Are Scientific Papers Becoming Worse?
The United States Football League began in 1983 with twelve cities, many of which already had an NFL team. The level of play was decidedly inferior to the “senior” league because, of course, the better men were already in the NFL. Still, the organizers thought that more football was wanted, even though the quality would not be on par with what fans had come to expect.
But people failed to love the expansion league, and it never did well enough to be able to pay top talent. It only lasted three years, folding in 1985.
This is a familiar story in sports. With a given population and infrastructure, there’s only so much top talent to go around. You can’t expand indefinitely and expect consistent quality.
The same must be so of professors at universities. There are only so many great brains to go around. It’s true that as the population grows there are more potential recruits into the white-coat leagues. And when training in the youth associations—i.e., math clubs, science fairs, band—is functioning well, there is a better chance that prospects will be recruited.
But again, you can’t expand indefinitely and expect consistent quality. And the professoriate has certainly expanded and is continuing to expand. It’s college for all! regardless whether most can handle the rigors.
It’s natural to wonder how much the swelling of the ranks and the dilution of talent accounts for the Wall Street Journal’s findings in “Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge.”
Seems retractions by journals have gone from near none ten years ago to well over 300 the past two years. Some of these retractions are from the authors of the papers themselves, after they conscientiously notice their mistakes, but many others are from the editorial boards of the journals after they identify various shenanigans of the authors.
The growth in shoddy work has been so explosive that the blog Retraction Watch has popped up to document the flood. First two headlines: “A quick Physical Review Letters retraction after author realizes analysis was ‘performed incorrectly’” and “Cal Poly Pomona education researcher leaves post after rampant plagiarism is revealed.” What a depressing site! (William M. Briggs)