Science is choking on its own success

The scientific method - engine of human progress for 500 years - is facing death by success. The days of hand-crafted science are numbered. Here's the problem.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

The growth of knowledge has forced researchers to narrow their focus.

airdone, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Science, like any human endeavor, has its problems. Lately, the poor replicability of many studies has been one. A related issue: the output of science is greater than the ability of scientists to stay current, as measured by citation growth. According to a recent paper:

Science is a growing system, exhibiting 4% annual growth in publications and 1.8% annual growth in the number of references per publication. Together these growth factors correspond to a 12-year doubling period in the total supply of references, thereby challenging traditional methods of evaluating scientific production, from researchers to institutions.

4% annual growth means publications will double in ≈17 years. But references will only double in ≈39 years. At some point, the number of references will fall so far behind research production that papers will become hit-or-miss affairs, unable to accurately portray the current state of knowledge.

The paper The Memory of Science: Inflation, Myopia, and the Knowledge Network by Raj K. Pana, Alexander M. Petersen, Fabio Pammolli, and Santo Fortunato, researchers from Aalto University, Finland, School for Advanced Studies, Lucca, Italy, University of California, Merced, and Indiana University, takes a long and large view. The team

. . . analyzed a citation network comprised of 837 million references produced by 32.6 million publications over the period 1965-2012, . . .

to see trends in research citations and use. They noted these issues will accelerate due to automated data collection and analysis.

But that's not all. Scientific attention is also narrowing.

Over this half-century period we observe a narrowing range of attention - both classic and recent literature are being cited increasingly less, pointing to the important role of socio-technical processes. . . . In particular, we show how perturbations to the growth rate of scientific output - i.e. following from the new layer of rapid online publications - affects the reference age distribution and the functionality of the vast science citation network as an aid for the search & retrieval of knowledge.

Going deep, not wide

The authors posit that science has an attention economy, and as research output has grown - especially from China, but also due to worldwide GDP growth - the growth of knowledge has forced researchers to narrow their focus. That is a trend since the beginning of the Enlightenment.

The Storage Bits take

Our current system for the diffusion of knowledge is breaking down. Google's mission . . . to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful may no longer be enough. Human bandwidth doesn't scale.

The advent of automated data generation, collection, analysis and, finally, AI-driven knowledge, will overwhelm human knowledge processing. One solution is another layer to "virtualize" knowledge domains for intra and interdisciplinary use, creating an interface between the deep and the broad.

That is, in fact, what we've been doing for the last 75 years or so. But it isn't enough.

Someone is going to have to figure out how to artificially augment human cognition before we're neck deep in science that no one has time to absorb. That's a challenge for the 21st century.

Courteous comments welcome, as always.

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