Managing science amid the complexity of specialization

Larry Moran comments on a recent study that attempted to quantify the increasing complexity of scientific papers: “The scientific literature is becoming more complex”. The meat of the study is that the average scientific paper now has more data, tables and figures—almost double the number twenty years ago.

The number of authors on the average paper has also increased over time, and is today correlated with the “impact factor” of the journal. This suggests a pressure to increase complexity by increasing specialization and drawing together more specialists in the preparation of high impact research.

Larry comments:

I think the major consequence is the lack of responsibility of individual authors in a multi-author study. With increased specialization, there are fewer and fewer authors who see the big picture and who are capable of integrating the results from several subspecialties. The fact that the studies include work from several highly specialized techniques that only a few people understand also makes it harder for the average reader to evaluate the paper.
It's likely, in my opinion, that many of the authors on the paper don't fully understand the techniques being used by their colleagues. This is a big change from the science I grew up with.

It definitely is a big change from the science we grew up with.

We have moved beyond the world of multi-author research into the world of pluri-author research. Sure, we’ve seen papers with fifty or a hundred authors (or even vastly more) being published for a long time. But now they are the mode for a certain kind of important work.

I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in several effective large-scale collaborations. This includes the most exciting work I’ve done. The right combination of people will think of things that no single person or laboratory would have done, resulting in better and broader work. They can take on “big picture” questions that are beyond the scope any single investigator or laboratory could achieve.

I’m not alone, I know many anthropologists and geneticists who manage the big picture by communicating effectively within a large team of specialists. We have not reached the limit of what we can do integrating results from different areas of research.

Still, this complexity is one of the great challenges of science today. It is not always successful. In pluri-author papers, it can be a real challenge to keep track of what everyone has done.

More and more, there are published papers where the different methods used actually contradict each others’ results. Contradictory results are expected on a certain scale of work, but in those cases, the work needs someone with the right experience and training to put the contradictions into context.

Such generalist training is harder and harder to come by.

Being capable of managing and interacting effectively in such large-scale collaborations is not an innate talent, it is a skill that scientists can learn. Personally, I train my graduate students to be generalists, capable of conceiving and designing research that combines multiple specialties. I think a narrow specialization in the long run will cause students to miss out on great opportunities.

However, I recognize that many students are trained in techniques that can be very productive in their first few years, giving them a quick burst of publications and sometimes grant funding. This kind of scientist faces limits in the long run, as it is extremely hard to keep up in fields where research techniques may be rapidly changing. But many scientists maintain large successful careers as specialists, building work together with other scientists.