How much science is too much science?

There are over 50 million peer-reviewed scientific articles published so far and 1.5 million new articles are added every year. (Robert Cudmore/Creative Commons)

There are over 50 million peer-reviewed scientific articles published so far and 1.5 million new articles are added every year. (Robert Cudmore/Creative Commons)

There are over 50 million peer-reviewed scientific articles published so far and 1.5 million new articles are added every year, according to an article published this week in the scientific journal “Nature, Ecology and Evolution.” With such an enormous body of literature, scientists-in-training are faced with a mountain of reading material that is increasingly difficult to navigate and consume.

In fact, Franck Courchamp and Corey Bradshaw, ecologists from France and Australia, respectively, showed that within the specific yet immense field of ecology, new ecologists may be led astray in their efforts to acquire a well-rounded background knowledge of their field.

The hunt for relevant literature most often begins with highly cited scientific articles and high-impact journals. The number of citations that a particular article gets reflects its impact within the field of study – more scientists are referring to it in their own work. Citations also affect the impact ratings of science journals. The highest-impact journals tend to be the most selective in what kind of science they publish, but also fall prey to studies that are exciting to the public rather than useful within a field of study.

Courchamp and Bradshaw’s study asked 368 ecologists to rank 544 scientific articles as a must-read for ecologists-in-training, yet the top ranked articles were not from journals with the highest impact nor did they have the most citations. The same study provided a list of articles recommended by experts and found that just one of the recommended articles appeared on a list of the 100 most-cited articles in a widely-used database.

Focusing on impact factors and citations alone may actually cause ecologists to miss some of the most transformative studies that have been conducted in the field. It also shifts scientific credibility into a sort of grey-zone – if the credibility of a scientist depends on how many citations they get, people may be misled about who is actually contributing work that significantly pushes science forward.

Within just ecology, most of the articles that were recommended by experts fell into a field known as ecological modelling –  using mathematics and computers to simulate and test how nature works. While modelling is crucial in understanding all of the complexity that exists in nature, models are built based on information gathered on real organisms.

Ecologists have to trudge through forests and deserts, rain or shine. They have to climb, dig, collect, measure and record both the environment and the birds, insects, reptiles, mammals and amphibians they’re interested in studying. Then, they have to analyze their data and make concrete conclusions about how organisms move around, compete with each other, change with the seasons and more.

Just 16 percent of the articles recommended by experts were based on field experiments or observations and this may reflect the current state of science funding – traditional field studies alone are not funded as often.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations were also extremely sex-biased – many more men contributed article recommendations and votes than women. In terms of numbers, almost seven times more men recommended articles for the study and nearly five times more men voted on which articles should be ranked highest in importance.

Ecology, like most scientific fields, isn’t just overflowing with research articles - it’s overflowing with men. While Courchamp and Bradshaw provide a useful list of 100 articles that all ecologists should read, it’ll take more work to make sure womens’ voices are just as strong in influencing science and how it’s consumed.


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.