I want to take a momentary detour from interstellar topics to talk about how we go about doing research, astronomical and otherwise. Some years back I debated the then new trend of online peer review with an opponent who argued for the virtues of traditional print journals and their methods. At the time, what would become the arXiv pre-print site was just beginning to grow, and the benefits of having a wide audience able to examine a scientific paper before it achieved print seemed manifest. Much good research, I reasoned, would become available for scrutiny, some of it unable to get past academic referees at a specific journal but now able to be included in a broadened scientific discussion.

Even so, certain trends did worry me, some of them now manifest again in a presidential report recently cited by James Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist. The report makes a jaw-dropping claim: “All citizens anywhere anytime can use any Internet-connected digital device to search all of human knowledge.” The sheer naiveté of this claim boggles the mind, the idea that the Internet, whose holdings are top-heavy with the most recent work and all but empty of the great bulk of earlier studies other than in the form of bibliographical references, is a complete library.

Evans agrees. We have no reason to doubt (and surveys of library practice confirm) that the use of print is waning because of the manifest advantages of searching online, not to mention exotica like citing going forward, meaning an earlier paper’s references can now be buttressed with links to subsequent research that refers back to that paper, thus deepening the perspective. Interested in learning more, Evans has published the results of his survey of a database of 34 million articles, with reference to their availability and the uses to which they are being put. This is from an essay he did on the Britannica Blog about his work, and now the implications of Web availability take a darker turn:

“…as more journals and articles came online, the actual number of them cited in research decreased, and those that were cited tended to be of more recent vintage. This proved true for virtually all fields of science. (Note that this is not a historical trend… there are more authors and universities citing more and older articles every year, but when journals go online, references become more shallow and narrow than they would have been had they not gone online).

And was my idea of spreading the availability of good material outside the primary journals accurate? Apparently not, at least in sociology. For Evans also learned that researcher attention has now shifted to the most prestigious journals. The result turns out to be counter-intuitively hostile to good research: With online searching more efficient and aided by hyperlinking, what we’re actually seeing is a narrowing of the range of scholarly findings and ideas being studied by scholars. And get this:

Ironically, my research suggests that one of the chief values of print library research is its poor indexing. Poor indexing—indexing by titles and authors, primarily within journals—likely had the unintended consequence of actually helping the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers into a wider array of articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and scholarship.

And, of course, we can relate this to the non-academic experience of the average Internet user, who may find that while access to a wide range of ideas is available, the actual practice is to look at the top page of search results and little else. With Google’s page-rank algorithms making the call, people wind up experiencing largely the same number of high-profile sites, to the detriment of serendipity, that wonderful process by which we blunder into a concept that cross-pollinates into a startling new insight.

Long live the computerized database and the pre-print server concept, but can’t we work on richer indexing methods and interface possibilities to keep the research environment as fertile as possible? Evans is exploring this in his work, and speculating that advances in natural language processing may help us sharpen up the relevance of our search techniques. Beyond that, of course, we have to expand our databases themselves to include the vast storehouse of papers that have accumulated over the course of scientific investigation, many of which, when coupled with recent findings, may offer insights that would otherwise be lost. This is a future priority for the Tau Zero Foundation.

The paper is Evans, “Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship,” Science Vol. 321 No. 5887 (18 July 2008), pp. 395-399 (abstract).

Addendum: Author Nicholas Carr also looks at this issue in his Rough Type blog, from which this:

When the efficiency ethic moves from the realm of goods production to the realm of intellectual exploration, as it is doing with the Net, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a narrowing rather than a broadening of the field of study. Search engines, after all, are popularity engines that concentrate attention rather than expanding it, and, as Evans notes, efficiency amplifies our native laziness.