We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research

Photo_5802_landscape_largeMark Bauerlein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McKelvey, and Stanley W. Trimble in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Everybody agrees that scientific research is indispensable to the nation's health, prosperity, and security. In the many discussions of the value of research, however, one rarely hears any mention of how much publication of the results is best. Indeed, for all the regrets one hears in these hard times of research suffering from financing problems, we shouldn't forget the fact that the last few decades have seen astounding growth in the sheer output of research findings and conclusions. Just consider the raw increase in the number of journals. Using Ulrich's Periodicals Directory, Michael Mabe shows that the number of “refereed academic/scholarly” publications grows at a rate of 3.26 percent per year (i.e., doubles about every 20 years). The main cause: the growth in the number of researchers.

Many people regard this upsurge as a sign of health. They emphasize the remarkable discoveries and breakthroughs of scientific research over the years; they note that in the Times Higher Education's ranking of research universities around the world, campuses in the United States fill six of the top 10 spots. More published output means more discovery, more knowledge, ever-improving enterprise.

If only that were true.

While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: 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.