Scientific research: more quantity, less quality

Science struggles with a true paradox: while the production of knowledge accelerates and intensifies, great or revolutionary discoveries become increasingly rare. Among the reasons for such a decline is the competition to publish, which has made researchers more concerned with quantity than quality, and has led them to take fewer risks.

In the first decades under study, verbs reminiscent of creativity and discovery predominate; in recent decades, they have been replaced by words that create improvements or applications. (AFP)

Scientific publications and technological innovations are increasing exponentially, but major discoveries that dramatically advance science are declining over time, according to a Nature study published on Wednesday.

The authors of the study, Carlson School of Management researchers, despite the acceleration in the production of knowledge, a paradox of slow-moving science has already been documented for certain research areas such as semiconductors or pharmaceuticals. Minnesota (USA).

They wanted to measure it for the first time in all subjects. Based on 45 million scientific articles over six decades (1945 to 2010) and 3.9 million patents (1976-2010) extracted from global databases, including the Web of Science information platform.

Over the years, their work breaks down the most cited papers to produce a “disruption index,” the way scientists cite each other. This allows you to predict whether an article is a game-changer or a technological innovation creates a breakthrough.

They distinguish two types of discoveries: on the one hand, contributions that came to reinforce the “status quo”, like the Nobel laureates Khon and Sham (1965), based on existing theorems to develop an original method of electronic computing. structure of atoms.

A gradual descent
Scientific publications and technological innovations are increasing exponentially, but the breakthrough discoveries that dramatically advance science are diminishing over time (AFP)

On the other hand, “disruptive” discoveries that shake up theories and take science in a different direction, like Nobel Watsons and Cricks, who revolutionized biology by demonstrating the double helix structure of DNA.

Their index ranges from negative -1 point (consolidation) to +1 positive point (disruption). According to their calculations, the percentage of this indicator significantly and continuously decreased in publications between 1945 and 2010 (91.9%), affecting medicine, physical and social sciences as well. Also with 80% reduction for patents.

The vocabulary is in decline: the first decades studied are dominated by verbs that evoke creativity and discovery; in recent decades they have been replaced by words that evoke refinements or applications.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t more advances,” points out Michael Park, lead author. Despite the slower pace, “there is still a fairly consistent amount of disruptive work in recent discoveries, such as gravitational waves in 2015 or the messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19,” he explains to AFP.

But “a healthy scientific ecosystem is one in which disruptive and reinforcing discoveries mix. However, the nature of science is changing,” emphasizes Professor Russell Funk, who led the work.

“Publish, publish, publish”
A frenzied race to publish in universities, especially Anglo-Saxon, trumps real scientific achievement (Creative Commons)

The growing weight of knowledge to be acquired by researchers and inventors who spend more time training than “pushing back the frontiers of science” is in question.

This “research burden” leads to relying on “more and more narrow parts of existing knowledge”, regrets Prof. Funk. The study notes, for example, a tendency to cite more than the same previous work, and therefore a lack of renewal.

Another factor: the pressure to “publish, publish, publish” interprets the guarantee of academic success as “publish or perish”.

“The race to publish has accelerated since the early 2000s,” said Jérôme Lamy, a historian and sociologist of science who was not involved in the work.

“Although the concept of disruptive+ discovery is a bit difficult to define, this study clearly points to a global trend that is forcing researchers to separate their papers+ to improve their performance and find funding.” , gave an interview to AFP.

The expert analyzes that this “atomization” of the work “undermines research that takes less and less risk”.

To address this, the study urges national research agencies to prioritize quality over quantity and give scientists more time to think deeply about big topics.

with AFP

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