Is it really 99.9% drivel, and how do you know what the other 0.1% is?

Jun 22 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In the post on "genius" and publication rate, someone remarked on the "the incremental drivel that populates 99.9% of journals today".

Nope. Nopity-nope-nope-nope.

Here's a better model than genius and drivel: explorers/pioneers/settlers. I won't guess %'s because I suspect it is a constantly evolving thing, with %settlers increasing over time.

Explorers sometimes find things and sometimes don't. Its hard to be a full time explorer today. Even for older, funded people, because its tough to get money to support exploration. Pioneers follow where the explorers found a hint of something, a suggestion of something. Pioneers can get money, sometimes. Settlers come after the Pioneers have done some land clearing and make a living there.

Now, one thing that can happen is that Explorers find a New and Exciting! method. Pioneers often find an application for the method, but the progress in science doesn't happen till the Settlers get there. Sometimes. Sometimes, you need a lot of Settlers, collecting a lot of data, till a larger pattern emerges, with New! Ideas!  We can all think of examples. PCR? Xrays?

Now as for incremental drivel? We can do basic science/evolution/ecology. We can do medical research. Lots of that incremental stuff is important. It may not be as exciting to the BSD's of this world. It may not get the headlines. But it's absolutely necessary.

Let's think about evolution for a moment. Or even Ecology. Finding fossils, describing distributions of plants,  may fall in a social category of exploring, but its often damn incremental work in terms of the science. It is the basic data of what tests theories and drives new ones. Heck, even doing population genetics can require a lot of tedious, incremental bench work. Let's not forgot that Mendel raised peas for years before he got to genetics. Darwin studied worms and corals as well as finches.

The tedious work of documenting ecological networks is often done on a set of species by set of species projects. It can be years in the making, and Image result for polyalthia rogstadyoung folks, heck old folks, publish a bit of it each year. What if you have a set of 10 species in a genus? They exist in sympatric (living in the same place) groups of 2-4 across a very large region (say, Thailand through Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea). How did closely related species evolve in the same place? How did they get to be different? How did evolution work in this case?  One may be able to visit a country or two a year. One must first show they are distinct species: cross breeding experiments? pollen distinction? different pollinators? differences in flower morphology (anyone who has taught or taken multivariate stats knows Fisher's famous Iris flower dataset)? I'm sure documenting the differences in 3 species that are found in Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan would count as "incremental". The person doing the research did. But after 2 or 3 or 4 years of data collection, and having reviewed, published, (validated?) the differences, to find out how distinct species can be right next to each other, tells us something about the ecology and the evolution of this (possibly obscure) set of tropical rainforest trees. They don't have much commercial value (they are small, and the flowers not spectacular). But we've learned something about how evolution works. Someone else does a similar project with small mammals, and small lizards. And one day, either the researchers get together and put it out together, or someone else sweeps in and organizes it, but A Big Picture Emerges! And we learn how this ecosystem works, together, with its diversity. And maybe some poor soul has been laboring to do the same thing in high latitudes, and they put it together, but their together is different from lowland tropical rainforest. That may be a Big Deal. But dammit, it couldn't be done with lots of incremental stuff.

The same thing can happen in medicine, the incremental improvement in chemotherapy drugs. Those increments can mean a lot to you, if it is you, or your mother, or your sister, or your daughter, who is dying. My friend, my beloved friend, who had Stage IV breast cancer is now, 18 months later, free of cancer. Yes, she has many sequelae and will live with a range of health issues. But she is alive. Five, ten years ago, she would be dead. I thank those unknown-to-me settlers who improved the drugs so that my friend is here.

I suspect we'd all like to be explorers, or pioneers. Maybe that's the dream we had when we were 10 or 15. And maybe we can hang onto that dream as we slog through the reality of grad school and being a post-doc cog in someone else's dream machine.

But to call that "incremental" work drivel is to truly miss the point. There is good work there. You may not know it. You may not recognize it. But there is work there that moves science forward. There is work that saves lives. How dare you denigrate that.



5 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Well said!

  • Anon says:

    "Someone" never said incremental = drivel; that's your hobbyhorse, not mine.

    I do maintain that a lot of nonsense that should have never seen the light of day gets published simply because people feel that they need more pubs nowadays. A lot of it masquerades as "this is a small but solid contribution to the field." But upon closer inspection, it's obvious to people in the know that the paper is pointless -- or rather, its only point was to pad the CVs of those that submitted it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "People in the know". LOL!!!!!

  • Great post! I've changed research focus a few times in my crooked path to tenure (the best thing about being an academic--you can move on to something new when you get bored!), and all these "pointless papers" to "people in the know" are actually helpful and time saving to people new to the field. What is the point of every newbie making the same mistakes, or developing similar methods, when someone has already trod on that ground?

    The other thing I've found is how often the things that "everyone knows" are actually not backed by any sort of well controlled experiments. And every so often, something that "everyone knows" turns out to not be reality, and that is where the fun begins!

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Thank you for this post. Sometimes currently *hot* research areas turn out to be dead ends, while *incremental* work leads to major innovations that are completely unpredictable (e.g. CRISPR). As long as people are doing good work, we are moving our fields forward.

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