Researchers deluged with online information, but seldom use it

July 18th, 2008 - 4:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, July 18 (IANS) Although the Internet provides scientists an instant access to thousands of academic journals and research papers, they are citing fewer papers and that too from more recent publications. This trend may be limiting the creation of new ideas and theories, said James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who, focussing on the nature of research, analysed a database of over 34 million articles.

He compared their online availability between 1998 and 2005 to the number of times they were cited from 1945 to 2005.

The results showed that as more journal issues came online, few articles were cited, and the ones that were cited tended to be more recent publications.

“More is available,” Evans said, “but less is sampled, and what is sampled is more recent and located in the most prominent journals.”

Evans’s research also found that this trend was not evenly distributed across academic disciplines. Scientists and scholars in the life sciences showed the greatest propensity for referencing fewer articles, but the trend 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.

Online searches tend to organize results by date and relevance, which allows scholars and scientists to pick recent research from the most high profile journals.

Some search tools like Google factor the frequency with which other users select an item during similar searchers to determine relevance.

Online, researchers are also more likely to follow hyper-linked references and links to similar work within an online archive. Because of this, as more scholars choose to read and reference a given article, future researchers more quickly follow.

Does this phenomenon spell the end of the literature review? Evans doesn’t think so, but he does believe that it makes scholars and scientists more likely to come to a consensus and establish a conventional wisdom on a given topic faster.

“Online access facilitates a convergence on what science is picked up and built upon in subsequent research.” The danger in this, he believes, is that if new productive ideas and theories aren’t picked up quickly by the research community, they may fade before their useful impact is evaluated.

“It’s like new movies. If movies don’t get watched the first weekend, they’re dropped silently,” Evans said.

Evans plans to work with linguists and computer scientists to explore how ideas are expressed in articles to better understand what the consequences of losing old ideas are and how they can be retrieved and resurrected, a challenge he sees as being important in the pursuit of knowledge.

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