Feature Christmas 2012: Research

Building a metaphor: Another brick in the wall?

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8302 (Published 17 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8302
  1. Douglas G Altman, director
  1. 1Centre for Statistics in Medicine, University of Oxford, Wolfson College Annexe, Oxford OX2 6UD, UK
  1. Correspondence to: D G Altman doug.altman{at}csm.ox.ac.uk
  • Accepted 15 November 2012

The metaphor of studies being bricks from which a wall is being built leads to new ideas about accumulating knowledge, explains Doug Altman

A common metaphor for the accumulation of scientific knowledge is of individual studies being the bricks from which a wall is being built. Each study contributes to the growing structure as “another brick in the wall,” a phrase that appears in hundreds of journal article titles on PubMed. Inspired by the clear similarity of the ideas in Forscher’s wonderful allegory1 and a witty comment of Poincaré,2 I acquired many related citations by multiple searches with Google and Google Scholar over five years (see box).

Brick and building metaphors

  • “Of metaphors applied to science, the most evocative is the building of an edifice of knowledge with every paper serving as a brick”3

  • “The individual primary paper is not the final form of the consensus but it is the brick from which the whole edifice is to be built.”4

  • “Research scientists are trained to produce specialised bricks of knowledge, but not to look at the whole building.”5

  • “We speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will ‘add another brick to the temple of science.’ Most such bricks just lie around the brickyard.”6

  • “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of bricks; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of bricks is a house.”2

  • “Authors view acceptance of …

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