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Steady decline for decades in the publication of “disruptive science”

The steady decline in the publication of disruptive science

Though their definition of what makes a science paper disruptive is open to debate, a review of millions of peer-reviewed papers published since the end of World War II has shown a steady decline in such papers, as if scientists are increasingly unwilling or unable to think outside the box.

The graph to the right comes from this research.

The authors reasoned that if a study was highly disruptive, subsequent research would be less likely to cite the study’s references, and instead cite the study itself. Using the citation data from 45 million manuscripts and 3.9 million patents, the researchers calculated a measure of disruptiveness, called the ‘CD index’, in which values ranged from –1 for the least disruptive work to 1 for the most disruptive.

The average CD index declined by more than 90% between 1945 and 2010 for research manuscripts, and by more than 78% from 1980 to 2010 for patents. Disruptiveness declined in all of the analysed research fields and patent types, even when factoring in potential differences in factors such as citation practices.

The authors also analysed the most common verbs used in manuscripts and found that whereas research in the 1950s was more likely to use words evoking creation or discovery such as ‘produce’ or ‘determine’, that done in the 2010s was more likely to refer to incremental progress, using terms such as ‘improve’ or ‘enhance’.

The article that I link to above is from Nature, so of course it can’t see the elephant in the room, citing as a possible explanation “changes in the scientific enterprise” where most scientists today work as teams rather than alone.

I say, when you increasingly have big government money involved in research, following World War II, it becomes more and more difficult to buck the popular trends. Tie that to the growing blacklist culture that now destroys the career of any scientist who dares to say something even slightly different, and no one should be surprised originality is declining in scientific research. The culture will no longer tolerate it. You will tow the line, or you will be gone. Scientists are thus towing the line.

To my readers: I had intended to include this paper as part of a larger essay about the general blacklist culture that now dominates American society, but my continuing health issues make it difficult to sit at my desk for long periods. I hope to have things under control in the next few days, but until then my posting is going to continue to be limited.

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  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “I say, when you increasingly have big government money involved in research, following World War II, it becomes more and more difficult to buck the popular trends.

    I agree with this assessment in general, as it also could explain why there have been so few fundamental discoveries/inventions since the laser and integrated circuit vs. the tremendous number of such discoveries in the two centuries prior to WWII. In half a century, we have only really invented additive manufacturing (commonly called 3-D printing).

    From the article:

    Finding an explanation for the decline won’t be easy, Walsh says.

    This assumes that there really is a decline.

    Please let me propose an alternate hypothesis for this article (other than fear of blacklisting for not following the governmentally-approved conclusions of “The Science,” which we have all been told is settled). It could be that the researchers have used an inappropriate proxy for determining their data. As we learned from the tree ring data that was used for proving global warming (before it became climate change and after it was the coming ice age), proxies are tricky beasts. When I was in grade school tree rings told the story of rainfall in the area, not the story of temperature in the area. Somehow this had changed sometime after I graduated college and were used to prove the “Hockey Stick” hypothesis of global warming. Unfortunately, I have not seen the studies that justify tree-ring use as a proxy for either phenomenon.

    So, some of the questions are: can paper citations really be used as a proxy for disruptive science? Can the language used in papers really be used as proxies for disruptive science?

    Citations are also tricky things. One of the problems we seem to be having these days is too many scientists and not enough new research.
    This may also reinforce Robert’s point/conclusion that government money drives the areas in which the research occurs. Government has its own concerns, and they are in limited areas. Citizens have a different set of concerns in a wide variety of areas.

    Language also changes over time. Not only do we stop using some words and use other words more frequently ( ), the meanings of our words change with time, even to the point that a seemingly intelligent Supreme Court nominee was unable to define what a woman is, as the meaning of the word has recently undergone a great and unsettled transition, yet she was confirmed for the position anyway by seemingly intelligent senators. How can someone not know what a woman is? How can the nation not get in a tizzy over such ignorance?

    I have recently started reading a book How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon, and from the preface, it seems that in the 19th century science was conducted by scientists who were largely financed by citizens rather than government. These citizens and scientists were eager to create a new and better tomorrow that improved life for themselves and their posterity.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, I am now supporting Robert’s assessment that a central governmental control over science is holding us back from making the great strides forward that the Victorians envisioned and made. Each group, government and citizen, is in it for himself. The government does not care much for the enrichment of the human condition but for the enrichment of its own power. About a decade ago, one government official declared that the next generation would not be better off than the current generation, which bucks all historical American tradition. That official was not concerned that this was a problem but only thought of it as the new normal.

