So much output at such a high pace, some have argued, means there's a growing emphasis (to the detriment of science) on quantity over quality. But supporting such an argument with quantitative evidence has proven difficult.
But now, new data analysis by Lutz Bornmann, researcher at the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany, and Ruediger Mutz, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, offers a more accurate picture of exactly how much "science" is being produced.
The results: global scientific output is doubling every nine years.
Bornmann and Mutz arrived at the figure by analyzing more than 755 million references in some 38 million publications, including papers, books, datasets and websites, from 1980 to 2012. In this sense, anything worth citing is deemed "output," and measured accordingly.
But the question remains: is all this output a fair representation of the growth of scientific knowledge? Or do scientists just like seeing their names in print?
In 1965, Derek de Solla Price, the so-called father of bibliometrics, said: "I am tempted to conclude that a very large fraction of the alleged 35,000 journals now current must be reckoned as merely a distant background noise, and as very far from central or strategic in any of the knitted strips from which the cloth of science is woven."
Anthony van Raan, another bibliometrics researcher, told Nature that the pressures of career advancement encourage scientists to publish as much as possible, sometimes splitting their papers up into smaller, separate pieces of research in order to maximize output -- "salami slicing."
"The behavior of scientists to publish more, to split up papers, to publish first a short paper followed by a more detailed one, and so on," said van Raan, "would imply an ‘extra’ growth which is not necessarily ‘real’ growth of science."
Although van Raan wishes it were otherwise, he acknowledges that for now, there's no systematic way to separate the scientific fat from the meat.
The analysis Bornmann and Mutz will be published later this year in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.