Monday, December 19, 2005

Making Sense of Science

In the broadening wake of the South Korean cloning controversy, the New York times has asked a pertinent question: just how much scientific fraud is out there? Unfortunately, more than we would like to think. While it's impossible to know exactly how much fictitious research is passed off as legitimate - some frauds must inevitably remain undetected - the Times article makes it clear that in a field as international and variegated as scientific research, cracking down is not easy.
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Part of the problem is that there is simply too much scientific research to evaluate:
Contributing to the problem is a drastic rise in the number of scientific journals published around the world: more than 54,000, according to Ulrich's Periodicals Directory. This glut can confuse researchers, overwhelm quality-control systems, encourage fraud and distort the public perception of findings.

These overwhelming numbers are hardly unique to scientific journals. The last several decades have brought several milestone innovations - particularly the personal computer and the world wide web - that have facilitated the dissemination of information in ways that were previously unimaginable. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in the contemporaneous rise and spread of misinformation as well.

So, if an increase of misinformation - fraudulent scientific research, in this particular case - is a predictable byproduct of an increase in information generally, is the problem of fraud in science really worsening, or is it growing at roughly the same rate as honest, rigorous scientific research? An interesting question but hardly a solution. Science, like any other discipline, has a reputation to protect and an increase in the perpetuation of frauds, even if subject to ready explanation, is a trend that must be addressed.

How will the scientific community respond to this rise in research, of both the honest and the fraudulent variety? One promising avenue may be open source scientific journals. The Directory of Open Access Journals currently boasts 1980 journals, 488 of which are searchable at the article level. While those numbers are certain to rise, the larger problem of managing massive quantities of new information is not going anywhere.

We are living in an era of unprecedented information and data generation. In searching for the proverbial needle - whether a key piece of useful data, or a well-hidden fabrication - how will we respond now that our haystack has become a hayfield?

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