October 5, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Fossilizes Rapidly

There’s no soft tissue in big scientific
fields when consensus sets in


Johan S. G. Chu (Northwestern University) and James A. Evans (University of Chicago) have just blown open the myth that science gets better with more research. Their new paper for the Oct. 12, 2021 issue of PNAS is titled, “Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science.” In it, they make the case that Big Science is becoming hardened (i.e., ossified) by consensus that it is hindering the ability for open-minded researchers to debate prevailing views and offer new ideas. The bigger the field, the faster it fossilizes.

Lemmings, by JB Greene. Used by permission.

The size of scientific fields may impede the rise of new ideas. Examining 1.8 billion citations among 90 million papers across 241 subjects, we find a deluge of papers does not lead to turnover of central ideas in a field, but rather to ossification of canon. Scholars in fields where many papers are published annually face difficulty getting published, read, and cited unless their work references already widely cited articles. New papers containing potentially important contributions cannot garner field-wide attention through gradual processes of diffusion. These findings suggest fundamental progress may be stymied if quantitative growth of scientific endeavors—in number of scientists, institutes, and papers—is not balanced by structures fostering disruptive scholarship and focusing attention on novel ideas.

They conclude that “the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.” The trend is built-in to the citation process, where ossification of old ideas is rewarded by the system. They prove this by tallying almost two billion citations.

Policies for publishing will have to change, they warn. The system is set up against new thinking. It collides with the very purpose of science: to make progress in understanding the world through evidence, open discussion and critical thinking.

Do you suppose this happens in evolutionary biology? I mean, just consider the remote possibility that it might happen.




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