The avalanche of bad research

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.

…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.

That commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I share the loathing for terrible work, and increasingly obscure and specialized journals, which publish the work of an insular cabal. The great tragedy is not the production of the work, but the initiation of so many new students into mediocrity.

Even so, do great novelists bemoan the rash of bad novels, and the system of incentives that produce them? Perhaps. Both strike me as the result of a richer society where more and more people can turn their attention to writing–academic or otherwise. There will always need be outlets. Why gnash your teeth so?

The greatest cost is reviewer time. Possibly one in three of the articles I am asked to review are horrendous. But I’m a junior faculty, and so likely to get more of these than most. They are quick to spot and so, while they eat up a couple of hours, often do no more.

There are benefits to an intellectual market with low barriers to entry. A few hours a month isn’t a terrible price to pay to consume the results.