Does Internet research limit development of new ideas?
By William Harms
New research in Sociology shows that as more scholarly and research journals become available online, researchers are citing relatively fewer and newer papers.
The Internet now gives scientists and researchers instant access to an astonishing number of academic journals. So what is the impact of having such a wealth of information at their fingertips? The answer, according to new research released in the journal Science, is surprising—scholars are actually citing fewer papers in their own work, and the papers they cite tend to be more recent publications. This may be limiting the creation and development of new ideas and theories.
James Evans, Assistant Professor in Sociology and the College, focuses his work on the nature of scholarly research. During a lecture on the influence of private industry money on research, a student instead asked how the growth of the Internet has shaped science. “I didn’t have an immediate answer,” Evans said.
When he reviewed the research on the Internet and science, Evans discovered that most of it focused on how much faster and broader the Internet allows scholars to search for information, but not how the medium has impacted their work. “That’s where this idea came from,” he continued. “I wanted to know how electronic provision changed science, not how much better it made it.”
Evans, supported by the National Science Foundation, pursued the question by analyzing a database of more than 34 million articles. He used their online availability from 1998 to 2005 to compare the number of times the articles were cited between 1945 and 2005.
The results showed that as more journal issues came online, the articles cited tended to be more recent publications that would have been cited without online access. Relatively fewer articles were cited, and citations concentrated in fewer journals and articles. “More is available,” Evans said, “but less is sampled, and what is sampled is more recent and located in the most prominent journals.”
Evans found a similar pattern across all areas of science and scholarship. Nevertheless, scientists and scholars in the life sciences showed the greatest propensity for referencing fewer articles, and it is less noticeable in business and legal scholarship. Social scientists and scholars in the humanities are more likely to cite newer works than other disciplines.
So what is it about research done online versus research completed in a bricks-and-mortar library that changes the literature review so critical to research? Evans has identified a few possible explanations.
Studies on how research is conducted show that people tend to browse and peruse material in print, but they search and follow hyperlinked references online. Digital search archives tend to organize results by date and relevance, influencing researchers to pick more recent articles from the most popular outlets. As they skim searched articles’ references online, they can follow them immediately, and much more quickly come in contact with articles others find important. As they factor others’ citation choices into their own, they become more likely to converge on the same articles and journals.
Does this phenomenon spell the end of the literature review? Evans doesn’t think so, but he does believe it accelerates a process in which scholars and scientists come to a consensus and establish a conventional wisdom on a given topic. “Online access,” Evans said, “facilitates a convergence on what science is picked up and built upon in subsequent research.”
The danger, he believes, is that if the research community doesn’t pick up quickly on new productive ideas and theories, they may fade before their useful impact is evaluated. “It’s like new movies,” he said. “If movies don’t get watched the first weekend, they’re dropped silently.”
Evans works on other projects with linguists and computer scientists to examine how scholars and scientists express their ideas in journal articles. Evans aims to better understand the consequences of neglecting older, established ideas and how they can be retrieved and resurrected—a challenge he sees as being important in the pursuit of knowledge. “With science and scholarship increasing online,” he said, “findings and ideas that don’t receive attention very soon will be forgotten more quickly than ever before.”