    For thousands of years, science was controlled by people who were not interested in finding new and better ways of doing things. They weren’t much interested in the truth. They were largely interested in maintaining the status quo and controlling their populations. “The Science” was settled, as decreed by religions and governments (although science was called “natural philosophy” back then). Advancement in science, lifestyles, and lifespans was stagnant for the score of centuries between the Greek philosophers and the Enlightenment (or earlier, when Copernicus, Galileo, and others began to buck the system). Citizens took control of science and technical development and brought prosperity to themselves and their posterity.

    In the 1950s, we had dreams of what we would do in space, but government took over that domain and we got very little of what we had dreamed. When we let government be in charge, we only get what government wants. When We the People are in charge, we get what we want.

    So, have we really succumbed to a lack of scientific and engineering progress? Are we doomed to another dark age with science controlled not by mankind but by government bureaucracy? Will the modern people who buck the system, to bring us back to the rapid advancement and prosperity of the Victorian age, be forced by an overbearing government to submit to a centralized control?

    Probably. History shows that this is the way humanity trends, and those who do not learn their history are bound to not realize that they are repeating it.

  • Andi

    Sorry to hear about your health issues, Robert. Hope you can overcome them soon!

  • Andi: Thank you for the kind words. From your lips to God’s ear. :)

  • Cotour

    “The U.S. Department of Energy, the nation’s chief funder of the physical sciences, is requiring scientific grant applicants to demonstrate their commitment to social justice ideals.”

    “The new policy, which began in October 2022, requires grant proposals that are submitted to the department’s Office of Science to include a “Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research” (PIER) plan in addition to information regarding their scientific project, according to the office. Researchers who want to receive funding must explain how they are working to “promote fairness and inclusiveness” while carrying out their studies because doing so is “an intrinsic element to achieving scientific excellence.”

    Democrats, always symbolic, never substantive?

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Tie that to the growing blacklist culture that now destroys the career of any scientist who dares to say something even slightly different, and no one should be surprised originality is declining in scientific research. The culture will no longer tolerate it. You will tow the line, or you will be gone. Scientists are thus towing the line.

    It does not have to be a blacklist per se. Papers are peer reviewed, and if the peers do not agree with the paper, they can give a poor review so that the paper is not even published. Think of what would have happened to Darwin if a peer review process had made his observations and conclusions unpublishable. What about Galileo? He was able to get around a Papal blacklist by publishing posthumously in places that were willing to entertain alternative ideas. Copernicus had a similar problem with official rejection of his ideas. Should Einstein have even been published? He was a mere clerk at the patent office, not even a scientist, so his bizarre ideas should clearly have been summarily rejected outright and with extreme prejudice.

    What about the morality of scientists? That animal hater Schrödinger? How evil was it for Pavlov to force dogs to drool for food by ringing a bell? I’m pretty sure that the Royal Society should “James Webb” both of these horrific scientists, forbidding any publication of their names, so instead of using Schrödinger’s equation you would use “that cat-killer’s” equation.

    OR …

    Maybe it is not wokeness in science at all. What if it is that there are just too many scientists and we have a maximum pace at which new disruptive science can be investigated? This sounds silly, and since two centuries ago science was disruptive at a much higher pace than we have now, this probably is an unlikely explanation. Adam Smith explained that when a nation of individuals work to their own enlightened self interests — each individual providing goods and services to others in order to have the money to buy the goods and services he needs — then the economy works out as though there had been an invisible hand controlling the economy. Scientists can only supply the science that others will pay for, and if that other is only government then we are limited to only the science that government wants. Huh. Maybe not so silly after all.

    Could it be that there are too many scientists, and when we are above a certain number of scientists then the pace of disruptions slows? One way this could happen is the peer pressure that peer reviewers might feel from their fellow scientists to toe the consensus line and conform to the majority. Whose line is being toed? The Wuhan flu and Global Climate Warming (and the coming Ice Age) suggest that it is the government’s line. The enforcement of this line comes from government actions that Robert has mentioned in his post.

