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Fewer, But Better

The quality of scientific research and papers is suffering as an increased emphasis is being placed on the number of paper produced and how often they are cited, writes Arizona State University's Daniel Sarewitz in an essay at Nature.

He adds that this growth in papers and corresponding decline in quality was foreseen by Derek de Solla Price in the 1960s. Price had noted that the number of researchers and papers they produced had been growing exponential and that that wasn't sustainable, Sarewitz says. He notes Price was an "elitist who believed that quality could not be maintained amid such growth."

Today, Sarewitz says that a good portion of scientific reports isn't reliable. He notes that in cancer, a breast-cancer cell line that's been used a thousand times has been revealed to actually be a melanoma cell line. And, as an average paper is cited some 10 to 20 times in five years, findings based on contaminated samples are being amplified.

"It seems extraordinarily unlikely that these problems [of quantity and quality] will be resolved through the home remedies of better statistics and lab practice, as important as they may be. Rather, they would seem — and this is what Price believed — to announce that the enterprise of science is evolving towards something different and as yet only dimly seen," he adds.

Instead, the only cure Sarewitz sees is to publish fewer papers. "Rising quality can thus emerge from declining scientific efficiency and productivity," he says. 

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