Equality kills everything it touches, eventually. So much is well known. It is also realized by regular readers that requiring academics to publish or perish causes them to perish intellectually. The happy news is that the latter of these facts is at last being acknowledged by others.
Daniel Sarewitz writes in Nature “The pressure to publish pushes down quality“. Not realizing the corrosive effects of Equality, and indeed embracing that awful theory, as you shall see, Sarewitz says
The number of publications continues to grow exponentially; it was already approaching two million per year by 2012…
But what if more is bad? In 1963, the physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price looked at growth trends in the research enterprise and saw the threat of”scientific doomsday”. The number of scientists and publications had been growing exponentially for 250 years, and Price realized that the trend was unsustainable. Within a couple of generations, he said, it would lead to a world in which “we should have two scientists for every man, woman, child, and dog in the population”. Price was also an elitist who believed that quality could not be maintained amid such growth. He showed that scientific eminence was concentrated in a very small percentage of researchers, and that the number of leading scientists would therefore grow much more slowly than the number of merely good ones, and that would yield “an even greater preponderance of manpower able to write scientific papers, but not able to write distinguished ones”.
So who we should really be hearing from is Price. Alas, that fine gentleman is no longer with us. Sarewitz calls Price an “elitist”, and that is fair enough, but it is a distasteful word to equalitarians, hence we might prefer “realist” to emphasize Equality is anti-realistic. Anyway, here is the what happens.
Equality caused the increase in colleges, which caused the increase in students and the professors teaching those students. The requirement that academics publish, married with Equality, caused the massive increase in publishing. Since Equality, though yearned for and believed, is false in fact, the average quality of those publications necessarily decreased.
And this might have been fine, because although the average necessarily decreased, the quality at the top might have stayed constant. If you have one man who can jump 8 feet, then the average of jumping ability for this sample of one man is 8 feet. But if you add yourself to the sample, and you can only jump 2 feet, then the average necessarily decreases to 5 feet, though the top man can still jump 8 feet.
But Equality and the mania for publishing is worse than that. Their combined effect burdens our high jumper by (metaphorically) forcing him to wear heavy weights, much as with Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. Back to Sarewitz:
Mainstream scientific leaders increasingly accept that large bodies of published research are unreliable. But what seems to have escaped general notice is a destructive feedback between the production of poor-quality science, the responsibility to cite previous work and the compulsion to publish.
…the web makes it much more efficient to identify relevant published studies, but it also makes it that much easier to troll for supporting papers, whether or not they are any good. No wonder citation rates are going up.
That problem is likely to be worse in policy-relevant fields such as nutrition, education, epidemiology and economics, in which the science is often uncertain and the societal stakes can be high. The never-ending debates about the health effects of dietary salt, or how to structure foreign aid, or measure ecosystem services, are typical of areas in which copious peer-reviewed support can be found for whatever position one wants to take — a condition that then justifies calls for still more research.
Sarewitz wants scientists to publish less, and so do I. But I don’t think it will happen. Who wants to be the first to reduce his paper count? Surely not an Assistant Professor hoping for tenure, or an Associate hoping for promotion, or a Full hoping or a chair—and all hoping for grants.
Systems like this don’t reform, or only reform very rarely. Usually they just collapse. That’s my guess for science.
I have more on this topic in the last Chapter of Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics.