The science in your average biomedical research paper costs between $300-$500 thousand dollars to produce. I don’t know about you, but those numbers made my eyeballs bulge the first time I heard them. Then I did a little mental accounting, and I realized that number is about right. For a paper in Nature or Science (among the top journals in the field), that works out to around $100K a page! Which raises the obvious question: are papers worth it?
I should start by saying that I am an assistant professor at a research university in the life sciences, and published scientific research is the currency of my profession. I love science, and I believe that we as a society are better for having it in our lives. In a world of unlimited resources, I would say that we should pursue as much science of all kinds as people have interest in doing. But we live in a world with limited resources, and given the realities of government budget cuts for science, we obviously have to make choices.
First off, where is all this money going? As most people who run biomedical research labs would tell you, the majority (if not the vast majority) of the money for a paper goes to paying for the people performing the research. This means salary and tuition for graduate students and postdocs, along with benefits. It is pretty much impossible to lower these costs any further, because they are already so low. Graduate students get paid nothing, postdocs get paid next to nothing, and most faculty could probably increase their salary by 50-100% if they went to the private sector. These people are an employer’s dream–they are formidably talented and will typically work 50-80 hours a week for peanuts. In fact, I remember a graduate student I knew who calculated his hourly wage to be around $3 an hour. Such research, when done in an industry setting, typically costs much more and uses far more robots, which makes it a different kind of research. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we do it for love.
The rest typically goes to materials and supplies. This can range from 10-30% of the project’s cost, depending on the type of research. Now if you want to make money in science, I would definitely get into the scientific supply business. For various reasons, we end up slaves to various supply companies like Fisher Scientific that charge exorbitant amounts for supplies. Take, for example, aluminum foil. You can get a 12"x25' roll for around $3-4 at the grocery store. At Fisher, it costs $6.50. Lab notebooks cost $40, refrigerators cost 2x what they cost consumers. And it’s not a special “research” fridge, no matter what they say–they often still have the butter drawer in them! Down the line, science stuff just costs a lot, and biomedical inflation is much higher than inflation in general. It should cost much less, but again, as a fraction of the total cost of a paper’s worth of science, it’s not a huge fraction.
Anyway, overall, it’s going to be hard to reduce costs much. So what do we get for these papers? That’s where things get considerably more nebulous and hard to measure, since it fundamentally comes down to how we value science. That said, here are a few relatively concrete observations on the matter. Every week, I get many e-mails with the table of contents of various journals. Of all the paper titles I see, it’s only a small fraction that I imagine more than a handful of scientists would find interesting. Of those, it’s an even smaller fraction that I will find interesting. And then there’s the likelihood that at least 75% of all of these papers are wrong anyway. Now, you might say that at least someone, somewhere would find those papers interesting, even if I don’t. Amazing thing is, though, that a huge proportion of papers are never even cited once. It’s probably hard to get a hard number on this, but I’ve heard estimates of around 50%. And then there’s another huge percentage of papers that get just a few citations in their lifetime, perhaps mostly just from the lab’s subsequent papers. I bet that the majority of papers ever written only get read by the authors (and probably not all the authors) and the peer reviewers (and probably not all the reviewers, either).
Of course, not all this stuff is useless, and citations are not the only way to measure impact. Some papers only show their true worth many years after the fact. Some collect attract huge numbers of citations for a short period, only to be ultimately discarded by the rigors of time. One of the things I’m most proud of developing in the course of my work is a method for detecting RNA molecules in single cells that many other researchers have adopted, and it’s even been commercialized. Now that you can buy it, people don’t cite the paper as much anymore, but that’s okay with me–I feel like I’ve really made a difference, which is surprisingly rare in our line of work. (I believe I got lucky in this regard, by the way…)
Which of course raises another point. No matter how you dice it, the fact remains that a lot of research is just useless. Yes, one never knows what little piece of information could be the key in the future, but some of this stuff just plain doesn’t matter, not now, not ever. It doesn’t get cited because either it’s derivative, it’s arcane, or it’s just plain boring.
Why, then, do we waste our precious research dollars on this work? I think the answer is that it’s precisely because these dollars are so precious. There are special mechanisms for getting high-risk/reward science funded, but for most, getting funding for your research these days means that every single scientific i must be dotted and t must be crossed. Which means you’re proposing to do something pretty boring, most likely. Only two ways out of this: either more funding or fewer faculty members. I think the former is unlikely, so we better brace for the latter.
But I would also say that getting embroiled in metrics like citations per dollar and the such are missing another broader point. Most researchers work in institutes of learning, like universities. This means that our goal is educating people. Unlike most jobs, I expect those who work with me to leave eventually–indeed, I hope they leave and do well. If I have a student who writes a couple papers to get their PhD that never get a single citation, on some level, that’s fine. I would like to think that learning how to do research is a valuable investment in our future. By the numbers, very few graduate students will end up in academia, nor would I expect them to. Rather, the hope is that they will use their training out in the world to do the things that only those with their highly developed skills can do. During their time in academic science, every student and postdoc will lay their own brick on the foundation of knowledge, and some of those bricks will be large and some will be small. The point is that we’re investing in bricklayers, not just bricks.