Science is drowning in too many studies

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The standard medium of keeping a track of the progress in various scientific fields is by means of following peer reviewed journals. Considering the sheer volume of publications in recent times, the shelf life of such papers is expectedly low. Though one might assume an ever-increasing torrent of studies promotes knowledge, it actually seems to have the opposite effect. A recent study reveals that attention of scholars depends on the number of published items, and not on real time.

Scientific publications are a way to attract the attention of other scientists in the field. It also offers a mechanism for claiming priorities and a checkpoint for exposing results for scrutiny. Attention, measured by the number and lifetime of citations, is the main currency of the scientific community and along with other forms of recognition forms the basis for promotions and the reputation of scientists. However, a boom in the number of scientific studies is resulting in scholars being unable to keep pace with the literature. In a paper titled ‘Attention Decay in Science’, professors from Finland and California claim that science could be in decay as there are simply too many studies.

For this study, a thorough analysis of the life cycle of papers was carried out for 4 disciplines – clinical medicine, molecular biology, chemistry and physics. “The exponential growth in the number of scientific papers makes it increasingly difficult for researchers to keep track of all the publications relevant to their work,” the authors wrote in the study. “Consequently, the attention that can be devoted to individual papers, measured by their citation counts, is bound to decay rapidly.”

Due to the rapid advancement of the Internet age and access to papers being easier than ever, there is a snowballing of content. Previously, many scientists have warned about how the human mind and culture is being affected by the digital age due to the exponential growth of information. However, this is the first indication that science is undergoing through the same sufferings. This could have serious implications considering important data, research and theories are in the danger of being overlooked primarily due to the finite capacity of scholars. Nevertheless, human love for verified knowledge still stands firm. “New papers have higher citation rates for the first few years, whereas over longer periods of time old papers have higher citation rates,” conclude the authors.

The original paper can be accessed here.

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