A few months ago I wrote about how we are drowning in information as a result of the two million papers published in journals every year [see ‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. As someone who has published about 10 papers each year for the last couple of decades, including three this year already, I feel I should provide some explanation for continuing to contribute to the deluge of papers. I think there are four main reasons for publishing scientific papers. First, to report a discovery – a new contribution to knowledge or understanding. This is the primary requirement for publication in a scientific journal but the significance of the contribution is frequently diminished both by the publisher’s and author’s need to publish which leads to many papers in which it is hard to identify the original contribution. The second reason is to fulfil the expectations or requirements of a funding agency (including your employer); I think this was probably the prime driver for my first paper which reported the results of a survey of muskoxen in Greenland conducted during an expedition in 1982. The third reason is to support a promotion case, either your own or one of your co-authors; of course, this is not incompatible with the reporting original contributions to knowledge but it can be a driver towards small contributions, especially when promotion committees consider only the quantity and not the quality of published papers. The fourth reason is to support the careers of members of the research team; in some universities it is impossible to graduate with a PhD degree in science and engineering without publishing a couple of papers, although most supervisors encourage PhD students to publish their work in at least one paper before submitting their PhD thesis, even when it is not compulsory. Post-doctoral researchers have a less urgent need to publish unless they are planning an academic career in which case they will need a more impressive publication record than their competitors. Profit is the prime reason for most publishers to publish papers. Publishers make more money when they sell more journals with more papers in them which drives the launch of new journals and the filling of journals with more papers; this process is poorly moderated by the need to ensure the papers are worth reading. It might be an urban myth, but some studies have suggested that half of published papers are read only by their editor and authors. Thirty years ago, my PhD supervisor, who was also my mentor during my early career as an academic, already suspected this lack of readers and used to greet the news of the publication of each of my papers as ‘more stuffing for your chair’.
Patterson, E.A., 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63
The title of this post is a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge‘. For example, if you search for scientific papers about “Entropy” then you will probably find more than 3.5 million. An impossible quantity for an individual to read and even when you narrow the search to those about “psychological entropy”, which is a fairly niche topic, you will still find nearly 500 papers – a challenging reading list for most people. The analysis of the trends embedded in scientific papers has become a research activity in its own right, see for example Basurto-Flores et al 2018 on papers about entropy; however, this type of analysis seems to generate yet more information rather than wisdom. In this context, wisdom is associated with insight based on knowledge and experience; however the quality of the experiences is important as well as the processes of self-reflection (see Nicholas Weststrate’s PhD thesis). There are no prizes for wisdom and we appoint and promote researchers based on their publication record; hence it is unsurprising that editors of journals are swamped by thousands of manuscripts submitted for publication with more than 2 million papers published every year. The system is out of control driven by authors building a publication list longer than their competitors for jobs, promotion and grant funding and by publishers seeking larger profits from publishing more and bigger journals. There are so many manuscripts submitted to journals that the quality of the reviewing and editing is declining leading to both false positive and false negatives, i.e. papers being published that contain little, if any, original content or lacking sufficient evidence to support their conclusions and highly innovative papers being rejected because they are perceived to be wrong rather than simply deviating from the current paradigm. The drop in quality and rise in quantity of papers published makes keeping up with the scientific literature both expensive and inefficient in terms of time and energy, which slows down acquisition of knowledge and leaves less time for reflection and gaining experiences that are prerequisites for wisdom. So what incentives are there for a scientist or engineer to aspire to be wise given the lack of prizes and career rewards for wisdom? In Chinese thought wisdom is perceived as expertise in the art of living, the ability to grasp what is happening, and to adjust to the imminent future (Simandan, 2018). All of these attributes seem to be advantageous to a career based on solving problems but you need the sagacity to realise that the rewards are indirect and often intangible.
It is traditional at the start of the year to speculate on what will happen in the new year. However, as Niels Bohr is reputed to have said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Some people have suggested that our brains are constantly predicting the future. We weigh up the options for what might happen next before choosing a course of action. Our ancestors might have watched a fish swimming near a river bank and predicted where it would be a moment later when their spear entered the water. Or on a longer timescale, they predicted that seeds planted at a particular time of year would yield a crop some months later. Our predictions are not always correct but our life depends on enough of them being reliable that we have evolved to be good predictors of the immediate future. In Chinese thought, a distinction is made between predicting the near and distant future because the former is possible and latter is impossible, at least with any degree of confidence (Simandon, 2018). Wisdom can be considered to be understanding the futility of trying to predict the distant future while being able to sense the near future through an acute awareness and immersion in one’s surroundings. This implies that a wise person can go beyond the everyday predictions of the immediate future, made largely unconsciously by our brains, and anticipate events on a slightly longer timescale, the near future. In engineering terms, events in the near future are short-term behaviour dominated by the current status of the system whereas events in the distant future are largely determined by external interactions with the system. This seems entirely consistent with the Chinese concept of wisdom arising from ‘vanishing into things’ which means to become immersed in a situation and hence to be able sense the current status of the system and reliably anticipate the near future. Some engineers might call it intuition which has been defined as ‘judgments that arise through rapid, non-conscious and holistic associations’ (Dane & Pratt, 2007). So, in 2021 I hope to continue to exercise my intuition and remain immersed in a number of issues but I am not going to attempt to predict any distant events.