The United States Football League began in 1983 with twelve cities, many of which already had an NFL team. The level of play was decidedly inferior to the “senior” league because, of course, the better men were already in the NFL. Still, the organizers thought that more football was wanted, even though the quality would not be on par with what fans had come to expect.
But people failed to love the expansion league, and it never did well enough to be able to pay top talent. It only lasted three years, folding in 1985.
This is a familiar story in sports. With a given population and infrastructure, there’s only so much top talent to go around. You can’t expand indefinitely and expect consistent quality.
The same must be so of professors at universities. There are only so many great brains to go around. It’s true that as the population grows there are more potential recruits into the white-coat leagues. And when training in the youth associations—i.e., math clubs, science fairs, band—is functioning well, there is a better chance that prospects will be recruited.
But again, you can’t expand indefinitely and expect consistent quality. And the professoriate has certainly expanded and is continuing to expand. It’s college for all! regardless whether most can handle the rigors.
It’s natural to wonder how much the swelling of the ranks and the dilution of talent accounts for the Wall Street Journal’s findings in “Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge.”
Seems retractions by journals have gone from near none ten years ago to well over 300 the past two years. Some of these retractions are from the authors of the papers themselves, after they conscientiously notice their mistakes, but many others are from the editorial boards of the journals after they identify various shenanigans of the authors.
The growth in shoddy work has been so explosive that the blog Retraction Watch has popped up to document the flood. First two headlines: “A quick Physical Review Letters retraction after author realizes analysis was ‘performed incorrectly’” and “Cal Poly Pomona education researcher leaves post after rampant plagiarism is revealed.” What a depressing site!
What’s going on? Expansion, as we saw. The number of journals in every field has exploded. The Far East, Lower Southern Half, Asian Journal of Research Studies: Part D, and so on. Why? Half of what earns a professor tenure is raw paper count. Quality is important, but only at the top schools. At most places, the only determination is weight: the more papers the better. Considering that most professors in the sciences have only one or maybe two good ideas in their entire lives, yet they must publish half a dozen or more papers a year, it is no surprise that much of which makes its way into print is of no or little value. Or even of positive harm, as the WSJ article argues.
The more journals there are, the more papers, and the more papers, the more bad ones. Not just sloppy or ridiculous papers, which regular readers of this site know are rampant, but fraudulent ones, too. Corners cut, numbers fudged, bandwagons jumped on and rode into the dust. This isn’t just in medicine, where there are many multitudes—as in thousands—of papers appearing monthly, but also in research into “climate effects.” It’s not unusual to see, in the same journal even, one paper which “proves”, “Fruit Bats Numbers To Decline When Climate Change Hits” and another which “shows”, “Fruit Bats To Increase Without Number, New Plague, When Climate Change Hits.”
And let’s not forget money—money is what’s going on, and lots of it. Research dollars from governments have flooded the system, making it easier for professors to set up little fiefdoms. The more money a professor brings in, the higher the rewards from the university bureaucracy (corollary: the more money, the larger this bureaucracy grows). Now, the only way to bring in the bucks is by publishing in sexy fields. Better publish quickly and in bulk, too, because you have a dozen guys breathing over your shoulder, itching to increase their “impact” scores ahead of yours.
The temptations here are enormous and, increasingly, they are not resisted. According to the WSJ: “‘The stakes are so high,’ said the Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton. ‘A single paper in Lancet and you get your chair and you get your money. It’s your passport to success.’”
Solution? There isn’t one. Among the race of people are liars, cheats, thieves, slobs, connivers, enthusiasts, zealots. And scientists, you may be surprised to learn, are people. Just because you know how to solve the equations of motion does not mean you are gifted with higher morals than the common man.
The only way to reduce fraud and mistakes are to reduce the number of papers. And since paper counting will never go away, the only way to reduce the number of papers is to reduce the number of professors. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen.