The importance of going slow

journals in a library

How can we assess the work of scientists? Should we count the number of papers that they write?

In the past few weeks there has been a bit of a media storm about the state of science. A paper that had been published in the journal Science, was retracted because it turned out that the study had, quite possibly, been faked. The retraction highlighted the problem of “publish or perish” which has been a concern for many scientists of late. A second article, this time an editorial in Nature, took a different and perhaps surprising perspective on things. Apparently the public trust scientists much more than scientists think that they do. Why would that be the case?

These two stories should concern us because they lie at the heart of a current problem in science. According to the dictionary, ‘science’ is “systematic and formulated knowledge”. Such knowledge takes time to develop, it takes us time to understand what goes on, both on an individual level and as a society. The ‘publish or perish’ culture acts in opposition to this. Within a ‘publish or perish’ culture, the way that science works is that the more papers that you have, especially those that get cited and are published in (apparently) good journals, the more successful you will be in your career and in your ability to get research funding. It is essential to publish “high impact” papers in order merely to survive in science. In more extreme cases this has led to data being faked and subsequent retractions of the papers (if it is ever discovered). Active faking of data though is only the tip of the iceberg. The pressure to publish high profile papers quickly, can lead to the original paper not having been investigated thoroughly enough. In fact, there are even motivations to publish too quickly. Firstly, if you are wrong, you just publish a second paper a few months later. Two papers, two sets of citations. Secondly, publishing early means getting there first, ie. more citations. It has got to the point where it is advantageous to quickly publish poor quality research with hyped key words than it is to do a thorough job and perhaps be beaten to the publication by a more incomplete work. This cannot be good for science or our society and it suggests that, in order to have a scientific career you must, to a greater or lesser extent, cease to behave scientifically. It is perhaps for this reason that scientists themselves have a doubt as to why the public would trust them, they no longer trust themselves.

lilies on water

Is there symbolism here? There’s certainly a lot of physics.

The ‘publish or perish’ culture has come about partly as a consequence of needing a metric by which to judge the worth of research. In itself this is understandable but it does suggest that we are no longer confident of our ability, as a society, to measure the ‘good’ of something. To judge something as ‘good for society’ necessarily involves many different inputs from many disciplines. Assessing something as good is a value judgement. To redefine ‘good’ purely into something that we measure (by profit, or by number of papers) is to artificially reduce what is good for society to an arbitrary, but on appearance scientific, method. Rather than admit that questions over what is ‘good science’ are, essentially, value judgements, we try to give a false ‘scientific’ measure of their worth, one based on citations and publications. We still have our biases but we have become less conscious of them and instead try to hide them with a false scientism.

How could we change this, how else can we assess who is a ‘good’ scientist or what research will benefit society? This is, I think where it is important for everyone to get involved and to slow down. It is open for everyone to investigate, for themselves, what they think would make a ‘good’ society. Clearly the quest for knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, will form part of that good but for us, as a society to realise what is good we need to stop and think about it. There is a need to encourage clear methods of thinking but at the same time everyone must feel eligible to be a part of this natural philosophy, purely as a consequence of their being a citizen of society. On a practical level, this can be achieved by our maintaining a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, and society, around us. In my own field of magnetism for example, to know the physics behind magnetic attraction is to make it more beautiful. And that is in essence what I am trying to communicate with Bean Thinking; just as an artist does with a painting, I am attempting to share the beauty that I see as a result of seeing physics all around me. The saying of Pierre Duhem that “Physical theory is a mathematical painting of reality” can be taken at many levels. As a scientist, I am to a certain extent, an artist.

rain drops on a tulip

A tulip in spring. The water droplets on the petals suggest some very deep physics. As the flower opens into the sunshine, each layer  (physical and metaphorical) of petals reveals a new level of beauty.

Of course, there is no immediate connection between appreciating the beauty of knowledge and allocating research funds. Yet if we, as a society, appreciate science and beauty where we see it, we are going to slowly move back to a more sustainable, scientific way of doing science. “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism”¹. By allowing ourselves to assess the good of society across many measures, we recover science. Denying the fact that what qualifies as ‘good’ is ultimately a value judgement and instead covering it in false metrics, imperils science. It is in the history of humanity to ask ‘why’. Moving to a predominantly technology driven quasi-science does not enrich us as a species. Good art, good music, great science can. Great discoveries of the past have not been obtained by chasing the latest chimera of a device, they have been uncovered through an insatiable curiosity. A demand to know ‘why’ things are the way they are. We are destroying the very science we are so keen to promote if we conform to the key-word, hype and technology driven ‘publish or perish’ culture. It has got to the point where, in order to save science, it is imperative that we, as a society, recover our ability to appreciate the beauty in science.

I hope that Bean Thinking prompts at least some people to question the world around them. It is not important to agree with what is written in Bean Thinking indeed, perhaps with some things it is more important to disagree. The key thing is to notice the world around. The practise of slowing down and noticing things is the reasoning behind the cafe-physics reviews, as much as anything it enables me to practise slowing down and noticing too. To slow down and to appreciate what is there will mean that slowly, imperceptibly perhaps, we challenge the culture of ‘publish or perish’. To do so may not be too far short of a need to recover our humanity, to quote Laudato Si’ again, “[w]e need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity”².

¹ Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, (2015) #215

² ibid, #160

Further thoughts:

Michael Polanyi “Science, Faith and Society”, Sapientia Press, 1964

Michael Polanyi “Personal Knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy”, University of Chicago Press, 1974

2 Responses to The importance of going slow
  1. T says:

    Hmmm, I agree with the idea of trying to slow things down to deliver a more beautiful end product. I’m hard pressed to see this implemented though in the current climate. You slowing down and trying to be meticulous often just gives those people who work fast (and hence sometimes sub-par) the opportunity to gain prominence in an area early and everyone following after then needs to cite them, only heightening their prestige and further enabling them in the current publish or perish culture. Trying to appeal to people’s better nature about the need to go slower with more care to produce a higher value product will get a lot of agreement in principle, but it’s difficult to follow this up with actions to deal with the problems that exist in the current climate.
    You need to change behaviors at several levels too – from the researchers, to the PIs, to the journals, and to the funding agencies – so the current system is heavily entrenched.
    Real change here will be an uphill battle, nevertheless, it’s great to see someone arguing for it!

  2. beanthinking says:

    Thanks for the comment. It’s true that we need to change attitudes at all levels but I would include at least one more than your list includes. I would include society as a whole, meaning, the public. It is the practise of slowing down and appreciating beauty that I think is the key to changing the attitudes of society as a whole.

    It is not that we make one beautiful product or that we make sure our paper contains beautiful science. What I would like to encourage goes further than that. It is to appreciate beautiful science where we see it, and we should see it everywhere (particularly in a cup of coffee of course)! To adopt the habit of appreciating beauty in science is so inconsistent with the culture of ‘publish or perish’ that the latter jars. If a significant fraction of society adopted such a habit, ‘publish or perish’ would start to become obviously ludicrous.

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