Progress: Marketing Triumphs, Innovating Becomes SEO

October 11, 2021

I read “Slowed Canonical Progress in Large Fields of Science.” My take on the write up is different from what the authors intended. The notion of “science” I bring ignores physics, medicine, mathematics, and computational chemistry.

The write up is about marketing, good old-fashioned salesmanship. Don’t take my comment as that of a person annoyed at academics or big thinkers. I believe that the authors have articulated an important idea. I simply view their insight as an example of a a particular manifestation of generating buzz, closing a deal, making a sale, or believing the assertions so common in advertising.

The write up states:

Rather than causing faster turnover of field paradigms, a deluge of new publications entrenches top-cited papers, precluding new work from rising into the most-cited, commonly known canon of the field.

Isn’t this “more is better” similar to generating clicks to a Web page — whether the content of the Web page is germane to a topic or not? I do.

I call this the SEO-ization of knowledge.  Dr. Gene Garfield, the father of citation analysis, did not anticipate search engine optimization becoming the objective of his approach to determining importance in a scientific field.

The write up makes clear that:

As fields get larger, the most-cited papers become durably dominant, entrenched atop the citation distribution. New papers, in contrast, suffer diminished probability of ever becoming very highly cited and cannot gradually accumulate attention over time. Published papers tend to develop existing ideas more than disrupt them, and rarely launch disruptive new streams of research.

The effect of this “entrenchment” is little more than finding a way to get attention in a setting which resists change.

I think that the data presented in the paper provide an insight useful to understanding the vapidity of so-called corporate white papers to the interesting expressions of business ideas on LinkedIn and much more.

Advertising and search engine optimization are the defining characteristics of the last 10 years. The fact that it permeates scientific and technical work is evidence that intellectual endeavors are little more than key word stuffing.

Who “regulates” the behavior? A government agency? The reviewers of a technical paper? The publishers of journals dependent on commercial enterprises for survival? The young researcher who follows the well-worn path?

Search engine optimization-type thinking has been absorbed into the intellectual foundations of scientific and technical disciplines.

Now it’s marketing which is much easier than innovating and discovering. Even Google advertises in the Wall Street Journal. Google!

Stephen E Arnold, October 11, 2021

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