In a recent discussion with someone having spent his entire life in science, and refusing to dilute his commitment even after retirement, an interesting issue came up. The volume of published literature is increasing rapidly making the life of interested readers more and more difficult. A reader has to make a quick decision as to whether to read a paper by quickly looking at the title and may be just first and last line of the abstract. This is the most critical step and a bottleneck in science communication. How does a reader take a decision to spend a little more time on the paper? (forget complete reading). Of course readers vary and there is no one rule fit all. But in our discussion we stumbled upon one such rule that seems to work quite often. Whenever there is something in the title and abstract that sounds contradicting the reader’s logic/thinking/prior knowledge/belief/interest or whatever, it is immediately swept aside. This might be either because there is an inherent resistant to paradigm shifting ideas as Thomas Kuhn says, but also because there have been too many false alarms. There have been too many writers “trying to prove Einstein wrong, prove Fermat’s last theorem or have a method to square a circle etc, so for those who have far too many things to read and too little time, a quick decision has to be made and making a negative decision is statistically correct” (His words, somewhat rearranged). This means that if a genuine breakthrough is being published, it is least likely to be read by anyone.
When I examined my own behavior, I thought I would do the reverse. If there is something deviating from the trodden path towards pre-conceived goals, I would read it with priority and more curiosity. Obviously readers differ in their choices. One (rather oversimplified) classification of readers is that there are explorers versus track racers. Explorers are typically slow, somewhat aimless, more curious, with little preconceived ambitions and aspirations, driven more by curiosity than by the desire to succeed in something. They will be attracted by titles and abstracts sounding off-beat, challenging mainstream thinking, iconoclastic, non-conformist. The other class, the track racers are committed to a small field, have a vision as to what they have to achieve in as little time as possible, they want to be and often are more productive in their published output and so on. They will quickly and efficiently decide what they don’t want to read. They will quickly short list the articles that they can potentially cite. For citing something it is often a waste of time to read it entirely. But they know quite well what to read and what to skip. So they can make best use of their time.
Potentially both the classes have differential importance to the field of science. A good combination of the two would benefit science. But I am afraid, the frequency of explorers is declining as I can see. The reason is the process by which individuals are selected to enter the field of science. They are selected by ‘merit’. At the UG stage, merit is first screened by success in the Board and University exams, only secondarily by interviews etc. At a later stage selection is based on where you graduated, whose lab, whose recommendation you carry, where did you publish, how many papers, with whom and so on. Here to actually read papers of the faculty or post doc candidate is not affordable because there are so many applicants and judging someone by reading his work is just out of question. In this process the track racers almost always outcompete the explorers. As long as the selection procedure does not change, the publication smartness along with some luck will always weigh heavily over exploration, novelty and originality of thinking. As a result, I suspect, explorers are getting extinct from the field rapidly.
This extinction would further make reading of off-beat papers even rarer. Trodden paths will become even stronger and inescapable. There will be greater and greater career success with lesser and lesser science. Is there a way out?
I am not a pessimist.
The way out as I can see is to do science outside the institutional and academic framework. Strengthen citizen science. It is not difficult to do good science outside the institutional framework. But it is more difficult to publish in the mainstream journals having the prevalent brahminical culture. The word brahminical here does not refer to caste by birth, religion etc. It refers to monopolizing science by certain institutions; denying science coming from elsewhere and in any other form; refusing to recognize anything as science unless published in peer reviewed journals; the exorbitant author charges that make it impossible for a citizen to publish his science in the mainstream journals. There is one more important difference. Citizen science demands that you read it. In brahminical science, just that it is published in a peer reviewed journal is enough. You don’t have to read it yourself and decide anything. Interestingly, editors and peer reviewers are also readers first and they follow the same culture. They too have to take a quick decision, and not reading it is the quickest way of judging. The review process is opaque. So a paper has gone through peer review can only be called a belief. Anything that is not transparent is not scientific by any standard. But once the label of peer reviewed journal is obtained, it is believed based on the label itself. Throughout this process rarely anyone reads a paper completely. If it is labeled Ganga water, it must be “purer” than your tap water by all means.
There can be exceptions of course. I was told, that late Prof. S. Chandrashekhar of Chicago would read each and every paper submitted to the ‘Astrophysical Journal’ from beginning to the end, during the many decades for which he was the editor. Some individuals of this species may still be there but overall I suspect, this species is near extinction. A culture of reading with curiosity, reading with interest should be central to science. But the huge volume of literature being published in any field is making this impossible. That’s why my feeling is that the greater the volume of literature published, slower will be the conceptual progress of science. It will swell more and more, no doubt. But swelling is not progress, edema is not growth.