Study: The larger a scientific field, the more conformist that field becomes, and the more lethargic its progress
Bad news for Team Science.
A leitmotif of this plague chronicle is the profound decadence and dysfunction of modern academia. Following the Science would be inadvisable even if we had some semblance of science. Instead, alas, we have a massive, overbuilt, over-enrolled university apparatus that primarily caters to the careerist concerns of students, researchers and teachers. It is a factory, not of free inquiry, but of conformity. Participants in this charade pantomime disagreement and discovery, but almost nobody ever says anything new or interesting.
For a few days now, I’ve been thinking about this PNAS article published last year on Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science. Its authors marshal data to support their proposition “that when the number of papers published each year” in a given field “grows very large,”
the rapid flow of new papers can force scholarly attention to already well-cited papers …. Rather than causing faster turnover of field paradigms, a deluge of new publications entrenches top-cited papers, precluding new work from rising into the most-cited, commonly known canon of the field.
The more Science you do, in other words, the less stereotypically “scientific” your discourse becomes.
[W]hen many papers are published within a short period of time, scholars are forced to resort to heuristics to make continued sense of the field. … [C]ognitively overloaded reviewers and readers process new work only in relationship to existing exemplars … Faced with this dynamic, authors are pushed to frame their work firmly in relationship to well-known papers, which serve as “intellectual badges” identifying how the new work is to be understood, and discouraged from working on too-novel ideas that cannot be easily related to existing canon. The probabilities of a breakthrough novel idea being produced, published, and widely read all decline, and … the publication of each new paper adds disproportionately to the citations for the already most-cited papers.
The effect is easily quantified:
[W]hen the field of Electrical and Electronic Engineering published ∼10,000 papers a year, the top 0.1% most-cited papers collected 1.5% and the top 1% most-cited collected 8.6% of total citations. When the field grew to 50,000 published papers a year, the top 0.1% captured 3.5% of citations, and the top 1% captured 11.9%. When the field was larger still with 100,000 published papers per year, the top 0.1% received 5.7% of citations within the field and the top 1% received 16.7%. The bottom 50% least-cited papers in contrast decreased in share as the field grew larger, dropping from garnering 43.7% of citations at 10,000 papers to slightly above 20% at both 50,000 and 100,000 papers per year.
Remember that papers are merely conveniently quantifiable proxies for ideas, theories and findings; and that citations are the most straightforward way to measure the attention these ideas, theories and findings receive. At scale, the scientific enterprise rapidly becomes a kind of intramural spectator sport, with the vast majority of “scientists” reduced to passively observing the dialogue unfolding among higher-ups within their own field, while most of their own work – undertaken for careerist purposes – goes unread and unnoticed.
As for solutions, the authors don’t have much:
Reducing quantity may be impossible. Proscribing the number of annual publications, shuttering journals, closing research institutions, and reducing the number of scientists are hard-to-swallow policy prescriptions. Even if a scientist wholeheartedly agreed with the implications of our study, curtailing their output would be impractical given the damage to their career prospects and those of their colleagues and students, for example. Limiting article quantity without altering other incentives risks deterring the publication of novel, important new ideas in favor of low-risk, canon-centric work.
A recurrent pattern, since January 2020, has been the tendency of Team Science to get wronger with each passing moment. I won’t ever defend containment, masking or mass vaccination, but in the beginning – when Science first hit upon these ideas – the possibility that they’d have some mitigating effect was at least defensible. Over time, though, as events have discredited each of these policies in turn, it’s proven impossible to remove any of them from the scientific canon, and all signs are that the Science Followers will follow these broken ideas straight off a cliff. Corona simply attracted too much attention too soon, and rapidly became mired in a set of early, ill-informed and unproductive paradigms, that will probably still be plaguing the Science twenty years from now.
Perhaps the lesson from all of this, is that Science is not the thing we should be Following in novel and uncertain situations at all. Perhaps Science is not after all a window into a higher world of wisdom and knowledge, but merely a mirror upon ourselves, that will only ever tell us what we want to hear. Perhaps we will never get out of this, until we can put the Science back into the closet where it belongs, and start thinking for ourselves again.
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