Math-Heavy Research Less Appealing To Science Community
June 27, 2012

Math-Heavy Research Less Appealing To Science Community

Lee Rannals for

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that scientists get a little picky when it comes to math-intensive research.

University of Bristol scientists looked into how mathematics can influence whether the science community chooses to reference a particular research paper or not.

Many scientists have worried about how mathematics will affect the impact of their work, including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

"This is an important issue because nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work," Dr Tim Fawcett, a researcher in Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said in a press release.

The team found that scientific articles presenting many questions on each page are less referred to by other scientists than those with fewer equations.

The researchers analyzed nearly 650 studies on ecology and evolution published in three leading journals in 1998 for the study.

According to the research, most maths-heavy articles are referenced 50 percent less often than those with little or no maths.

Ultimately, scientists just may not be paying as much attention to research that is jammed-packed with mathematical details.

"If new theories are presented in a way that is off-putting to other scientists, then no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories," Fawcett said. "This presents a barrier to scientific progress."

Co-author Andrew Higginson said one long-term remedy could be to make a science graduate's path through college include more math class stops.

"Scientists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work," Higginson said. "The ideal solution is not to hide the maths away, but to add more explanatory text to take the reader carefully through the assumptions and implications of the theory."

However, the researchers say they fear this approach will be met with resistance by some scientific journals.

"The top journals want articles to be extremely concise, with many of the technical details going in an online appendix," said Fawcett. "Fortunately, our study suggests that equations in an appendix have no effect on citation rates. So moving some of the equations to an appendix may be the most pragmatic solution."