Whither innovation in science?

I stumbled on this compelling read on how innovation in science has stalled and merits your attention.

Chu, Johan S. G., and James A. Evans. 2021. “Slowed Canonical Progress in Large Fields of Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 118 (41). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2021636118.

Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science | PNAS

Here, however, we predict that when the number of papers published each year grows very large, the rapid flow of new papers can force scholarly attention to already well-cited papers and limit attention for less-established papers—even those with novel, useful, and potentially transformative ideas. Rather than causing faster turnover of field paradigms, a deluge of new publications entrenches top-cited papers, precluding new work from rising into the most-cited, commonly known canon of the field.

[embeddoc url=”https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/118/41/e2021636118.full.pdf”%5D

Key points:

  • In many academic fields, the number of papers published each year has increased significantly over time
  • Even if not every article is earth shaking in its impact, each can contribute a metaphorical grain of sand to the sandpile, increasing the probability of an avalanche, wherein the scientific landscape is reconfigured and new paradigms arise to structure inquiry [12]
  • Publishing many articles within a set period of time is the surest path to tenure and promotion
  • Quantity remains the measuring stick at the university [5] and the national levels [6], where comparisons focus on the total number of publications, patents, scientists, and dollars spent
  • Citation counts are used to measure the importance of individuals [7], teams [8], and journals [9] within a field
  • We predict that when the number of papers published each year grows very large, the rapid flow of new papers can force scholarly attention to already well-cited papers and limit attention for less-established papers—even those with novel, useful, and potentially transformative ideas
  • This study focuses on the effects of field size: The number of papers published in a field in a given year
  • Each dot represents a subject-year in the Web of Science
  • Lines are lowess trendlines for the 10 largest nonmultidisciplinary subjects, listed in order of total number of papers published over all years in the dataset in the legend. (A) Gini coefficient of citation-share inequality by subject-year
  • The most-cited papers garner a larger proportion of new citations in years when more papers are published in a field. (B) Spearman rank correlation of the top-50 most-cited list between adjacent years by subject-year
  • The ordering of most-cited papers is more stable when more papers are published in a field
  • The bottom 50% least-cited papers in contrast decreased in share as the field grew larger, dropping from garnering 43.7% of citations at 10,000 papers to slightly above 20% at both 50,000 and 100,000 papers per year
  • We find that veteran scholars change their citation patterns as a field grows
  • Even well-established, veteran scholars come to cite canonical articles much more often when many other papers are being published. These findings suggest troubling implications for the current direction of science
  • If too many papers are published in short order, new ideas cannot be carefully considered against old, and processes of cumulative advantage cannot work to select valuable innovations
  • Even if a scientist wholeheartedly agreed with the implications of our study, curtailing their output would be impractical given the damage to their career prospects and those of their colleagues and students, for example
  • Limiting article quantity without altering other incentives risks deterring the publication of novel, important new ideas in favor of low-risk, canon-centric work
  • We utilize the Web of Science dataset, analyzing papers published between 1960 and 2014 inclusive
  • There are 241 subjects in the classification, and we use these as the basis for our field-level analyses
  • The annual count of citations received by a focal paper from newly published papers in the same subject constitutes our main variable of interest
  • To calculate 1−decay rate (λ) for the 10 largest nonmultidisciplinary subjects (Fig. 2 A–C), for each subject, we binned years by the base 10 log of number of publications, and paper years by percentile most cited in the field-year

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