The incredible Longshot Magazine–a project that creates an entire magazine in 48 hours–just completed its most recent issue, with the unifying theme of debt. I wrote a piece that was selected, In Praise of Mediocre Research, which is all about how each scientist is indebted to those who have come before them. And how, unsurprisingly, we can study how that process works:
In science, we are in hock to our forebears. If not for the discovery of DNA, Watson and Crick would not have been able to unravel its structure. If not for Newton’s theory of gravitation, we would not have Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Science is cumulative. But the process of deciding which research is most worthy of accumulating offspring is controversial… and not exactly elegant.
The value given to a scientific endeavor relies on cumulation and indebtedness (combined with making sure that researchers receive credit where it is due). Citations– footnotes at the end of a paper that list the author’s inspirations–form the foundation of novel research. Most papers, while they may have numerous references within them, are rarely or never cited by other papers. Their contribution to science is viewed as minimal. It is only the standouts–the lucky, and the rare–that accumulate citations.
The rest is here.