When starting to compile citation data from the scientific literature over 25 years ago, I aimed to create a new tool for information retrieval—the Science Citation Index (SCI). Out of this came a useful by-product: a large and ever increasing database containing indicators of intellectual connections among scientists and their publications.

The SCI attracted the attention of historians and sociologists of science and served as a catalyst to the field of scientometrics, which uses quantitative methods to analyze the process and development of science. The ISI database has facilitated large-scale quantitative studies of the scientific performance of countries, institutions, fields, departments and individuals. In recent years, such scientometric studies have even contributed to public policy decisions in science. However, it is in assessing the performance of individual scientists, especially in the context of promotion or grant decisions, that the use of citation data is most controversial.

This controversy has...

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