With over 10 million active researchers, more than 2 million scientific articles published each year, and an uncontrolled spread of bibliometric indicators, contemporary science is undergoing a profound change that is modifying consolidated procedures, ethical principles that were deemed inalienable and traditional mechanisms for the validation of scientific outputs that have worked successfully for the last century. To give an idea of what I am talking about, just look at the picture of the famous Solvay Conference of 1927 on “Electrons and photons”. Of the 29 participants in the picture, 17 of them were Nobel Prize winners, and the others were giants in the field; their scientific contributions are now part of university textbooks. This was a small conference, with a huge concentration of talent. Today, in physics alone, meetings are attended by 10,000 or more scientists, and in medicine it is not unusual to have meetings with 20,000 and even 50,000 attendees.
Just a few numbers are sufficient to give an idea of how things have changed from the time when I started my career. During my PhD at the Freie Univesität in Berlin in the early ‘80s, I regularly went to the library. Among others, I browsed the Journal of Physical Chemistry. In 1980, the magazine was publishing an issue every two weeks, for a total of about 3700 pages in the entire year. It was already twice the amount published by the same journal 20 years before, in 1960. But for me it was possible to follow almost every article published in the area in which I was active at the time. Today the journal has been divided into four parts, each dedicated to a sub-sector of physical chemistry, publishing one issue per week, with more than 170 issues and a total of 60,000 pages per year. And this for a single journal! Needless to say that the number of journals in physical chemistry simply exploded since that time, as happened in every other field. The frustrating result is that the amount of information produced is much higher than what one can reasonably read, digest, and utilize.
The exponential growth of academic research that we have witnessed over the last 20 years, combined with the emergence of modern communication tools in the internet era, have contributed profoundly to changing the way science is done. We assist in a steady growth in publications, however, this does not correspond to an equal growth of ideas and topics, as documented by a recent Science paper. While the number of scientists grows exponentially, research funding worldwide grows only linearly, which results in an extremely competitive environment. Under such a strong pressure, young scientists feel they have to produce miracles in order to emerge, secure an academic job, or simply get funded. And cases of scientific misconduct (plagiarism, fraud, data falsification, irreproducible results) are also growing. From a passion for a few motivated and inspired individuals, science has become a profession for many, perhaps too many.
There are a number of consequences. The main one is the emergence of an industry that revolves around science, which creates the concrete risk that science will end up being entirely dominated by market laws. Scientific publishers, agencies that rank universities and research centres, companies that assist with the writing of research papers and projects, and organizations offering a long list of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) meetings in beautiful locations are just some of the entities that benefit from the economic activities that blossomed around the production of scientific knowledge. With 10 million active scientists as potential customers, this is all but surprising.
Alongside solid, trustable and respectable publishers and journals, today we assist the proliferation of materials from publishers of doubtful quality, journals of little or no relevance, and to the rise of the very dangerous phenomenon of predatory journals, including open access journals that have been created with the only purpose to make profit without any quality checks on the papers published.
Science remains fundamental in responding to the great challenges of our society (aging, overpopulation, energy supply, economic sustainability, and so on). Science has robust internal mechanisms of control and verification of the advancement of scientific knowledge. But an overproduction of scientific results, often of doubtful quality and low reproducibility, can cast serious doubts and reduce the credibility of the entire system. The risk is an overall discredit of the research community, with serious consequences for our society.
We need to change direction. We need to progressively modify our evaluation mechanisms, focusing increasingly on quality rather than quantity. We need to convey to our students and young co-workers the fundamental ethical principles on which science is based. We need to rediscover the interest in discussing, thinking, understanding and sometimes proving ourselves wrong, and we need to make time for it. Changing consolidated attitudes and research standards will not be easy. But it is time to start discussing these issues, and becoming aware of the dangers associated to some emerging trends. Before is too late.
Featured image credit: ‘VLA Radio Telescope, Socorro, New Mexico at Dawn’ by Donald Giannatti. Public Domain via Unsplash.