“Is There Such a Thing Called Scientific Waste?”

Date:dinsdag 4 januari 2005
Category:Scientific publications

“Is there such a thing called scientific waste?”, with H.P. van Dalen, in: Discussion Paper Tinbergen Institute, no.5, TI 2005-005/1, January 2005, 20 pages


In 1991 the journal Science made the headlines with a bibliometric exercise that suggested the wastefulness of scientific research. 1 It showed that about half the science papers was never cited within the 5 years time span after publication, a result that spurred Newsweek to conclude that “nearly half the scientific work in this country is worthless” and to depict “scientists with their belief in their God- given right to tax-payer dollars” as “welfare queens in white coats.” (April 2, 1991) Later on the figures were corrected for some anomalies but the blow to the outside world stood.2 The suspicion of waste in scientific research was affirmed. Recently, Laband and Tollison(2003) have done a similar exercise for the economics profession and they show that, in spite of the growth of resources between 1974 and 1996 invested in academic research, the percentage of uncited papers in economics has remained more or less constant at 26 percent. In their view this is evidence of scientific waste or ‘dry holes’ as they dub them. “Scholarly economic research presents many of the characteristics of a rent-seeking game (p. 168),” was their conclusion. Laband and Tollison are, of course, not the only ones to worry about the va lue of scientific research. 3 Scientists experience this supposed wastefulness of their practice in the battle for attention. They know how difficult it is to get their research published, and even more difficult to get it published in a good journal; and they know that even when a paper gets published, the chance of it getting read and cited is pretty slim. Scientists may want to believe that they are making claims to the truth, but the truth is that those claims often go unnoticed. It is an iron law that most articles receive few or no citations and only a few articles receive a great many (Klamer and Van Dalen, 2002). This law is the frustration of practicing scientists and may come as a shock to those interested in and funding scientific research. But before concluding that scientific research involves a great deal of waste or that doing science is senseless if the work is not noticed, we may want to reconsider the practice of science to understand why this so-called waste occurs. It may be inevitable. And it may well be that the real waste shows up in a different guise, which citation and publication data will not easily detect.

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