In “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research,” it is claimed that much of the scientific research literature published recently is “redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor” and that “research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs.” “Countless” is intended in a negative sense here. No argument is provided for the first claim, unless the claims about frequency of citation—generally very low, if at all, for any paper in the literature—are to be taken as an argument that recent literature is poor in quality. It does seem clear that the authors believe that there is too much literature, and it seems to me that their claims and arguments that there is too much literature might be just as strong if it weren’t paired with the argument that the literature is generally low in quality.
Taking a larger view, the problem is probably worse than the “Avalanche” authors suggest. A prominent case in point: the Biodiversity Heritage Library, whose holdings amount at present to 30,512,292 pages in 80,976 volumes, is growing daily, and more and more libraries are joining the project, including those in Europe and the Pacific rim. (Perhaps the “Avalanche” authors would find this reassuring. Back in the good old days, when men were real men (and women didn’t do science), only what was worth reading was published, and everyone read it.) Nonetheless, finding works relevant to a given topic is difficult and will become more so.
Rebecca Skloot tweets the following question, which she asks on behalf of Melinda Wenner (@lindy2350):
Anyone know how I can find the # of people worldwide taking a particular class of drug?
This is an interesting problem, and as well it’s a nice example of what has come to be known as a “Fermi problem.” The physicist Enrico Fermi famously posed the question “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” to his students, to be answered without consulting any reference sources: the answer to the question must come entirely from “back of the envelope” calculations. A similar situation faces a scientist approaching a new problem. How much voltage will be required for a new apparatus, made for an experiment never performed before? What is the most critical quantity in a new, never-before-tested theory? How large an effect should be expected if our theory is correct? Even an estimate of the order of magnitude of the quantity of interest would be useful, since nothing is known about it. Fermi problems are intended to train a student to think about quantities whose values can be discovered and what their relationships are, so that the answer to the Fermi problem can be deduced.
I’d like to consider Melinda’s question, but first, I’d like to work through the piano tuners problem, direct readers to some more sites with Fermi problems, and describe an experiment conducted by Fermi with nothing more than scraps of paper and “back of the envelope” calculations—to measure the power of the first atomic bomb.