conference for Infometry and Scientometry

Greeting on July 28th 2008

Dear colleagues,

It was the contemporary American Philosopher George Santanya who pointed out quite accurately: "Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality". The temptation to do just that is so great because it is much easier to measure quantity than it is to measure quality. If we want to determine quantity, all we need is be able to count - but I don't think that anyone here in this room could, if pressed, answer the question: how do we measure quality?

The definitely not contemporary Philosopher Aristotle informed us why we have such serious difficulties to measure quality: quality, he said, is not a static thing that, once it has been reached, exists for all eternity. Rather, it tends to occur suddenly and frequently in bursts, and has a tendency to vanish just as unexpectedly. I am sure we can all recount examples of individuals who blew us away with an idea, so much so that we elevated them above all others. And then, quite suddenly, the spark disappeared and they became normal and mediocre again, which left us looking down on the previous genius with great derision because of their mediocrity, which we can forgive them much less than everyone else around us. But I digress. As a second point, Aristotle argued that only some qualities can be taught and learned, while others are inherent - you either have them or you don't. Often the result, Aristotle continues to point out, is that quality is accompanied by many sentiments with negative connotations such as pride, fear or envy. Finally, Aristotle's categories teach us that quality can only remain an external phenomenon that has no depth.

Aristotle's thoughts on the matter are still highly topical and shared by many university scientists today. This does not mean, however, that we need to say no more on the matter. If, thus aided by Aristotle, we concede that quality is difficult, almost impossible to grasp, does this mean that we should abandon our quest to measure it at all? It will not surprise you that I intend to answer this question by saying, no, of course not. If I were to say yes to my question, then I would be saying to you all, go home, don't bother attending this conference. And this would be a great mistake, not only would I have failed at my job - it is my job, after all, to welcome you to this university and to wish you an enjoyable time with fruitful discussions - no, it would be a great mistake because you have made the effort to come here and engage in an important debate whose results I am greatly looking forward to.

The answer, then, is no: we should never abandon our scientific quest for tools to measure quality. We need to be able to say with some certainty: this idea is truly good, or beware of this particular prophet of empty words. And indeed, we can hardly claim to have abandoned the search for quality, quite the contrary. There is a whole new branch of university development called "quality management" - in itself a contradiction in terms, for how do you manage the unmanageable? - a branch that each research institution is developing in order to ensure that it can succeed in the competitive environment of the scientific community. The aim of each institution is to overtake the others in the many rankings that we subject ourselves to - internal and external rankings, regional, national and international ones, rankings in single research fields and rankings for whole universities. In short, measuring quality is becoming a business.

But how? How do we measure quality? This, ladies and gentlemen, is where the topic of this conference becomes highly relevant. The subject of bibliometrics has been introduced to set certain standards for measuring quality. Certain tools have been developed for doing so: the number of publications, citation analyses, third-party funds and awards have been classified as good indicators for quality, and surely they are. I am sure I do not need to tell you, however, that these tools have not wholly managed to solve the question "how do we measure quality?". My dear colleague Hubert Markl, the former president of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, some weeks ago said, that in some ways, bibliometrics are in danger of repeating the principle of TV viewing rates, which take the numbers of those who view certain programs as an indicator for the program's quality. And only a few days ago, a prominent journalist of one of our leading German newspapers, Jürgen Kaube, published an article with the meaningful title "die bibliometrische Verblendung", the blindness of bibliometrics - an article in which he did not present as with protests from the conservative wing of the dusty old German academic ivory tower, but with wise caveats against certain trendy practises, which have become a little bit too self-evident in our universities and scientific institutions.

In many respects, our hands are tied, however. In the humanities in particular, you will find that academics can tell that something is of high quality, but they can rarely tell you why, or rather, they are unable to answer the question "what the hell is quality". If you think that I am about to tell you, please remember that my own field of expertise lies in the humanities. I don't know, it's as simple as that - but I do know that we can and should find an answer if we keep on looking. In autumn last year, Elisabeth Lack, research manager at this university, organised a conference at Humboldt-Universität in the framework of the "year of the arts and humanities" that was proclaimed by the ministry of education and research. The conference occupied itself with the question of how to determine standards in the human sciences and how to measure the quality of the academic product in these fields of research. Even at this conference we were unable to reach a final conclusion, but some interesting results have transpired. We saw that we are hugely dependent on the tools that bibliometrics offer us, but realised that we need to combine them with other tools, in particular in the arts and humanities, where we have much less quantifiable results than in the natural sciences. Peer reviews, for example, coupled with figures and numbers are an extremely useful combination. They are expensive to conduct of course, but that in itself is often taken as a sign of quality. We need to walk a tightrope therefore: we need to follow new developments, but we have to be careful not to fall for all new trends. We can be successful if we are in dialogue with each other - each academic has to be alert to on-going debates over and above his or her own field of research, and in turn, the peers have to conduct honest and thorough examinations of each other to separate the wheat from the chaff. - The papers of our conference will be published in October and I recommend them to all of you. In Berlin, we have of course, more and other things on offer than mere conferences and their published results - I would like to mention here the "Institut zur Qualitätsentwicklung im Bildungswesen", whose director Stefan Hornbostel - I see with great pleasure that he is among us - is a professor at Humboldt-Universität and could undoubtedly make a much more knowledgeable contribution than a professor for ancient church history; I would also like to mention the evaluation research conducted at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development. You can rest assured that Humboldt-Universität will invest further in this field to make a profound a contribution to this focal point of Berlin's research community, and we will therefore pay careful attention to the results of this conference.

Before I close, let me make a final point about quality by drawing on a particular example: even when we are able to recognise an idea of high quality, we don't always know the effects it will ultimately have. I would like to talk about Otto Hahn at this stage, who was professor at this university and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. Today is the 40th anniversary of his death, which is why I would like to draw on him in particular. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the nuclear fission of uranium. The Nobel Prize was well deserved, for the discovery was indeed one of high quality. But it was also a stepping stone to the creation of the atomic bomb. The idea itself was, therefore, Nobel Prize worthy, but the effects were destructive and dangerous. Quality can, therefore, bring with it some very problematic results.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have the easy job now: I have posed all the difficult questions and now leave the floor to others to answer them. But I do so with the best wishes for a fruitful and, of course, high-quality discussion, which I am sure you will provide.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Christoph Markschies
President of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Abteilung Kommunikation, Marketing und Veranstaltungsmanagement (VIII)