    An alternate cultural cause could be that people are being taught to not rock the boat. This is different from toeing the line in that Americans have traditionally had a culture in which a lone wolf breaks from everyone else and makes a difference. This tradition has been reinforced in books, movies, and other popular entertainments. This tradition is why our constitution was written in its original form — right down to breaking away from the well-established institution of slave trade as an early step in eliminating the well-established institution of slavery (Vermont took an even earlier step in 1777 when it was the first place on Earth, throughout all of history, to outlaw slavery completely). The Declaration of Independence was written because of this culture. But now? Now, government is becoming like King George and is directing Americans to support the King rather than work for their own best interests. American science is reverting back to the ways of science in the rest of the world. The invisible hand is being replaced by the central-government’s hand, Soviet style.

    The American way of independent thinking is one of the reasons that science in America has been so successful, why inventions in America have been so abundant. Freedom is another reason. Science and engineering in the world have historically been done by the wealthy and prominent. But in America, commoners have been equally able to engage in science and invention. The Wright Brothers were mere bicycle shop owners who realized that they needed to build their own engine in order to have one light enough and powerful enough to do the job, so they hired another commoner to build it for them. Mankind’s greatest dream was accomplished not by the wealthy, prominent, highly educated, elite but by three small-town guys who had a passion. 3-D printing has a similar story.

  • Star Bird

    Their trying to silence the critics and skeptics of this Global Warming/Climate Change Scam

  • Max

    Edward, excellent observation and comments. The points you made are spot on.

    I would add how Elon musk, a rich man paying for inventions, differs from Branson or Bezos.
    He has his own vision and goal were the others were probably talked into the rocket business without knowing how to innovate, learn from the mistakes, and what to do next…
    Keeping in mind that Elon does not invent everything his name is on, he simply funds those who produce and gives them a way to do what they do best and be compensated for it.
    Tesla, one of the smartest inventors ever, changed the world but could not have done so without some funding from Thomas Edison and others. Thomas Edison wasn’t a very good inventor but knew how to collect innovators, pay for and patent those ideas, and market them.
    It would seem the government is the new Thomas Edison money bags, but gov. does not market the ideas but takes advantage of the smartest inventors and scientist, giving them a paycheck and not a patent. They do not own their work unless they’re in a university, or develop a new disease. Then they can share the bounty.
    If the patent is filed for by the individual, often it is stolen by the attorney, or by China or others and then they turn around and sue the inventor for infringement. If not stolen, than copied, and you receive no revenues.
    Many inventors no longer patent their ideas.

    Like my friend who worked for JPL, everything he created in instrumentation is property of JPL.
    When he used his knowledge of atomic oscillations to develop the atomic clock, he could not get funding, or permits, but the Chinese swept him off his feet.
    They mass produced his invention and he begin to make a lot of money… Until a Chinese competitor out produced the same item for cheaper and cut him out of the market violating his patents and designs. Later he found out his work was used to make Chinese satellites keep accurate time outside the relatively affects of gravity.
    His most important inventions are still classified even though they are considered to be “disruptive“

    Yes, I know each invention has positives for the human race or could end it… Just as a hammer can build houses or take a life. (The same is still being said about nuclear energy providing for all our needs, or destroying the planet)
    I can see why those who want to retain power will ban any object or thought that can be used against them. I think it was Ayn Rand wrote a short book called “anthem” that describes the future, should this happen. where the workers in the book, would give thanks to the hundred scientist on the wall for working tirelessly to develop… The candle…

    Even as I write this, the European Union is voting on E.S.G. laws that will govern everything that is bought and sold. A monopoly on everything needed to sustain life.
    As we move into the “dark age” my best hope for the future is a colony on Mars (and moon if it’s privately established) where every act is in focus of survival of the colony. Where the rules of nature, and cause and effect is the basis for all science. (not science fiction or fantasy) Where There’s no illusion of what a woman is. Where social order and the rule of law is maintained strictly because of the consequences can be massive where there is no air.
    But the rewards of the individual that changes the lives of everyone for the better will be acknowledged, and implemented without reserve. Where potential is encouraged and funded for the betterment of society.
    It won’t be utopia, far from it… They’ll just be less tolerance for fools and foolish ideas and those who seek to control others will have no profit.

  • NAvery

    Please try to distinguish between “toeing the line” and “towing the line”. Although they are homonyms, they have very different meanings.
    You could say something like: “Scientists have gradually been less and less willing to deviate from the views of the Department of Official Explanations”, since outliers tend to lose funding, research and publishing opportunities, and even their livelihoods. Different views have now become deviant views.

  • Joel Atkins

    They are showing an average number, so it’s possible we are seeing the same number of disruptive papers, but a lot more non-distruptive papers. That could mean that the government is funding too much research, with most of it not being that innovative.

