Thomson's Nobel predictions...Yes, it's that time of year again!

Sep 24 2010 Published by under academia, culture of science, scholarly publishing

It's time for the annual Mocking of the Thomson Reuters session.

They're at it again.

Can the winners of the Nobel Prize be correctly predicted? Since 1989, Thomson Reuters has developed a list of likely winners in medicine, chemistry, physics, and economics. Those chosen are named Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates -- researchers likely to be in contention for Nobel honors based on the citation impact of their published research.

Check out my previous iterations of this amusing pastime: 2002, 2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009.

From a recent Globe and Mail article:

"We choose our citation laureates by assessing citation counts and the number of high-impact papers while identifying discoveries or themes that may be considered worthy of recognition by the Nobel committee," said David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters.

"A strong correlation exists between citations in literature and peer esteem. Professional awards, like the Nobel Prize, are a reflection of this peer esteem."

And Pendlebury again from a comment in my blog post last year:

Many in our lists rank much higher than the top .1%

The reason others suggested the same names we have, in blogs and news stories, is that they have studied our selections in this and past years.

By the way, Blackburn, Greider and Szostak won this morning, and were picked by us this year. Through citation analysis we focused on Blackburn as long ago as 1993:

Note that this was before the receipt of the Gairdner Award (1998) and Lasker (2006).

Again, not causality, just a strong correlation between citations and peer esteem.

We don't disagree that Nobel Prizes are not chosen on the basis of citation counts.

From Toronto's Dr. James Till, one of the citation laureates that Thomson chose (from the G&M article):

Dr. Till, reached Tuesday at his Toronto home, said he was told by Thomson Reuters that he and Dr. McCulloch are among the top picks for a Nobel. But Dr. Till, known for his scientific rigour, was reluctant to say much about the prediction.

"I'm skeptical," he said. "This is just speculation based on data that Thomson Reuters gathers, citation data."

"This kind of speculation is not something I'd like to comment on."

I'm skeptical too, but I'm more than happy to comment.

I have to say, that based on what I'm reading from Thomson the last year or so about the way they approach their predictions, my mockery isn't quite as venomous as in the past. They appropriately give an emphasis on correlation rather than causation.

That being said, however, I'm still not a fan of the exercise. Citation counts aren't what's important in science and aren't the best way to measure impact. Cameron Neylon is proposing a project to find a better way and in my mind that's a better way to spend our time and effort than making rather meaningless predictions.

It's also worth noting that the prediction home page doesn't really make an effort to be clear about the correlation/causation distinction and people reading the phrase, "likely to be in contention for Nobel honors based on the citation impact of their published research," would be justified in feeling that they are drawing a stronger link than their other statements imply. You really have to read and pay close attention to the Process and Method essays for clarification on that point.

So, let's see who they've predicted for this year:


  • Patrick O. Brown
  • Susumu Kitagawa
  • Stephen J. Lippard
  • Omar M. Yaghi


  • Charles L. Bennett
  • Thomas W. Ebbesen
  • Lyman A. Page
  • Saul Perlmutter
  • Adam G. Riess
  • Brian P. Schmidt
  • David N. Spergel

Physiology or Medicine

  • Douglas L. Coleman
  • Jeffrey M. Friedman
  • Ernest A. McCulloch
  • Ralph M. Steinman
  • James E. Till
  • Shinya Yamanaka


  • Alberto Alesina
  • Nobuhiro Kiyotaki
  • John H. Moore
  • Kevin M. Murphy

That's 21 guesses for four prizes.

Let's see how they do this year. I predict about the same as previous years, in other words, some right and most wrong. Some of the people they pick based on citation counts will be picked in the year Thomson guesses, some won't. Some will get picked in a later year. Over time, they nominate so many people for the awards that every year their odds improve of picking someone that gets the Nobel in a later year.

Once again, I would like to emphasize that I have nothing against the scholars whom Thomson has "nominated" and wish them well. I certainly don't mean to cast a negative light on their contributions to their fields at all. My beef is not with them, but with Thomson's misuse of their citation data.

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