Rationing lifetime word limit is a bad idea

Why rationing scientific output is not a good solution to publishing issues in academia

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Ellie R. Martinson suggests in a Nature Column a while ago (October 17, 2017) to introduce as a brute-force approach lifetime word limits so as to implement a natural incentive to do relevant research without inflating co-authorship engagement in a publish or perish environment. However, he fails to discuss core issues around rationing. Who does the rationing? What would be the agreed word limit? Who is in charge of policing the limit? Those who make the bibliometric data available? History has shown that legal and illegal evasion due to rationing pressure grows over time. Thus, there is the risk that inefficiencies eventually overwhelm whatever positive impact the word controls might have on science. Moreover, scientific knowledge follows a power-law distribution. A small number of scientists are responsible for a large share of the productive scientific outcome. Is it fair or even beneficial for society to punish those active superstars? Not really. And why should we punish also those scholars who are brilliant sprinters able to contribute frequently, spotting neat points that others can’t see. Not every scholar is a marathoner able to run a small number of epic races. So, if we are really keen to introduce a word limit why not make it tradable similar to a tradable permit system. Or why not go a step further requesting scholars to retire after a certain number of years engaged in science making science a job for young people to deal with the abnormal growth in personnel in science. The managerial or hierarchical structure in science is at the core of the problem of fraud, embezzlement, and the incentive to conceal results. Beyond that, the scientific discovery process is inherently uncertain and hard to anticipate. Rationing suggest more control over the discovery process that is actually realistic. How on earth are we going to be able to estimate or better forecast whether the project we are pursuing is worth the words it will cost us? All human planning and execution involves uncertainty. Worrying to much about it as a consequence of the word limit may negatively affect creativity. It is not sound to assume that there is a visible boundary between knowledge and ignorance. The urge for priority which is at the core of the reward system in science will not be tamed by rationing word limits as suggested by the article. The history of science is full of examples of disputes and quarrels of famous scientists such as Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Lavoisier, the Bernoullis, Legendre, or Gauss etc. over priority dating back centuries ago and affecting all disciplines. Moreover, the article relies on a narrow understanding what information is focusing too much on reducing transaction costs. The accumulation of information has been at the core of human evolution. Life is an act of creating, processing, and moving information and it might be wise to left it to the individuals themselves to accomplish such tasks as freely as possible. 

Benno Torgler

Professor, School of Economics and Finance and Centre for Behahavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Queensland University of Technology