Are Academic Papers Worthless?
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Are Academic Papers Worthless?

What are all of these smart people doing with their time?

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I love research. I think it is one of the most interesting things human beings can do, and it has the potential for unbelievable findings. On the other hand, most research goes with out receiving a single citation. An article from the Los Angeles Times is quoted as saying "Some 98% of articles in the arts and humanities and 75% in the social sciences are never cited. Things are not much better in the hard sciences--there, 25% of articles are never cited and the average number of cites even of those is one or two." (1). But why is this the case? Why are some of the smartest people slaving away on something with so little benefit?

One thing to consider is that these statistics are incorrect. There is a saying that statistics lie, and liars use statistics. In this instance, these statistics were gleaned from a 30-year-old book that was attempting to discredit the work of academics. Another factor we should consider is whether the metric of using citations to judge the quality of research is valid. This is a topic of heated debate among academic circles. While using citations as a metric of research quality is common practice, it is by no means the best way to judge that quality. One proposed solution is to use a method known as triangulation. From a high level, triangulation means comparing a wide body of research to test for patterns throughout. However, this will also mean that research that does not produce positive results will need to be considered. This is arguably the biggest problem with research quality today, because many academics feel pressure to produce positive results to achieve tenure or to get published. Unfortunately, this pressure affects the results and the quality. Not all research has positive results, this is simply a truth.

While the problem with research is easy to diagnose, it is much harder to solve. Aside from triangulation, there have not been many proposed solutions to these challenges. Another possible solution is to privatize research (as most is done in universities) however this will not guarantee quality. It has also been proposed that universities focus more on teaching their students and produce less research but higher quality. This seems valid to me, yet again, it will prove immensely difficult to persuade universities to change their entire business model. Ultimately, these problems will require a great deal of resources and focus to solve. It will not be one group or institution to solve the research replicability crisis (as it is commonly called). It will require buy in from a wide variety of governments, corporations, institutions and more to succeed. One possible solution would be a non-profit organization that is tailored to solve this problem. If it is a nonprofit, it should not have any conflicts of interest, and thus will have more universal credibility. Another solution might be a privatized company. However, private research firms will undoubtedly run universities out of business, and this could lead to a whole host of other problems.

1. Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e7720. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720. (n.d.). doi: 10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f

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