  • Edward

    I wrote: “Could it be that there are too many scientists, and when we are above a certain number of scientists then the pace of disruptions slows? One way this could happen is the peer pressure that peer reviewers might feel from their fellow scientists to toe the consensus line and conform to the majority.

    If we have too many scientists and a fixed number of topics that the government wants studied, then that number of topics limits the number of disruptive scientific papers. How many papers could be high-value papers with disruptive science, how many would be low-value papers with incremental knowledge, how many would be no-value papers that were written due to publish or perish, and how many would be negative-value papers that give bogus conclusions due to problems such as confirmation bias, toeing the line, and woke bias?

    When there are fewer scientists then the proportion writing disruptive papers is likely to be higher. As the Nature article noted, when there are more scientists — and I’ll add: when there are a fixed number of government topics studied — the proportion declines. When there are more scientists but more topics covering the desires of the entire population, the proportion is harder to determine but could remain constant or even increase. The article also noted that there is an increased collaboration between scientists for each paper, suggesting that there are fewer papers per scientist, but the article also thinks that such collaborations likely result in more mediocrity in each paper, too.

    Peer review and peer pressure need not be the only limits on what gets published. The publishers and editors themselves pick and choose what goes into their journals. The American Geophysical Union declared, more than a decade ago, they would not publish anything in their journal, the JGR, that contradicted global warming, and even the Los Angeles Times made a similar declaration that they would not publish any letters to the editor that disagreed with anthropogenic global warming. If the publishers and editors don’t agree with the scientific conclusions, no one gets to find out about them. If the conclusions don’t conform with these people’s preconceived notions then no one gets to find out about them. Scientists and the general public no longer get the opportunity to discuss or argue

    The government is so deeply involved in everyday life that any independent organization that does science, international aid, or many other public services, has a moniker: NGO, or non-governmental organization, a moniker created around WWII. Huh. Around the time that, as Robert suggested, government took over science. It seems they took over a lot more, too. The government has so deeply infiltrated itself into our lives, society, and economy that we now assume government affiliation unless we specify otherwise. NGO.

    We create large numbers of scientists every year, but we have limited their ability to do science. The range of studies is limited largely to what will be funded, and the funding is limited largely to governmental organizations. Government can impose its will onto virtually any group or organization, so if government favors the tale of global warming it can get publishers to agree to limit dissent.

    In half a century, we have only really invented additive manufacturing (commonly called 3-D printing).

    This isn’t really correct. The medical healthcare industry, one of the few industries that remained independent of government, has made many dramatic improvements, some of them disruptive, such as heart transplants. In fact, the benefits have been very good, continually increasing our expected lifespans. Up until the government took over healthcare almost a decade ago. Now that government is heavily involved, life expectancy has begun to decrease, and we are no longer able to handle a simple virus outbreak. The first SARS outbreak, just a couple of decades ago, was handled relatively easily, without turning upside down the nation, lives and livelihoods, the economy, our culture, or our healthcare. All this happened with SARS-CoV-2, under government jurisdiction.

    Government involvement not only hampers us, it is detrimental. It does the opposite of the Preamble of the Constitution, and therefore the opposite of the intention of the Constitution, right down to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Where is the blessing of liberty when the government directs us to destroy our liberty to fight a minor disease? Where is the beneficial disruptive science when it is replaced by mandates for lockdowns and shutdowns, dress codes, and deadly faux vaccines? This is the opposite of what centuries of science has taught us about medical therapy.

  • Edward

    Maybe I should have mentioned the modern emphasis on “misinformation.” We cannot have anyone publish anything that might misinform the public or other scientists.

    Of course, in order to have misinformation, it is absolutely necessary to have some sort of truth that is officially recognized as being the truth. Who chooses this truth? Well, the U.S. government was eager to create some form of ministry that would determine what was misinformation, so that group would undoubtedly be the ones who determined what was not misinformation, also known as truth. Where would we be today if we had had a ministry of truth in ancient times and someone tried to propose that the world is round, not flat, or that survival of the fittest led to evolution, or that there were other ways to look at the universe other than classical (Newtonian) physics? Everyone knew, back then, that man could not fly or go into the heavens, such as the Moon. Everything revolved around the Earth and heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects.

    These dark ages are likely to come back to limit our ability to improve our lives and livelihoods.

  • Jeff Wright

    Wit A.I. alone everything is disruptive. The thumb is on the scales of this study. And the scales are on their eyes.

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