Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Publishing Fluff

We all know that the number of papers published every year is growing rapidly, but does that mean we are more productive and more creative? Some of the old timers (you know the type) will tell you, no new research is being done, we are just rehashing old science and incrementally improving on it. Is the quality of papers decreasing ? Some data seems to point that way:

"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."

The problem is that as the quantity of fluff paper increases, peer review suffers because the system is overwhelmed, and the bar lowers.


Rob said...

The lack of citations could also be interpreted as the result of such a large volume of science being produced that only the very best are cited.
I am always struck by the rigor and the sophisticated mathematical interpretations in older publications in the biological sciences. It gives the appearance of importance to those older publications. However, reading the results now with hindsight, so much of what was done has become completely irrelevant.

Kamel said...

My first thought on reading the quoted paragraph was the same as Rob: it's just as easily interpreted as the result of increased quantity. Looking at it closer, the numbers quoted are only from "top science journal" (which presumably is defined somewhere). It could be true that the quality of papers in Cell/Nature/Science (or whatever qualifies as a "top science journal") is declining, or those citations are shifting to other journals for a variety of reasons such as cost or open-access considerations.

I am curious about Rob's claim that so much of what was done has become irrelevant. Do you have some examples? People like Larry at Sandwalk would probably make the case that it's not so much irrelevant as ignored - and he presents a pretty good argument. (see, for example, his posts on gene number predcitions or junk DNA)

Rob said...

Obviously the cream of the older stuff is still extremely relevant, on the shoulders of giants and all that stuff. I don't think that Larry would disagree that there are many discarded hypotheses in the literature that are now irrelevant. When experiments are designed to test a flawed hypothesis the results can be misleading and can be rendered irrelevant. One of my favorites involves a viral protein that several publications from different labs suggested inhibited RNA polymerase activity of the infected cell. Turns out the protein actually inhibits export of RNAs from the nucleus. Some groups continued to publish papers supporting the idea of direct inhibition of RNA polymerase, but the results were also consistent with an mRNA export block, for a couple of years. Finally those papers have ceased. Additionally there are old papers that are simply not informative anymore due to infinitely superior data using modern molecular biological techniques. I don't want to know the analytical sedimentation properties of my plasmid DNA, I'd rather just download the sequence and length ect. Then there are hypotheses like phrenology. I agree however that much of it is ignored (out of fashion) and not irrelevant.

Kamel said...

I see your point (and I wasn't even considering stuff like phrenology). I'm sure we'll have our own share of irrelevant papers.