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Is the web narrowing scientists’ expertise?

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Jul• 25•08

As an academic researcher, using the web has made my life significantly easier.  I can access millions of articles from academic journals in the click of a button.  Sites such as JStor and ScienceDirect have hundreds of journals located in the same place for easy use.  With so much more information online, I am able to access information in the “long tail” of the academic knowledge spectrum.

In an article titled “Digital Libraries,” The Economist magazine, however, reports that “as more journals become available online, fewer articles are being cited in the reference lists of the research papers published within them.”  The findings are from a study by James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

“…for every additional year of back-issues of a journal available online, the average age of the articles cited from that journal fell by a month. He also found a fall, once a journal was online, in the number of papers in it that got any citations at all.”

This phenomenon is likely due to the advent of search engines.  Search engines often rank academic article by either the date published or the number of citations the article has received.  Whereas a manual library search in the old days treated each article as near equals regardless of its publication date and number of citations, electronic searchers are more likely to come across the best most popular work.

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  1. Tom Leith says:

    There’s also less browsing going on nowadays.

    When I used to go to the library and spend hours on end finding even an article that I’d seen cited, I’d pore over many, many “near misses” that nevertheless still had at least something to say about what I was researching. These things broaden one’s horizons. I fear we’re getting faster and faster at learning less and less…