17 March 2010

The scientific-industrial complex

At the [citation needed] blog, Tal Yarkoni wrote about a recent fMRI paper (mphasis added):

I really do think that the prevalence of long author lists in a discipline are an important sign of a discipline’s maturity, and that the fact that you can get several dozen contributors to a single paper means you’re seeing a level of collaboration across different labs that previously didn’t exist.

I’m increasingly understanding how mom and pop shops felt about Wal-Mart, and how local booksellers felt about Barnes & Noble.

“I’m going to get crushed.”

This has been on my mind for almost five years now, if not longer: the effect of automation and increasing efficiency in data collection. Indeed, this has been going on for a while in biology. For instance, the amount of attention paid to model organism is an early indicator of this, even when there were many labs working independently.

But the argument above is that ever increasing numbers of authors on scientific papers is good, and as far as I can see, the reasoning is that economies of scale start to kick in. The result? I expect that you will increasingly see the same kind of positive feedback loop that you see in business. Small, independent businesses mostly lose to large corporations.

Of course, it’s long been the case that certain labs and universities outcompete all others in the question for federal funding. But I supposed that when a lot of labs had personnel numbering in the single digits, it seemed like a more even match in resources. And somehow, I never thought of the emergence of huge, multi-author papers as a sign of “maturity” of a research field.

As more and more papers have 50 authors or more, will researchers with small labs that don’t generate terabytes of data will have to sell their land to the cattle barons (so to speak)? Close up shop and join the factory (to use another metaphor)?

I’m terribly worried that the kind of biology I love, like neuroethology, is irrelevant. (I’m not so worried about myself, since I’ve known my place in the research world for a good long while.)

And, on another note, the increasing prevalence of papers with 50 or more authors really points to the need for reform of authorial credit.

Related posts

Science is a doozy
Long live the scientific method

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