There are more studies than ever, but innovation is lagging. The paradox of contemporary science

Every decade or so, the global scientific output doubles. In other words, there is more science than ever and researchers are publishing new studies at an increasing rate each year. But there’s a problem: researchers, who are only human after all, find it increasingly challenging to keep up. As a result, new ideas and potentially transformative innovations may go unnoticed.

In a recent analysis, Johan Chu of Northwestern University and James Evans of the University of Chicago argue that scientists have become overflooded by a deluge of papers, which may motivate them to stay in their lanes and overlook studies that go against the ‘canon’.

The pair of researchers analyzed more than 90 million studies, which collectively received almost 1.8 billion citations, published between 1960 and 2014 in ten major scientific fields.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, Chu and Evans found evidence of increasing inequality among study citations, with ‘elite’ studies gaining increasingly large shares of citations over time.

Take electrical engineering, for instance. When there were about 10,000 studies published annually in this field, the top 1% of the most-cited papers received around 9% of the total citations while the bottom 50% of the papers accumulated 44% of the citations. More recently, when the field ballooned to more than 100,000 studies per year, the top 1% received almost 17% of the citations while the bottom half got only 20%.

Larger science fields, as classified by the number of yearly new studies they incorporate, had large citation inequality while smaller fields had lower inequality.

In the larger fields, the most-cited papers tended to build on others, while in smaller disciplines the papers were more likely to be disruptive. This pattern of publication quantity and citation flow suggests that volume may be hampering innovation by sheer cognitive overload.

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“New papers containing potentially important contributions cannot garner field-wide attention through gradual processes of diffusion. These findings suggest fundamental progress may be stymied if quantitative growth of scientific endeavors—in number of scientists, institutes, and papers—is not balanced by structures fostering disruptive scholarship and focusing attention on novel ideas,” the authors wrote.

So what are we to do about it? Obviously shutting down journals or enhancing barriers of entry is not only unethical, but it may also very well be counter-productive. Furthermore, it would be nigh impossible given the current academic environment whereby scientists are not only encouraged but also required to publish in order to advance their career prospects.

“Still, some changes in how scholarship is conducted, disseminated, consumed, and rewarded may help accelerate fundamental progress in large fields of science. A clearer hierarchy of journals with the most-prestigious, highly attended outlets devoting pages to less canonically rooted work could foster disruptive scholarship and focus attention on novel ideas. Reward and promotion systems, especially at the most prestigious institutions, that eschew quantity measures and value fewer, deeper, more novel contributions could reduce the deluge of papers competing for a field’s attention while inspiring less canon-centric, more innovative work. A widely adopted measure of novelty vis a vis the canon could provide a helpful guide for evaluations of papers, grant applications, and scholars. Revamped graduate training could push future researchers to better appreciate the uncomfortable novelty of ideas less rooted in established canon. These measures, while not easy to implement across large fields, may help push scholarship off the local attractor of existing canon and toward more novel frontiers,” the authors concluded.