Online journals, and especially backfiles, may lead to more recent citations and a narrowing of the diversity of articles that are cited, a new study suggests. The study and accompanying news summary appear in the the July 18th issue of Science Magazine.
According to the author, James Evans, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, for each year that a journal has available online, there are 14% fewer distinct article citations. This does not mean that total citations are dropping, only that fewer articles get cited more. These findings are opposite to the common belief that online access increases the breadth of materials consulted.
While it is tempting to posit a spurious causal connection between backfile access and a reduction in citation diversity, it is not the additional online access that this causing the change in citation behavior but the tools that accompany the online access — tools that allow readers to link to related articles, rank by relevance, times cited, etc. It is these tools that signal to the reader what is important and should be read. The result of these signals is to create herding behavior among scientists, or what Evans describes as consensus building.
By enabling scientists to quickly reach and converge with prevailing opinion, electronic journals hasten scientific consensus. But haste may cost more than the subscription to an online archive: Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.
A highly-efficient publication system can come with unanticipated consequences — the loss of serendipity. In an earlier blog post, we discuss how the Internet is changing reading behavior in general, reducing the depth of inquiry. In another blog, we discuss how signaling can help readers save time.
Print-based browsing and the limited literature indexing of the past created a great inefficiency in the discovery process. While it is tempting to eulogize the end of scholarship, this article may signify that the dissemination of science is working more efficiently than ever. The institution of science values the progress of discovery followed by a consensus and closure of debate. That more of the literature is effectively being ignored may not necessarily signal a bad thing (although it may concern those who are not read). As the historian of science, Derek de Solla Price wrote in 1965:
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 far from central or strategic in any of the knitted strips from which the cloth of science is woven
Price, D. J. S. (1965). Networks of Scientific Papers. Science, 149(3683), 510-515. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.149.3683.510