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The Dangers of Fast Science

The Dangers of Fast Science

Scientific research needs to slow down, not speed up, to produce trustworthy results

Illustration of a speed-o-meter with a beaker as the line

A theme at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was the perceived need to “accelerate breakthroughs in research and technology.” Some of this framing was motivated by the climate emergency, some by the opportunities and challenges presented by generative artificial intelligence. Yet in various conversations, it seemed to be taken for granted that to address the world’s problems, scientific research needs to move faster.

The WEF mindset resonates with the Silicon Valley dictate—usually credited to Mark Zuckerberg—to move fast and break things. But what if the thing being broken is science? Or public trust?

The WEF meeting took place just a fortnight after Harvard University President Claudine Gay stepped down after complaints were made about her political science scholarship. Gay’s troubles came on the heels of the resignation of Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, after an internal investigation concluded that his neuroscience research had “multiple problems” and “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor.” In response, Gay requested corrections to several of her papers; Tessier-Lavigne requested retraction of three of his. Although it may be impossible to determine just how widespread such problems really are, it’s hard to imagine that the spectacle of high-profile scholars correcting and retracting papers has not had a negative impact on public trust in science and perhaps in experts broadly.

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In recent years we’ve seen important papers, written by prominent scientists and published in prestigious journals, retracted because of questionable data or methods. In one interesting case, Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, voluntarily retracted a paper when her lab was unable to replicate her results—but after the paper had been published. In an open apology, she stated that she was “a bit busy” when the paper was submitted and “did not do my job well.” Arnold’s honesty is admirable, but it raises a question: Are scholars at übercompetitive places such as Harvard, Stanford and Caltech rushing to publish rather than taking the time to do their work right?

It’s impossible to answer this question scientifically because there’s no scientific definition of what constitutes “rushing.” But there’s little doubt that we live in a culture where academics at leading universities are under tremendous pressure to produce results—and a lot of them—quickly.

The problem is not unique to the U.S. In Europe, formal research assessments—which are used to allocate future funding—have for years judged academic departments largely on the quantity of their output. A recent reform urging an emphasis on quality over quantity allowed that the existing system had created “counterincentives.”

Good science takes time. More than 50 years elapsed between the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s magnum opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), and the broad scientific acceptance of the heliocentric model of the universe. Nearly a century passed between biochemist Friedrich Miescher’s identification of the DNA molecule and suggestion that it might be involved in inheritance and the elucidation of its double-helix structure in the 1950s. And it took just about half a century for geologists and geophysicists to accept geophysicist Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift.

There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that scientists and other scholars are pushing results out far faster than they used to. Consider the sheer volume of academic papers being published these days. One recent study put the number at more than seven million a year, compared with fewer than a million as recently as 1980. Another study found 265 academic authors—two thirds of whom were in the medical and life sciences—who published a paper every five days on average.

Some of this growth is driven by more scientists and more co-authorship of papers, but the numbers also suggest that the research world has prioritized quantity over quality. Researchers may need to slow down—not speed up—if we are to produce knowledge worthy of trust.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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