Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bauerlein, Mark, et al. "We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION June 13, 2010.

Everybody agrees that scientific research is indispensable to the nation's health, prosperity, and security. In the many discussions of the value of research, however, one rarely hears any mention of how much publication of the results is best. Indeed, for all the regrets one hears in these hard times of research suffering from financing problems, we shouldn't forget the fact that the last few decades have seen astounding growth in the sheer output of research findings and conclusions. Just consider the raw increase in the number of journals. Using Ulrich's Periodicals Directory, Michael Mabe shows that the number of "refereed academic/scholarly" publications grows at a rate of 3.26 percent per year (i.e., doubles about every 20 years). The main cause: the growth in the number of researchers.

Many people regard this upsurge as a sign of health. They emphasize the remarkable discoveries and breakthroughs of scientific research over the years; they note that in the Times Higher Education's ranking of research universities around the world, campuses in the United States fill six of the top 10 spots. More published output means more discovery, more knowledge, ever-improving enterprise.

If only that were true.

While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

As a result, instead of contributing to knowledge in various disciplines, the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed. Even if read, many articles that are not cited by anyone would seem to contain little useful information. The avalanche of ignored research has a profoundly damaging effect on the enterprise as a whole. Not only does the uncited work itself require years of field and library or laboratory research. It also requires colleagues to read it and provide feedback, as well as reviewers to evaluate it formally for publication. Then, once it is published, it joins the multitudes of other, related publications that researchers must read and evaluate for relevance to their own work. Reviewer time and energy requirements multiply by the year. The impact strikes at the heart of academe. . . .

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