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Output Is Not Productivity

Elsewhere on the Chronicle site is an article by me and four scientists on overpublication in the sciences. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“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.”

Our thesis is that the explosion of research publication in the sciences in the last few decades has strained the quality controls to the breaking point.  It has burdened peer review and other mechanisms to the point that the amount of research has not raised the overall quality of the enterprise, but has instead made it more difficult for researchers to produce their best work.

Many commenters have weighed in, criticizing us for recommending various controls on the rising output. Many of them make salient points, such as questioning the use of citation counts in order to judge the value of scientific work. But the big picture remains, I think, unaddressed. It can be summed up this way.

Individuals and institutions have allowed research output itself to be a prime factor in the judgment of individuals and institutions. Quantity is becoming a claim all its own, and the trend is getting worse.

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