Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The maelstrom of science publishing: once you've read it, when should you shred it?

There is so much being published in the science literature--a veritable tsunami of results.  New journals are being started almost monthly, it seems, and mainly or only by for-profit companies.  There seems to be a Malthusian growth of the number of scientists, which has certainly produced a genuine explosion of research and knowledge, but the intense pressure on scientists to publish has perhaps changed the relative value of every paper.

And as I look at the ancient papers (that is, ones from 2016-17) that I've saved in my Must-Read folder, I see all sorts of things that, if they had actually been widely read, much less heeded, would mean that many papers being published today might not seem so original.  At least, new work might better reflect what we already know--or should know if we cared about or read that ancient literature.

At least I think that, satire aside, in the rush to publish what's truly new, as well as for professional score-counting and so on, and with the proliferating plethora of journals, the past is no longer prologue (sorry, Shakespeare!) as it once was and, one can argue should still be.  The past is just the past; it doesn't seem to pay to recognize, much less to heed it, except for strategic citation-in-passing reasons and because bibliography software can be used to winnow out citable papers so that reviewers of papers or grant applications won't be negative because their work wasn't cited.  You can judge for yourself whether this is being realistic or too cynical (perhaps both)!

The flux of science publishing is enormous for many reasons.  Not least is the expansion in the number of scientists.  But this is exacerbated by careerist score-counting criteria that have been growing like the proverbial Topsy in recent decades: the drive to get grants, big and bigger, long and longer.  Often in biomedical sciences, at least, grants must include investigator salaries, so there is massive self-interest in enumerable 'productivity'.  The journals proliferate to fill this market, and of course to fill the coffers of the publishers' self-interest.  Too cynical?

Over the years, in part to deflate Old Boy networks, 'objective' criteria have come to include, besides grants garnered, a faculty member's number of papers, ranking of the journals they're in, citation counts, and other 'impact factor' measures.  This grew in some ways also to feed the growing marketeering by vendors, even who provide score-counting tools, and university bureaucracies.  More generally, it reflects the way middle-class life, the life most of us now lead, has become--attempts to earn status, praise, wealth, and so on by something measurable and therefore ostensibly objectiveToo cynical?  

Indeed, it is now common for graduate students--or even undergrads--to attend careerism seminars.  Instruction in how to get published, how to get funded, how to work the System.  This may be good in a sense, or at least realistic, even if it was not so when, long ago, I was a graduate student.  It does, however, put strategizing rather than science up front, a first-year learning priority.  One wonders how much time is lost that, in those bad old days, was spent thinking and learning about the science itself.  We were, for example, to spend our 2-year Master's program learning our field, only then to get into a lab and do original work, which was what a PhD was about.  It is fair to ask whether this is just a change in our means of being and doing, without effect on the science itself, or whether careerism is displacing or even replacing really creative science?  When is objection to change nothing more than nostalgic cynicism?

Is science more seriously 'productive' than it used to be?
Science journals have always been characterized largely by the minutiae they publish, because (besides old boy-ism) real, meaty, important results are hard to come by.  Most observation in the past, and experiment these days, yields little more than curios.  You can see this by browsing decades-old volumes even of the major science journals.  The reports may be factually correct, but of minimal import.  Even though science has become a big industry rather than the idle rich's curiosity, most science publishing now, as in the past, might more or less still be vanity publishing.  Yet, as science has become more of a profession, there are important advances, so it is not clear whether science is now more splash than substance than it was in the past.

So, even if science has become an institutionalized, established, middle-class industry, and most of us will go down and out, basically unknown in the history of our fields, that has probably always been the case.  Any other view probably is mainly retrospective selective bias: we read biographies of our forebears, making them seem few and far between, and all substantial heroes; but what we are reading is about those forebears who really did make a difference.  The odd beetle collector is lost to history (except maybe to historians, who themselves may be making their livings on arcane minutiae).  So if that's just reality, there is no need to sneer cynically at it.

More time and energy are taken up playing today's game than was the case, or was necessary, in the past--at least I think that is pretty clear, if impossible to prove.  Even in the chaff-cloud, lasting knowledge does seem to be much more per year than it used to be.  That seems real, but it reveals another reality.  We can only deal with so much.  With countless papers published weekly, indeed many of them reviews (so we don't have to bother reading the primary papers), overload is quick and can be overwhelming.

That may be cynical, but it's also a reality.  My Must-Read folder on my computer is simply over-stuffed, with perhaps a hundred or more papers that I 'Saved' every year.  When I went to try to clean my directory this morning, I was overwhelmed: what papers before, say, 2015 are still trustworthy, as reports or even as reviews of then-recent work?  Can one even take reviews seriously, or cite them or past primary papers without revealing one's out-of-dateness?  New work obviously can obsolesce prior reviews. Yet reviews make the flood of prior work at least partially manageable.  But would it be safer just to Google the subject if it might affect one's work today?  It is, at least, not just cynicism to ask.

Maybe to be safe, given this situation, there would be two solutions:
1.  Just Google the subject and get the most recent papers and reviews; 
2.  There should be software that detects and automatically shreds papers in a Science Download directory, that haven't had any measurable impact in, say, 5 or (to be generous) 10 years.  We already have sites like Reddit, whose contents may not have a doomsday eraser.  But in science, to have mercy on our minds and our hard discs, what we need is Shred-it!

No comments: