Does scientific attention — as expressed through citations, media coverage, or practitioner knowledge — accrue to quality or reward the real contributors of breakthroughs? Or does attention in scientific publishing create a closed loop, raising questions of epistemology?
Recent posts suggest the closed loop, founder effects, and other problems emanating from an attention economy might be introducing detrimental effects to new breakthroughs, partly because there are too many old PhDs controlling the attention tools.
One reality of the attention economy in science is the Matthew Effect, named after a Biblical passage and popularized in 1968 by Robert K. Merton. Basically, it’s the “rich get richer” premise that once you start winning, you keep accruing benefits.
This is a well-studied phenomenon for citations. Once an article gets cited, it keeps getting cited. Once an article gets overlooked, it can disappear forever.
In fact, scholarship’s passive-aggressive culture ties right into the Matthew Effect — by doing nothing and ignoring research you don’t like or respect in hopes it will disappear, the poor get poorer, which only makes the rich relatively richer.
This process ultimately creates an imbalanced attention economy in scholarship, and two recent posts discuss some of the downsides of this, in addition to proposing some interesting solutions.
. . . famous researchers have gathered the smartest and most ambitious graduate students and post-docs around them. . . . The famous grow more famous, and the younger researchers in their coterie are able to use that fame to their benefit. The effect of this concentration of power has finally trickled down to the level of funding: The average age on first receipt of the most common “starter” grants at the NIH is now almost 42. This means younger researchers without the strength of a fame-based community are cut out of the funding process, and their ideas, separate from an older researcher’s sphere of influence, don’t get pursued. This causes a founder effect in modern science, where the prestigious few dictate the direction of research. It’s not only unfair—it’s also actively dangerous to science’s progress.
Wilbanks believes that a merit system based on more than just the citation is now possible, and proposes a few ideas about how a merit system based on the usefulness of the resulting science, not just the data points of citations, could provide outlets for new ideas outside journal articles. Younger researchers could use these outlets to shine. Wilbanks’ approach would also probably offset the stranglehold older PhDs and researchers have, helping to create a more interesting terrain for knowledge.
While these are nice ideas, the funding issue Wilbanks refers to is the major force here, entrenching the attention economy firmly in the hands of older PhDs. As one PhD is quoted as saying in a post by Jason Hoyt on the blog for Mendeley, “it’s a Ponzi scheme.”
Well, it’s not a Ponzi scheme because attention can’t really run out, but it can be dominated. And if you dominate attention, you can dominate funding.
Trends in funding are creating frustration among the increasing number of young PhDs. These poor souls are adjusting to the funding drought by extending their time in the trenches — according to the National Science Foundation, 45% of all recent doctorates are now taking postdoc positions prior to a faculty appointment. This contrasts with only 31% following the same path 25 years ago. And postdoc positions are increasing in length of time as well, and are often followed by a second or even third “tour of duty.”
With attention resolving to senior researchers and older PhDs — along with the funds that follow — the number of new hypotheses or radical approaches may be diminishing. Funding the pet projects of people with citation slipstreams probably encourages people to draft behind the senior researchers, leading to more conservative and less adventuresome research.
Hoyt notes how grassroots efforts are trying to modulate these effects and break the stranglehold these researchers are sensing, with groups like the National Postdoctoral Association helping to spur policy changes at the NSF, NIH, and at numerous universities.
These tremors in PhD lifestyles, research funding, academic tracks, and recognition systems are worth watching. When money, reputations, and careers get involved, change seems likely to follow. A more dynamic, vibrant scientific community is at stake.