A new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science posits that an abundance of research being published all at once can counterintuitively slow the progress of science.
This slowdown is not the direct consequence of all that work, but rather our lack of ability to assess, organize, and parse it all.
The central suggestion of this paper is that scholars in various fields simply can't keep up with everything being published in their area of specialty; which is an amazing problem to have, in some ways, because of what it implies about the pace of our scientific inquiry.
But it is still a problem because what tends to get all the attention in the midst of such a torrent of papers are the most popular, most cited, more extraordinary findings: those that somehow work their way to the top of the pile, often because they've been algorithmically shuffled upward, or placed there by some kind of institutional gatekeeper.
The practical outcome of this deluge of data is that existing canon—the things we accept as foundational and true, today—is less likely to be questioned or overturned because the more radical, potentially groundbreaking stuff is not being surfaced, while work supporting the status quo often is.
Lacking a concomitant upgrade in institutional and organizational structure, then, there may be a ceiling on what more and better work can do for us. Beyond a certain point we collectively lean toward findings that reinforce the status quo because that's what we're currently optimized to do, and we don’t have the bandwidth to deviate from that setup.
There's been some recent research in the music world and other fields, as well, indicating a similar dynamic. The more we have, the more we tend to revert to a central, non-extreme balance point.
Which makes a kind of sense, as it implies we'll aim for stability over instability when we lack a clear, holistic understanding of everything happening within a particular space: I can't clearly see everything around me so I establish a solid foundation upon which to stand, and I then compare everything else I encounter to what is true and normal within that safe-feeling space.
One consequence of such stability, though, is that we lose more extreme, challenging genres that are unfamiliar enough not to pop up in software-generated music streaming playlists, and we maybe don't see (or take seriously) theories about some aspect of math or sociology that then wallow in limbo between paper-submission and paper-publication, or in some cases between paper-publication and paper-being-read-and-taken-seriously-by-anyone.
The work has been done and the knowledge is available, but we don’t benefit from that work or that knowledge.
The authors of that paper in PNAS posit that the solution here is to build structures and systems which incentivize and foster disruptive work, both in terms of research and studies, and in terms of the documentation and publication of those efforts, to ensure they get pride of place amongst the more iterative work that tends to be favored by the rest of our structures and systems.
This applies to scientific journals and institutions, but also potentially museums and galleries, music streaming services, and even our own explore-exploit tendencies, which often—if we're not careful—trend toward the familiar and predictable, while dismissing (even if not consciously) things that don't fit within our current mental models of "music I'll like," "artwork I'll get," or "skills I'll be capable of learning."
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