Its a rush rush world out there. We expect to be able to talk (or text) anybody anytime anywhere. When we order something from half a continent away we expect it on our doorstep in a day or two. We’re even walking faster than we used to.
Science is no exception. The number of papers being published is still growing exponentially at a rate of over 5% per year (i.e. doubling every 10 years or so). Statistics on growth in number of scientists are harder to come by – the last good analysis I can find is a book by Derek de Solla Price in 1963 (summarized here) – but it appears the doubling time of scientists, while also fast, is a bit longer than for the doubling time of the number of papers. This means the individual rate of publication (papers/year) is going up. Students these days are being pressured to have papers out as early as their second year*. Before anxiety sets in, it should be noted that very few students meet this expectation and it is probably more of a tactic to ensure publications are coming out in year 4 or so. But even that is a speed up from publishing a thesis in year 6 or so and then whipping them into shape for publication which seemed to be the norm when I was in grad school. I’ve already talked about the growing number of grant submissions.
Some of this is modern life. Some of this a fact of life of being in a competitive field (and there are almost no well paying, intellectually stimulating jobs that aren’t highly competitive).
But I fear we’re losing something. My best science has often been torturous with seemingly as many steps back as forward. My first take on what my results mean are often wrong and much less profound than my 3rd or 4th iteration. The first listed hypothesis of my NSF postdoc proposal turned out to be false (tested in 2003-2004). I think I’ve finally figured out what is going on 10 years later. My first two papers did not come out until the last year of my PhD (thankfully I did not have an adviser who believed in hurry up science). But both of them had been churning around for several years. In both cases I felt like my understanding and my message greatly improved with the extra time. The first of these evolved from a quick and dirty test of neutral theory to some very heavy thinking about what it means to do models and test theory in ecology. This caused the second paper (co-authored with Cathy Collins) to evolve from a single prediction to a many prediction paper. It also lead to a paper in its own right. And influenced my thinking to this day. And in a slightly different vein since it was an opinion paper, my most highly cited paper was the result of more than 6 months of intense (polite but literally 100s of emails) back and forth debate among the four authors that I have no doubt resulted in a much better paper.
I don’t think I’m alone in appreciating slow science. There is even a “slow science” manifesto although it doesn’t seem to have taken off. I won’t share the stories of colleagues without permission, but I have heard plenty of stories of a result that took 2-3 years to make sense of. And I’ve always admired the people who took that time and in my opinion they’ve almost always gotten much more important papers out of it. I don’t think its a coincidence that Ecological Monographs is cited more frequently than Ecology – the Ecological Monographs are often magnum opus type studies that come together over years. Darwin spent 20 years polishing and refining On the Origin of Species. Likewise, Newton developed and refined the ideas and presentation behind Principia for over a decade after the core insight came.
Hubbell’s highly influential neutral theory was first broached in 1986 but he then worked on the details in private for a decade and a half before publishing his 2001 book. Would his book have had such high impact if he hadn’t ruminated, explored, followed dead ends, followed unexpected avenues that panned out, combined math with data and literature and ecological intuition and generally done a thorough job? I highly doubt it.
I want to be clear that this argument for “slow science” is not a cover for procrastination nor the fear of writing or the fear of releasing one’s ideas into print (although I confess the latter influenced some of the delay in one of my first papers and probably had a role with Darwin too). Publication IS the sine qua non of scientific communication – its just a question of when something is ready to write-up. There are plenty (a majority) of times I collect data and run an analysis and I’m done. Its obvious what it means. Time to write it up! So not all science is or should be slow science. Nor is this really the same as the fact that sometimes challenges and delays happen along the way in executing the data collection (as Meg talked about yesterday).
But there are those other times, after the data is already collected, where there is this nagging sense that I’m on to something big but haven’t figured it out yet. Usually this is because I’ve gotten an unexpected result and there is an intuition that its not just noise or a bad experiment or a bad idea but a deeper signal of something important. Often there is a pattern in the data – just not what I expected. In the case of the aforementioned paper I’ve been working on for a decade, I got a negative correlation when I (and everybody else) expected a positive correlation (and the negative correlation was very consistent and indubitably statistically and biologically different from zero). Those are the times to slow down. And the goal is not procrastination nor fear. It is a recognition that truly big ideas are creative, and creative processes don’t run on schedules. They’re the classic examples of solutions that pop into your head while you’re taking a walk not even thinking about the problem. They’re also the answers that come when you try your 34th different analysis of the data. These can’t be scheduled. And these require slow science.
Of course one has to be career-conscious even when practicing slow science. My main recipe for that is to have lots of projects in the pipeline. When something needs slowing down, then you can put it on the back burner and spend time on something else. That way you’re still productive. You’re actually more productive because while you’re working on that simpler paper, your subconscious mind is turning away on the complicated slow one too.
What is your experience? Do you have a slow science story? Do you feel it took your work from average to great? Is there still room for slow science in this rush-rush world? or is this just a cop-out from publishing?
*I’m talking about the PhD schedule here. Obviously the Masters is a different schedule but the same general principle applies.